Prompt Day # 28: What if—via genetic mutation—an organic “optical illusion” was created? Describe an original one. Make it do something nasty to someone else.
So, this is a long time coming. Forgive me. I am on vacation in Alaska and there are many places where wifi is unavailable. I used it to my advantage, by writing a lot more per prompt than I would be able to otherwise. For this prompt, I had quite a few different ideas. I may write another one that I really liked but it just didn’t quite fit the “optical illusion” as well as this one did. With this one, too, I realized that I have never written an Alien Invasion story as I have never really gotten into that kind of thing, but that’s what this whole exercise is about (at least to me): flexing my literary muscles, finding out what I do well and what I don’t. Maybe looking into areas I haven’t previously considered. So, again, late, yes, written on time but stymied by the lack of wifi in the wilds of Alaska, here is my optical illusion prompted story.
“This is the third snake attack we’ve had this week” I said scanning the newest chart in the rack. Every shift I’d done that week included a snake bite. In Middleboro, Iowa, this was noteworthy. Before that week, I had never cared for a snake bite in my entire medical career.
“I’ve never seen a snake leave marks like that though” my nurse said and shook her head. “If you ask me, these kids are into some new drug or something and they’re probably hallucinating the attacks.”
“Well, that was a great theory until today” I said turning the chart so that she could read it. This patient was a 60 year old farmer; and unlikely new drug abuser.
Every story I heard that week sounded the same. The patient was out walking in the woods, in the field or in the barn when they saw a large snake. The snake appeared to be, based on the undulations of its horizontal stripes, retreating. The head seemed to be on the far end of it as well and the tail, which was closest to the patient, was tapered like a normal snake tail. The patients all said they stopped and stood, almost mesmerized by its black and white stripes which seem to be flashing along as it slithered away. Then, before they realized it, it was right at their feet and what appeared to be the tail end reared up and bit them. The resulting wound showed one singular puncture wound—nothing like a snake bite. And besides a generalized redness and swelling around the bite, the patient did not seem to have any other reaction. Whatever it was, it did not seem to be venomous.
That was a month ago though, now we all know better. With well over a hundred attacks recorded in Iowa, a frightening pattern has developed. Three to five days after the attack, the patient begins to complain of terrible headaches and double vision. And by two weeks out, they become catatonic, or at least that’s the best word to describe it. They quit speaking, quit going to work, eat only when absolutely necessary and sleep no more than four hours a day. Beyond that, the patient will sit motionless, staring off into space. He or she does not respond to painful stimuli or ammonia capsules. When we did imaging studies, we found large tumors growing at the base of the brain, wrapping around the brain stem.
Surgeons attempted to remove the mass on the first patient known to be a victim of the strange snake, sixteen year old Alec Fisher. What looked like a tumor on the MRI was upon visual inspection, what appeared to be a parasitic organism with multiple long tendril-like appendages embedded in the neural tissue from spinal cord to grey matter. When the surgeon attempted to remove the thing by severing it from the tendrils, the fleshy strands began to move on their own and crawl even further into the brain causing seizures, hemorrhage and death. All attempts at removal ceased, and patients were either sent home to the care of loved ones or placed in extended care facilities.
Multiple government agencies were now involved. Attacks were being reported all over the country although the largest concentration was still right here in Middleboro. At this point, attention had turned to finding and capturing the “snakes” that were causing this strange plague. The problem was no one knew from descriptions what kind of animal this really was and therefore, the best way to capture it. Sightings always resulted in a bite; no one seemed to be able to avoid it. Traps were set, game cams with night vision capabilities were set up but with no success.
I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. As a physician, I felt an obligation to my patients and as the first physician to treat a snake victim; I was personally vested in this. I knew what it meant if I were to get bit, but I had my theories and prepared accordingly. All bites were between mid-shin and mid-thigh and I suspected that the “bite” was actually a means of injecting a larval parasite into the blood stream where it traveled to the brain stem, attached itself and grew. I packed a tourniquet, a small surgical kit, and wore a Go-Pro camera. I had mapped the location of every bite recorded thus far and found a cluster in a popular wooded area known as Piper’s Woods. My nurse, Phoebe Kammeron, the one who was initially skeptical of the whole thing, was now just as involved as I was and insisted on coming along. I decided it was best. After all, it was unlikely we’d both get bit which would leave one eyewitness to report if anything happened to the other.
We left early in the morning, and had only been hiking for forty minutes when we saw it. We came upon it apparently sunning itself on a flat rock. I stopped and grabbed Phoebe’s wrist. My Go-Pro was on and thank God it was because I can honestly say, I never really believed the whole “It was like I was hypnotized” crap. I figured that most folks are just ignorant when it comes to large snakes. I was so wrong. The minute we came upon it, its stripes began to move. I know how crazy that sounds but if you have ever seen a chameleon or octopus when it is quickly flashing through its color options; that is what happened. The stripes were flashing, creating the illusion that the snake was moving away from you. It really looked like it was retreating. And I swear, it looked like the head was at the far end. I found myself staring at it, just like my patients told me, I could not stop looking. Phoebe slapped at me silently and broke my trance. I turned to look at her. In that short second, I felt the sting and reached down instinctually to slap at my leg and the snake got me again in the hand. I could only think about how I’d fucked up and brought only one tourniquet. Why? Phoebe had come along, at the very least, I should have brought two. I was so panicked I couldn’t think. Pheobe, however, was already at work. When the snake went for my hand, she went for the snake. She’d beheaded the thing just as it’s stinger penetrated the back of my hand. When I regained my senses, she was putting the tourniquet on my upper thigh and I had the head of a strange snake-like creature dangling from my right hand like an IV catheter.
“Let’s go, we gotta get you out of here.” She said. She was putting the body of the snake into a plastic bag. I held my hand up, offering the head to her. “No. Leave it. It will be good to get some images done while it’s in place. Then we’ll know exactly how it works. Here, though.” She said wrapping a torn piece of her own shirt around my upper arm. My groin was already aching where she’d tied the first tourniquet and this one felt like it was gradually cutting my arm off. I silently thanked God I’d brought her along. If I got out of this intact, it was only for Phoebe’s quick thinking and acting, not because of all my planning ahead.
The images at the hospital were startling. The “stinger” looked like a hypodermic which was perfectly seated within a vein. The vein itself was fully collapsed at the level of the tourniquet and within my blood stream, sitting there patiently waiting to get through were three small, radiopaque foreign objects. They were removed under CT guidance as were the two found in the vein in my thigh. I have never in the course of my medical career felt faint or ill, but when I saw these “foreign bodies” under the scope, I passed out. When I came to, and took a moment to prepare myself, I was able to better examine the things under the microscope in the lab. They looked like small, albino leeches.
The CDC and Homeland Security arrived later that day. Our hospital was put under quarantine and patients were transferred to other hospitals while ours became the base camp for research and study of snake victims. Because Phoebe and I had used ourselves as guinea pigs, we were allowed to stay. Besides that, we were the only eye witnesses still able to describe what we saw and we were both still under quarantine ourselves. We heard all kinds of rumors: that this was some kind of terrorist attack, that it was a new species of both snake and parasite, or perhaps this was some kind of alien invasion. Of course, there was always the joke about the zombie apocalypse. It was easy for them to joke; they’d never watched a patient decompensate slowly over a couple weeks like I had. They hadn’t put their own lives on the line to try to solve this mystery like Phoebe and I had. So fuck them, they didn’t know about my Go-Pro footage and they weren’t getting it until I was given some answers.
I got my answers one month into my confinement. At that point, the attacks/catatonia had reached epidemic proportions in the United States and the entire country was put on lock down. Reports were coming in from other countries of similar attacks. Snakes were now being sighted in major cities, varied climates, and environments. I’d survived the month physically and mentally intact so I was now being treated more as a team member; Phoebe too. We were called into the pathology lab to see our snake and the results of the dissection and DNA studies.
“Welcome, Dr. Mason, Ms. Kammeron,” the lead researcher, who introduced herself as Abagail Mosby, quickly shook our hands and ushered us over to a stereoscope. “We’ve found some amazing things here I’d like to show you.” She looked younger than me, too young to be a doctor but yet it was unlikely she would be the lead researcher without at least a PhD. Maybe it was her brunette ponytail with the pencil stuck through it and her oversized hipster glasses. She was cute, but right now, I was more interested in her research findings although I did take time to note she wasn’t wearing a wedding band.
“What we have here, under the scope, is the soft palate area of what we continue to call a snake. Dr. Mason, what do you see?” She stood aside and let me look. I let Phoebe look as well before I answered.
“It looks like venom sacs, but given what I know now, I’m thinking that they don’t hold venom.” I said
“You’re right. We opened one and if you’ll step down to the next scope, I’ll show you what we found.”
Under the second scope, was a sac pinned open. It was teeming with tiny maggot looking creatures, which, when zoomed in on, were covered in small hooks and what looked like tiny hairs. I guessed the hooks helped them work their way to the brain and the hairs were actually the invasive tendrils that would invade the victim’s brain.
“But how do those parasites get in there? I mean, this snake has obviously evolved specifically to aid in the parasite’s life cycle. What does the snake get out of it?”
“Let’s talk a little about the snake, since you asked. This snake as you know is unlike any species known to exist on this planet. Microscopically, we see a large amount of chromophores—that is color changing cells– like a chameleon or as we have come to find based on the DNA studies, like a cuttlefish. This snake carries the DNA of the Fur D’Lance , one of the deadliest snakes on the planet, the cuttlefish, a wasp, and– here’s the kicker—alien DNA. By that I mean DNA we have never seen before; DNA that contains bases yet to be identified, bases that contain unknown molecules, atoms that don’t exist on the periodic table. It goes on but I think you understand what I am saying.” She looked at me earnestly. She was frightened; I could see it in her eyes and the way she pursed her lips to keep her chin from quivering.
“This snake and its little tag-along buddy are alien species?” I asked, although I knew the answer. Phoebe gasped.
“Well, it appears the snake is an alien manipulated species. They’ve certainly borrowed a great deal from species known to this planet, and filled in the blanks with their own home made stuff to create our friends here.” Abagail answered.
“So, what’s their game plan? Make us all zombies so we won’t fight back when the rest of them decide to show up?” Phoebe asked. She was also pursing her lips, but the frown at the edge of her lips lead me to believe she was more angry than scared.
“That was our theory initially, yes.” Abagail said. “But then we got a good look at the parasite, and our theory changed.” She beckoned both of us onward to the scanning electron microscope. This one belonged to the CDC. We had no reason for such a machine at little ole Middleboro Memorial. The photos from their study of the parasitic organism revealed an organic/mechanic hybrid.
“Are you kidding me?” I said, astonished. “A cyborg parasite? But why? What is it doing then?” I asked, running through all the devastating possibilities in my head.
“We think it might be waiting for a signal” Abagail answered quietly, her voice hoarse.
“Oh my God.” Phoebe said.
They wouldn’t have to wait long. When we stepped out of the lab, everyone was gathered around the television sets mounted on the waiting room walls. CNN was broadcasting breaking news. The images on the screen were ominous. Large alien ships had been picked up on several satellites. The International Space Station had just reported them as well. So far we’d been unable to make any contact, and it was estimated they would enter our atmosphere within the next 48 hours