“All the Pretty Colors” by John A. McColley
Read our interview with John A. McColley
I push the paperwork away, a symbolic act, since it’s not so easy to rid myself of. I’m the last qualified researcher left to deal with the situation these files document and I’ve been here from the start. I only met the Itke ambassador once, but everyone else at that meeting is infected. Nearly everyone at any meeting with the alien race has shown signs of the disease. Half of them are dead. Tim… Dr. Hastings… why do I do that? Nobody cares now. He was Tim, he was mine, and now he’s gone and I’ve got this mess to handle.
I stand, grab my coffee cup, and wince as I step out into the common area. Fluorescent lights. Everyone hates them, but we use them anyway. Typical humanity. Everything’s about the bottom line, efficiency, money. But this mess won’t be fixed with money. We’ve studied the cultures, recorded and cross-referenced the symptoms, and isolated the infected. We’ve thrown every medicine on the market at it, from aspirin to the latest antibiotics, which had very temporary and mild success, but would have killed the patient before the bug. I hope that the Itke hear our call and return to help. We can detect no viruses, no bacteria, no toxic chemicals. What little we have seen has us stymied.
Tim went from a laid back, kind man, always thinking of others first, to being on edge, sensitive to bright lights, loud noises. We stopped going out. Then there were creeping pains, ghost tissue damage appearing at random across his arms, legs, torso, swathes of tissue lacerated, bleeding, but with the epidermis remaining intact. The contact team medics sent us to half a dozen specialists from dermatologists to psychiatrists. Eventually there were hallucinations, lights and sounds, sensations and very real infections. The tiniest scratch allowed bacteria access to subdermal battlefields ripe for reproduction. His limbs swelled, it got into his blood…
“Doc? We got some more samples. Brain and cardiac tissue, male and female, both mid-thirties,” says Aaron, a young man who’d been going to school at the university before it was closed down to try to contain the infection. He had been a biology student, so we put him to work on the dwindling team of techs gathering tissues and running tests. He’s a good kid, though he looks scared all the time. He hasn’t shown any signs of infection, though. We keep close tabs on one another.
“Thank you, Mr. Greer. Why don’t you go get some sleep? It’s getting late.” I know the circles under his eyes. They’re the same ones I have, but I can’t stop. I can’t let this pass. I know the whole world is in danger, but I just want to – need to – beat this thing. For Tim.
“It is, yeah, but I wanted to make sure these got to you. ‘The fresher the better’ and all that.”
“Take care, doc, get some rest yourself, huh?” The boy says before loping away. Rest. I can barely close my eyes without seeing Tim, and not the way I want to, not the way he was in Nairobi or Honduras, but the way he was in the end, twisted, torn apart from the inside, lost…
Grasping for answers, or only perhaps wanting to see my enemy face to face again, I take the first slide from the tray Aaron left. I scan the cells through the stereomicroscope’s lenses, looking for anything new, a bacterium, a parasite, anything terrestrial I can fight. Finally, my eyes are drawn to the same tiny rhomboids, perfect crystals coated in proteins and lipids. They stare back, their color shifting in the polarized light like tiny prisms. The colors waver briefly. I reach for a pen to make a note on this and my phone vibrates by the stack of papers I’d been looking at. I find a pen. As soon as nib hits paper, the phone buzzes again. I draw a quick rhomboid with motion lines coming off it to remind me of what I’d seen.
“Yeah, yeah, jees!” I drop the pen and roll the office chair back to the desk. “Hello, Dr. Talvert here.”
“Alicia! We finally got a response. The Itke say it will take them a couple of weeks to get here, but they’re on their way.”
“Thank goodness. I knew they wouldn’t ignore us. They were so forthcoming, so understanding of our ignorance of their ways. Did you give them the new protocols?”
“They insist they aren’t required, that there’s no way they would carry anything which would infect us, but they’ll come and help us as best they can to deal with our newest problem.”
“Thanks for letting me know, Dana. I’ve got something for you, too. I was just looking at the new sample… and it moved.”
“Moved? Are you sure your eyes aren’t just bugging out? When was the last time you slept?”
“Sleep shmeep, there’s too much at stake to take breaks.” Truly, I am about three pots of coffee in, and I feel a vibratory tension all through my body like I’m leaning against the window on the bus.
“Ally… Seriously, you know better than that. You’re no good if you make yourself sick or come to poor conclusions because you’re not thinking straight.”
“Sleep isn’t really my friend these days… I’ve got paperwork and a few new samples to go through, anyway. I’ll catch you later, Dana,” I say, clicking him off before I get any more flak. “A few more pages of forms and I’ll take a nap on the office couch,” I tell myself. First, though, the slides.
This is where Tim stood that first day, at the edge of the landing platform we’d erected for the Itke’s arrival. The ship is a looming trio of gray towers linked horizontally by gleaming white tubes with Itke glyphs on them. “Myriad Blessings of the Constant Nurturer” is as close as I can get to a translation. I think the “Constant Nurturer” is some kind of deity, but I haven’t found any direct references to their religion, or religions, in the texts they gave us before leaving the first time. They learned our languages before coming down and left us to catch up. It hadn’t been a priority before the outbreak, but I’ve been putting my hours in since.
Itke NiOlekk looks much like he did six months ago, like a cross between a neuron and an up-ended ice cream cone. A curl of thicker, shorter tentacles roll at the base over one another, propelling him toward me. Longer upper appendages, branching at the ends, sprout from the narrow apex of his conical body. He wears a steel-gray shift, lighter in color than the ship, but having a series of white ribs running all the way around. Two upper appendages rise, crossing before the Itke’s body. They slide back and forth, producing sound. Space crickets. The thought almost makes me laugh. Tim observed them communicating with each other this way, in ranges above our hearing, and finally managed to show them how to make sounds we could hear. He’ll be in history books for that if I have to write them myself.
“Greetings, Alicia Talvert.”
“Greetings, Ambassador Itke NiOlekk. Thank you for coming. I apologize for the rushed formalities, but over three thousand people have died so far, either directly or from the psychological effects of this disease. Another ten thousand are in hospitals and other facilities under close supervision. It is spreading and we don’t know how to stop it, nor how to combat the symptoms.”
“Itke are glad to help how Itke can. Understand that this does not indicate acceptance of blame.”
“I am aware of your peoples’ stance, Itke NiOlekk,” I say. The original group had a joke that ‘there’s no “I” in “Itke.”‘ In the word, of course there is, but not in their language. There is one pronoun for people, singular or group, either sex or both. Of course, they also haven’t given humanity enough information about their biology to know if there are sexes or how many.
“It is not a stance, Alicia Talvert. It is a fact. Itke have determined that Itke and human biology are incompatible. A microbe which infects one would not recognize or thrive in the other, but as Alicia Talvert says, there is no time for such pettiness. Let Itke NiOlekk and Alicia Talvert inspect these damaged ones and find a cure.”
“Itke see nothing in this sample out of the ordinary,” Itke NiOlekk lifts an appendage away from the microscope.
“No? What about those little granular bodies? Clusters of rhomboids?”
“Those cannot harm Alicia Talvert. Those are kiji. Itke were unaware of Alicia Talvert having kiji.”
“What? We don’t. Those aren’t normal. They’re the cause of the disease. What are they? What is their purpose? Where did they come from?” I recall seeing the word ‘kiji’ in one of the texts they gave us, that the Itke used them somehow. Their presentation led me to believe they were some sort of shamanic helper spirits or something. I had no idea they were real, physical things.
“Those are breath.”
“Help me understand. Itke… breathe out these things? And you- dammit! Itke didn’t think to tell us- to tell Tim Hastings this?”
“Timothy Hastings did not need to know. The kiji are passive. Those harm nothing. Those guide Itke through the world, give Itke wisdom. Itke have visited twenty seven systems, thirty three planets. Never have Itke or kiji caused harm.”
“I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.” Itke NiOlekk seems to squirm at this. I’ve offended him, but I don’t know how else to put it.
“Allow Itke to examine these kiji and tissues more closely. Perhaps there is some unforeseen interaction.”
“That’s what Alicia Talvert was hoping Itke NiOlekk would say.”
“Itke have determined that the kiji are malformed. Observe the differences between the samples.” Itke NiOlekk says, gliding back from the microscope and waving a branched tentacle at the instrument. I peer at the pink-stained human sample on the right and the blue-stained Itke sample on the left. At first, there’s no difference in the crystals, only the cells and woven strands of organic matter in which they are embedded.
Then Itke NiOlekk moves an appendage closer to the instrument. The rhomboids on the left vibrate subtly in fluid-filled vesicles, where the crystals on the right dance and spin free, slicing through cell membranes and severing small blood vessels and nerves.
“I see something happening, but I’m not sure how to interpret it.” The Itke have spent some time learning more about English conventions to pore directly over reports written by American and British scientists. The use of personal pronouns isn’t something they grasp well enough to use confidently, but they at least understand them now. One less thing for me to worry about, anyway. “I thought you said this was something you breathed out, like we do with carbon dioxide.”
“After a fashion, yes, those are made along Itke respiratory tracks. Itke breathe, those scatter, giving Itke…”
“Giving you something? Giving you what?” The thought of some hidden infective agent being so common as to be unremarkable to the Itke, could have caused all this damage…
“Those are… eyes? Perhaps more close to ears? Those help Itke – us? Sense.”
“What? That makes no sense to me… Wait – those samples. The vibrations. Do you mean they coat or embed themselves in materials and somehow Itke can feel them? Like some kind of matter-based sonar? You ping them and they show you the shapes of things? How far an object is? If it’s moving?”
“Just so. You have such a sense?”
“No, no we don’t. We use reflected light, from the sun or light sources. Some animals on this planet can also use sound, bouncing off of objects to create images of their surroundings. They use it to hunt.”
They’re space bats. Or maybe space dolphins. No one’s going to believe this – we’re dying because they wanted to see us better…
“So the next question is, how do we clean it up? What are the crystals made of? How do we get them out of peoples’ bodies? Why are they spreading? If they’re something you produce, they shouldn’t have gotten so far from anyone who’s contacted you.”
“Itke have no experience with this. The kiji are meant to remain on the surfaces of objects. Embedding, absorption, reproduction outside of Itke is new. Itke must study more.”
“How is it infused in your flesh? You said it covers the outside of things.”
“Yes, there is no difference between kiji within and kiji without. They sense each other, tell Itke.”
“‘Tell’? You make it sound as though they’re alive.”
“The kiji are lessers. Itke give them comfort. Itke nurture them as the Constant Nurturer comforts Itke.”
“So they’re symbiotes, like bacteria in our gut.”
“More… mitochondria, if Itke understand Alicia Talvert books. Lessers that live inside, part of us, cannot live beyond… integrated. Kiji do not survive long outside Itke. Those cannot grow, reproduce outside, either… Or this Itke thought.”
“You mean they never lived long outside of Itke before,” I say, feeling parts of the mystery fall together. “You say they’ve never interacted with other beings before, but also that you’ve never met anyone like humans.”
“Correct. Itke see what Alicia Talvert drive at. The kiji take up residence in Timothy Hastings tissues, but do not propagate correctly. This advances Itke understanding. There must be a cause.”
Great. More studying, and how long will that take? Weeks? Months? How many people will be infected, slamming their heads against walls, or scratching their skin off trying to get these crystals out? Tim runs screaming through my mind. Instinctively, I close my eyes, but he’s still there. He falls to his knees, clawing at his face, sobbing.
I force myself to open my eyes, staring at the Itke. Anger boils within, but I try not to let it show as I wrestle with it. They didn’t know what they were doing. They had no reason to believe they were hurting anything. The Itke had come with all this technology, new ways to view the world, ‘wisdom from beyond the stars’ the newspapers said as first contact leaked to the general public. In some ways, they’re innocent, still learning just like we are.
“I- I have to go.”
“Itke will continue to work. The questions of how the kiji enter Alicia Talvert and how those can effect Timothy Hastings in such an offensive manner will be discussed. A solution will come. Blessings of the Constant Nurturer.” Itke NiOlekk says by way of good bye.
“Blessings of the Constant Nurturer,” I say in return.
“Ah! Itke NiOlekk nearly forgot. A book for you.” From somewhere, Itke NiOlekk produces a device not unlike a white hula hoop in size and shape. I see writing on its surface, though, clearly Itke.
“Thanks, Itke NiOlekk, I will study it.”
I walk out of the building and head toward the dorm I’ve occupied. Travel is difficult and potentially time-wasting. I resist the urge to throw the damn “book” into the pines, but only for a second. With a primal scream, I fling the hoop upward and away from me, all the anger and sorrow the last months have heaped on me behind the effort.
I watch the white ring sail through the air, striking one of the trees and falling down through the branches, finally hanging up on a bough about ten feet from the ground. I flip it off as a proxy for all the Itke and all the pain they brought, and stalk off to my room. I shower and fall into bed.
Ten hours later, the world still shakes slightly. Sunlight sneaks past the blinds. I make myself breakfast because it’s what I’m supposed to do, because more people will die if I don’t, if I take too long finding an answer.
Or maybe I just do it because it’s routine. I can lose myself in the actions and feel like it’s a morning a year ago, or five, before all this. I catch myself pouring two cups of coffee at once and set the pot down, the second cup half-filled. I sit back and stare at my oatmeal for a while before I realize what I’m really looking at is the white edge of the glass bowl.
Crap. The hoop. I get dressed and go out. I see from the door of the building that it’s still there. I go back in and grab a broom, then head out to swat the thing out of the tree. It will give me a chance to learn new words and sentence forms. If I can communicate better with them, I might be able to understand something they’re missing.
Ten minutes later, I’m sitting with it at the table poking at my oatmeal while picking through the script. It seems better defined than previous sets of symbols, physically easier to read. Perhaps the Itke made them deeper or colored them slightly for a human to see.
The “book” is a series of prayers. It is also a kind of history, showing the things the Itke prayed for over the years of spaceflight and before: cures for diseases, help finding food, making decisions, typical stuff one might ask for help with. When I get around the hoop to the place where I’d started, I find a nodule, a small rise in the white material. When I depress it, the words after the nodule ripple, shift, changing the page. I read over fifty pages before I drift off to sleep, the hoop lying across my body on the chair.
I wake in the dark, body aching from the awkward sleeping position. The next thing I notice are the swoops and arcs of the Itke language. Instead of the shallow indentations which had been a challenge to read, they show in splays of red and purple. I close my eyes, shaking my head to clear the sleep away, but the words hang there, hovering in place.
“Itke MaOrdesh idlianu ata…” The people sing that weapons be sheathed… I read the whole page, a rhyming prayer for safe passage through dangerous lands followed by a tale of a plague. “I must have read that one before I fell asleep,” I try to convince myself. There’s only one thing to do. I hit the button for the next page and read through three prayers for inspiration and healing. Back at the start of the page again, I open my eyes and read through the first prayer again.
I leave the congealed oatmeal and cold coffee on the table, and speed back across campus. The school is a ghost town. How quickly will the whole planet be this way? How long will I be able to help? I’m infected. There is no doubt. It scares the crap out of me, but it’s not driving me nuts yet… or is it? Did I just make up those passages?
This is something! It has to be!
“Itke NiOlekk! I need to speak with you…” I’m about to ask for privacy, when I realize the Itke probably don’t understand the concept. I shake my head to refocus. I note that the lights and wall phone and a number of other devices scintillate with the same spars of colored light I had seen on the hoop. The closer they are to me, the more vivid. I step toward the light switch. The cluster of lines flares. I reach my hand closer without moving my feet. The effect is less, but present.
“Greetings, Alicia Talvert. How may Itke serve?”
“I’m– Greetings, Itke NiOlekk– I’m infected, but I think it’s different. I think… I think I see what you see, how you see.” I wave my hand in the alien’s direction. The form I’ve always seen is overlaid with a network of red and purple lines of light. “But why me?”
“That would be the question, Alicia Talvert.”
“You’re not surprised at all! You knew. That’s why you gave me the book. That’s why you said the kiji interacted poorly with Tim. Every other time you reference my people you use my full name, but it didn’t apply in this case. I’m infected, but it’s not doing the same damage to me. Why?” Anger returns for a second, but flees. This is too important. I can’t waste time throwing hoops into trees now.
“Just as Alicia Talvert feel the kiji within Itke, Itke feel them within Alicia Talvert. The real question is what causes the malformation of the kiji in the rest of Alicia Talvert people. As Alicia Talvert say, ‘why?'”
“No, dammit, I told you, we’re working on figuring out exactly what’s happening. We have a lead, but until we–”
“You have tons of slides, from the earliest known cases, Hastings and his crew,” the CDC man on the other end of the phone tells me. “I’m afraid that will have to be enough. I can’t risk moving any patients and spreading this thing any faster.”
“No, cadavers and slides aren’t good enough, anymore. We need living samples, infected people to study, to see what these crystals are doing in the body as a whole. It’s more than just tissue damage. I have reason to believe the ‘kiji’ affect the nervous system directly.” I need to compare their conditions to my own.
“I’m sorry. This is about containment as much as it is about a possible cure. You’ve had the Itke there for a week. If they can’t tell you what kind of pathogen you’re dealing with and show you how they destroy it–”
“That’s not it at all. It’s not a pathogen to them. It’s something they produce.”
“I knew having them land was a bad idea.”
“It was our only choice. What are we supposed to do, look the greatest expansion of human knowledge in history and say ‘no thanks?’ It’s been a good couple of centuries for discovery, but we didn’t have that luxury. We needed what they knew of the galactic community, medicine and physics for us to progress. Some very intelligent people weighed the risks against the gains. Just like you need to do now and send us half a dozen subjects.”
“I’m afraid I’m a practical man, not a dreamer such as yourself and Hastings. I have to look at what we have, what we have to lose and stick to ‘no.’ I’m sure someone there will get sick soon enough. Experiment on them. Good day.” The line dies. I slam the receiver back onto its cradle.
“Of all the insufferable, short-sighted, ignorant–”
“Itke understand that Alicia Talvert request was denied.” Itke NiOlekk squealed quietly.
“You bet your tentacles… But we need live specimens. Maybe Fitz was right. Someone nearby is bound to be sick.” I’m changed, but it’s not overwhelming my system, damaging anything. Why? The damnable question that drives all of science taunts me. My next call is to the head of security for our little corner of Hell.
“Dr. Talvert here. I know you’ve been keeping your people back from the landing site and limiting contact with the Itke, but how’s that working out for you? Do you have anyone acting strangely? Maybe clawing at their skin or holding their head?”
“This doesn’t sound like a casual inquiry.”
“No, I’m sorry. We’ve made progress on this thing, but we could really use infectees for observation, living infectees. On the upside, anyone we have here will get the cure first if we find one.”
“I’ll check with my team, but I haven’t heard anything. They’re pretty much going stir crazy, though. I could send a team to round up a civvy or two.”
“Normally I’d be appalled, but that’s actually not a terrible idea. They certainly won’t be in any worse condition in our care. If that’s what it comes to, then do it.”
“Will do. I’ll get back to you as soon as I have something. Mackey out.” The man says as though signing off a radio.
Itke NiOlekk and I sit in the lab amid hoops and stacks of reports in five languages. Mackey has yet to come through with specimens. My kiji-count has nearly doubled and with it my sensitivity to the fluorescent lamps and other electronic devices. We’ve turned off what we can. “It’s a shame I don’t do drugs,” I say offhand, eyes closed and every kiji-interactive field in thirty feet of my body crystal clear. I see the wires in the walls, the outlets, the computers, lab equipment, the four Itke in the nearby rooms, everything. “I can only imagine how much more trippy this would be than it already is.”
“‘Trippy?’ Itke don’t know this word. It doesn’t appear in the given texts.”
“Trippy is a hard-to describe alteration of perception. It’s accompanied by a sense of awe or excitement, and sometimes, less desirably, fear or agitation.”
“Not dissimilar to the sensations those whose kiji do not form correctly feel,” the Itke observes.
“Fair enough, aside from their flesh being buzz-sawed apart on a molecular level. ‘The people were afflicted, and when the affliction passed, the sight arose, togetherness, singularity.’ It’s about the kiji, right?”
“Correct. Before the kiji, Itke were solitary, sensing only what Itke could touch with Itke arms, fingers. After kiji, Itke grew close, built a civilization to nurture Itke. Kiji was Itke greatest boon.”
“But many Itke died, didn’t they?”
“Yes, it was found that Itke bodies were not all compatible. The Constant Nurturer chose Itke to survive and Itke to fall. Many who had been strong fell, and the weak rose.”
But you’re scientists, I say in my head. You can’t just leave it at some deity deciding who survived a… plague…
“Kiji came to you from outside your bodies.”
“Itke has said so, like Alicia Talvert mitochondria.”
“Exactly. That happened for us way back in our evolution, before we were anything like the forms we hold now. Our immune systems are much more sophisticated now. A new invader is attacked by various white blood cells. What if… what if that response damages the kiji somehow, but doesn’t kill them, keep them from forming crystals? Could the answer be as simple as an immunosuppressant?” Like the one I’m on for my kidneys. Who’d have thought getting poisoned would have helped me survive? Tim had joked how he’d lucked out by ordering something different before it became clear just how sick I was.
“An apt avenue of inquiry, but Itke still need specimens on which to test.”
“I’ll call Mackey again.”
“Oh god! What is that? Is that one of them? What have you got all over you? Holy crap! It’s on me too!” The man is a wreck. He’s torn his eyes out, scratched up most places he can reach with his hands, some places he can’t. Must have found some brickwork to rub his back against. Chips of red clay are embedded in what scabs have formed. Many of the wounds are still open, running. If Mackey’s people hadn’t picked him up, he’d have died of infection or blood loss soon. I hate to see him restrained on the bed, but it’s for his own good, all of our own good. If he rips open an artery before we can test my hypothesis…
“Just calm down, Mr. Lander. We’ve given you something that should help with the pain. What you’re seeing… that’s a longer story.” I crushed up a couple of my pills into the water Aaron’s giving him sips of. Mackey’s group is out looting the pharmacies in town. Everyone’s gone, anyway, and we’re onto something.
Over the next month, we verify that after the implementation of immunosuppressants, kiji grow correctly; more importantly, the vacuoles, fluid sacs surrounding the crystals, and the protein chains holding them in place form correctly. They connect to the nervous system without damaging it. Standard antibiotics are knocking out Lander’s infections and have no effect on the kiji, as we knew from early experiments shotgunning known medicines against the new plague.
Our bodies normally attack the alien organelles, but like so many diseases now, the immune system ends up doing more damage than good. I’m hoping that once we have full saturation, as happened with mitochondria eons ago and the Itke acquiring kiji, those who survive will pass them to their children. Those who are born to this new world of perception will no longer need the immunosuppressants.
For now, they open us up to other infections, make us rely more heavily than ever on antibiotics, but we have the Itke to help us find our place in the larger world, the “Constant Nurturer” of which their texts speak. I understand now that it’s not about worship of a god, but the reverence for context, the ecosystem, society. Everything is inside something larger. Nothing is disconnected.
I’ll keep working on a permanent solution, but even now, pharmaceutical companies are ramping up production of immunosuppressants based on our findings. We’ll keep anyone else from dying during the transition. I’ve also started teaching Lander to read the Itke script. He’s taking to it well. The prayer-nature of the writings comforts him.
First contact wasn’t what we expected, but it’s certainly changing the world. The kiji will force a lot of technological changes, get away from such a reliance on electricity, but maybe that will slow us down, let us learn to see the world in more than one new way.
About the Author
John A. McColley lives in a vortex of worlds, characters, machines and language, constantly dragging images and forms out of the storm onto canvas, paper or computer screen to share them with others and give them new life. When not wrestling with words, he cranks dials and makes sparks at his local hackerspaces and searches the wilds of New Hampshire for semi-precious stones with his fiancée.
Read our interview with John A. McColley