My car rolled steadily over the crackling gravel road. In the last hour of the drive, my GPS lost its signal and got me lost in about three directions before I finally found my way. But even if there was any service in that remote tundra I’m still not sure the facility would have shown up on any maps. I got coordinates to navigate to instead of an address, and a cryptic emphasis on a tree split in half by a lightning bolt next to a yellow house. I was to go down that driveway until it turned into a gravel road for as far as the eye could see and continue on it until I came upon the facility. It was a tough and at times infuriating trip, but I ultimately made it, even if I was an hour late.
I came to a full stop at the front gate where there was a raised red and white striped road blocker in front of my bumper. A man wearing aviator glasses, a police hat, and a wooly black jacket emerged at the gatehouse window.
“Good morning,” I exclaimed with a sort of forced glee.
“ID,” the man said harshly.
“Absolutely,” I said while fumbling around in my jacket pocket for my wallet. He shook his head, annoyed that I didn’t have my ID dangling from the window the moment I stopped the car. I peeked in the rearview mirror to confirm there was nobody waiting behind me. “Ah, here we are,” I said, and presented it to him, face forward.
He reached out and snatched it from my grasp with his giant right hand. His eyes, somewhat faded behind the polarized lenses, examined my ID card and then darted back up to my face. He maintained a grimace the whole time, as if to be purposefully off-putting. I suppose I would look the same way if I stood outside in a place where the weather never scraped above freezing. “What’s your name?” he questioned.
“Dr. Patrick Yates, parasitologist,” I answered confidently.
“What’s your date of birth?”
“October 26th, 1983.”
“And what business do you have here?”
“I’m here to see Patient 11964.”
He nodded, then extended his arm back into my car window without another word.
I took the ID and slid it back into my black leather wallet. This time I left the wallet on the seat as to not anger any more irritable guards.
He slid the guardhouse’s glass pane shut, then pressed a button on a control panel below the window I couldn’t quite see. The striped road blocker in front of my car hummed and retracted until it was flat with the road. The cross-hatched iron gate just beyond the panel simultaneously creaked open to reveal a paved road circling a seemingly abandoned complex.
I drove down the road which led right up to the front door of the complex either way you took it. When I arrived at that front door, I realized the facility was much less abandoned than it previously seemed. Five men stood near the door. The one in the suit and the one in the lab coat were having what looked like a serious conversation, while the others were dressed in camouflage holding M4s that were strapped over their shoulders. I’d never met any of these men in my life, but I knew they waited for me. I was perhaps the only visitor they’d seen all day – maybe even all week.
One of the camouflaged men approached my car. As he grew closer, I could tell he was shivering, but trying to conceal it as much he could. “Dr. Yates?” he said in a strong voice.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Welcome to the facility. If you would give me your keys I’ll take your car to parking from here.” I’d been through this type of exercise before, so it was becoming rather natural to me. I grabbed my wallet, got out of the car, and gave him my keys. He got in the car and drove off slowly behind me.
“Yes, welcome, Dr. Yates,” the elderly man in the lab coat chimed in.
I made my way towards him and extended my hand. “Thank you, sir. And you must be –”
“Dr. Emmet Wallace,” he said. “And this is my colleague and witness Pilot Louis.” Dr. Wallace pointed to the man in the suit.
I couldn’t tell if Louis was his first or last name, but I was too afraid to ask. It seemed I ought to know already. “Nice to meet you Pilot Louis.”
“And you, Doctor.”
“I hope you didn’t have too much trouble finding the place this morning,” Dr. Wallace said.
“No, not at all,” I lied.
Dr. Wallace scanned his card on the RFID reader at the front door. The small round light on the reader changed from red to green, then buzzed. He pulled the door open which I could tell was rather heavy, then motioned for me to go inside ahead of him. “Please,” he said.
The building was much warmer than the outside air, but I kept my coat on as I still shivered violently. I was far too used to the Californian sun for this type of assignment.
Pilot Louis and Dr. Wallace entered. Then the door clicked shut behind them, leaving the guards outside in the cold.
“You weren’t waiting out there too long, were you?” I asked.
“No, of course not. Only thirty minutes tops,” Dr. Wallace replied.
“Thirty minutes? In that weather?”
Louis finally interjected with a laugh. “That weather,” he mocked me. “today’s a warm day for what we’re used to. I was damn near sweating out there. You should see what a February out here is like.”
I shook my head. “I could never.” With a slight pause in the small talk introductions, I felt it was high time I ask the question that’d been weighing on my mind the whole drive up. As I told the guardsman, I am a parasitologist and I have quite a few years under my belt in the profession. But what I was about to see that morning I hadn’t a clue. The nature of my summoning was obscure, mysterious, and above all confidential. And really, I can only write this story now since the confidentiality of my situation doesn’t much matter anymore. When the creature is out, the secret is out. And I won’t live long enough to see the end of it. In fact, I’ll probably die right here in this white-walled godforsaken tomb. “So what are we looking at today?” I asked, attempting to sound cavalier.
Pilot Louis’s smile dropped with haste. He and Dr. Wallace gave each other a foreboding glance, as if they silently agreed it was too early to tell me. And they were probably right to not tell me so soon. If I knew exactly what they were keeping in that facility, I would have turned right around.
“Perhaps we should get you to the room first. We can deliberate once you see the patient,” Dr. Wallace said.
This made me instantly nervous. I’d visited many offices, hospitals, and facilities before, but this one was easily the most enigmatic.
The three of us made our way down the halls, up a few floors on an elevator, and then down another hall. The complex was relatively silent, but there were plenty of people there. It reminded me of my days studying at the USC libraries all those years ago. They’d always be jam packed, but you could hear a pin drop at any time, though you’d probably get kicked out for dropping it.
Dr. Wallace stopped suddenly and pivoted towards room 3992. He turned his arm towards me, and opened his palm. “Right this way.” I entered the room before him, once again soon followed by Pilot Louis, Dr. Wallace himself, and then the door lightly clicking shut behind us.
Right as the door clicked in place, Louis flicked a switch behind me, activating a few flickering fluorescent tube lights above. I was standing in what looked like the waiting area of an interrogation room. There were a few metal folding chairs setup for us, a clipboard hanging by a string pinned to the wall, and a thick one-way glass window showing us a rather healthy-looking man on the other side. Not only did he look healthy, but he looked like the pinnacle of man. If he wasn’t in that holding cell, he could be the template for da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. He was wearing a white t-shirt and dark blue jeans, but no shoes or socks. His jeans wrapped tightly around his muscular legs, and the shirt’s sleeves looked about ready to burst around his biceps. He sat calmly in the dinky wooden chair off to the left side of the room with his hands crossed and head craned pensively downward.
“Is this him?” I asked – a retroactively nonsensical question.
“Yes, yes indeed. This is the patient.” Dr. Wallace took the dangling clipboard in his hand, checked his watch, then signed the three of us in. “Man of the hour,” he grumbled.
“What’s wrong with him? He looks alright to me.” I said. I couldn’t help but gawk at just how alright he looked. Over all my fairly established parasitology career, I’d never seen a man in such good condition.
“Looks can be deceiving, Dr. Yates – especially when we are talking about a parasite. You of all people should know this, no?” Dr. Wallace said.
“Sure,” I began, trying not to take offense. “but not to this level. Unless the infection began over the last day, day and a half, we certainly wouldn’t be looking at such a fit man right now.”
“Well… Dr. Yates, seeing as you’re a parasitologist, we thought it appropriate to call you for a reason.” Dr. Williams responded. “While he exhibits very few conventional signs of a parasitic infection, we aren’t quite sure what to look for due to the… well, special nature of this patient.”
“What special nature?” I enquired sternly. I was getting sick of the riddles. They were hiding information I couldn’t do my job without knowing.
“You really don’t know?” Dr. Wallace asked condescendingly.
I stared at him with purposeful menace.
“Right then,” he said, sucking in his lips. “Well the parasite we’re dealing with in this patient is…other worldly.”
“Other worldly? What the hell does that mean?” I replied.
Dr. Wallace glanced nervously at Louis and then looked back at me. “It’s…an alien.”
“Sorry,” I scoffed, “an alien?”
“Yes,” Dr. Wallace sighed heavily. “See, Patient 11964’s real name is Commander Gary Thistle. Mr. Thistle here went on a trip to the International Space Station to study cryogenics on rats in the environments of outer space. He was up there for about six months and from what I hear had a fair amount of success in his studies. Commander Thistle then came back to Earth with a small crew of three including himself in a Soyuz capsule last month. One of his crew members was feeling quite ill when they began the return journey from the ISS. She was experiencing symptoms akin to a high fever: chills, sweats, shaking, and coughing, but she was also unquenchably famished.”
“Speaking of famished, I still haven’t had breakfast yet,” Pilot Louis interjected. “I’m going to head down to the cafeteria as soon as we’re done here.”
“That’s quite alright,” Dr. Wallace said.
“Is that it?” I asked.
After a long hesitation, he continued, “No…besides all that, she didn’t sleep for almost a week – five whole days I believe. And as time went on she became something else…not herself. First there were signs of confusion, then memory loss, then a sort of memory replacement, then finally she began acting like someone else entirely.”
I nodded and made a circular motion with my open hand. “You didn’t bring me all the way out here just because one of your crew was acting touchy while she was sick, were you?”
Dr. Wallace looked at Pilot Louis again, nodded, then took a step back.
Louis nodded back cautiously and began speaking in a shaky voice. “The three astronauts in that capsule were Commander Thistle, Pilot Elaine Stevens, and myself. She seemed normal when we left the ISS, but upon re-entry she began acting strange. First it was just confusion, short-temper, periodic memory loss like Dr. Wallace said. We didn’t think much of it. Then she started really changing. She wouldn’t make eye contact, spoke in a monotone voice and sounded…I don’t know doc… ancient. Real formal and old, like something out of Shakespeare, you know?”
“Not really,” I said. “What do you mean, ‘ancient’?”
“She kept rambling on about some harvest and begged us to let her leave the facility. And she had no sense of humor at all, no facial expressions, no empathy. And then not long after that…” Louis choked on his words and covered his mouth with one hand. “her face…it…I’m sorry, Dr. Wallace.” Louis’s cheeks expanded and he placed a closed fist over his lips. He spun around and yanked the door open, then stormed out.
Dr. Wallace’s face scrunched as the door slammed shut. He sighed again. “I knew it was a mistake bringing him along. He’s seen too much. This is the third time I’ve tried to get him to tell me what happened with her face and it’s the third time he’s run off to puke.”
“And how do you know Louis isn’t infected?”
Dr. Wallace shook his head vehemently, the flaps of his elderly neck colliding into each other. “No, not Louis. We ran extensive tests on him when he returned and he exhibited none of the symptoms his colleagues did. We also found no point of entry on his body.”
“Point of entry?” I asked.
Dr. Wallace pressed the red button beneath the one-way window. “Mr. Thistle,” he said. Gary didn’t move a muscle. He was still sitting with his hands crossed and neck craned. “Please lift your left pant leg for us.”
With sudden and aggressive movements, Gary’s hands broke apart from each other, fingers wrapped around either side of his left pant leg, and then lifted. His deep shadowy gaze towards the floor never faltered.
My jaw dropped. Usually an earthly parasite does its best to mask its entry point. This isn’t usually too difficult since upon entry, a parasite is microscopic enough to slip its way in between skin cells and directly into the host. But what I saw on Gary’s left ankle was phenomenally new. It was a black incision about an inch in length surrounded by a labyrinth of popping purple veins. A sort of dark green puss oozed from the infected incision. After only a moment or so of getting a decent look at the incision, Gary’s jaw fell open. With a dry, monotone voice he said, “Please let us know when the viewing has proven satisfactory.”
I turned to Dr. Wallace and mouthed the word, “us”.
Dr. Wallace released the red button below the glass then said, “Yes, that’s the other thing. Whatever parasite is in Gary right now is quite sentient. When I hear him now, I’m not sure Gary Thistle is in there at all anymore.”
“How long has he been like this?”
“We determined Commander Thistle as a probable parasite patient only two days ago now, but it could have been three or four days he’s had it, we can’t be sure.”
I nodded, then looked back at Gary. His fingers were still locked in place around the left ankle of his jeans. I watched his shoulders for a moment. They were motionless. I couldn’t even tell if he was breathing. For a brief minute, I wondered whether he was even alive. I pushed the red button. “Alright Mr. Thistle, thank you very much. You may drop your pant leg now.” I released the button, then continued. “He looks catatonic.”
“I’d agree with that assessment,” Dr. Wallace said.
“You said the parasite is sentient?”
“Yes, we believe it is.”
“Do you think I could…talk to it?”
Dr. Wallace cackled, then stuttered, “Wha – wait you’re serious?”
“With all due respect, I know you called me here because this is my profession, but I’ve never treated for an extraterrestrial parasite before. In fact, I’m sure nobody has. If you’re telling me its sentient, I can maybe convince it to jump to an animal or something where we can kill it off. Or maybe I can find out how far along it is in its lifecycle. If its anything like the parasites we know on Earth, it will feed on Commander Thistle until he dies. Then it will move on to its next host to continue feeding. Commander Thistle’s life might be out of our control, but we need to stop the parasite as soon as possible.”
Dr. Wallace nodded. “I’m out of ideas, so I suppose it makes enough sense to give a shot.”
We exited the room briefly to find a clean hazmat suit for me to wear into Gary’s containment cell. It didn’t take long – the facility seemed to have at least one hundred of them ready to go. Each foot one after the other, I stepped into the yellow suit, propped the shoulder pads on appropriately, then zipped it up to my neck. I put on the accompanying gloves and gas mask, then headed to the decontamination hall between the observation room and Commander Thistle’s cell. Dr. Wallace shut the door tightly behind me. The room whirred and steamed before spraying me with lightly pressurized water. The room chimed and robotically said, “decontamination complete”. I breathed in heavily. For the first time in my career I notably nervous to meet my patient. Aside from the vague side effects Dr. Wallace and Pilot Louis had rattled off, I still had no idea what to expect.
I pulled down on the door’s large latch, then pushed it open with my shoulder. The door’s thick frame screeched once I freed it. Once I was inside, I made sure it was tightly shut behind me. There he was – Commander Gary Thistle. His perfect jet-black hair had become frazzled and oily from many days without a shower. He’d grown a rough dark beard around his chiseled clenched jaw. Despite his otherwise fine appearance, he reeked like a heap of week-old trash. I couldn’t tell if he knew I’d entered the room – if he did, he made sure to hide any sort of reaction.
“Good morning, Commander Thistle. My name is –”
“Good morning,” he interrupted and repeated back to me. His voice sounded off as if his throat was lined in dry straw.
“Yes,” I responded. “My name is Dr. Patrick Yates, and I’m here to ask you a few questions.”
“Questions?” Gary hissed dryly in monotone.
Before I said another word, I noticed he was indeed breathing, but each breath was more labored than the last. He sounded like a smoker on his last threads of life. Whatever was left in Gary Thistle didn’t have much time for saving. “Yes, if that’s alright with you.”
Gary allowed for a long pause. “That’s quite alright,” he eventually said in a drawn-out manner.
“Excellent. Now for my first question. What is the earliest memory you have of infection? Seeing the parasite, feeling symptoms – hunger, pain, lack of –”
“What parasite?” he snapped.
Dr. Wallace had described some memory loss to me, but this was worse than I could have imagined. “It’s alright if you don’t remember. Can you tell me how you’re feeling right now?”
Gary’s eyes finally shifted. He seemed confused by the answer. “We’re quite well for now, but the harvest grows near.”
“Do you mean to say you’re feeling hungry right now?”
“Hunger is the need for external nutrients. What we need is…a change of scenery.” The Commander maniacally cackled.
I paused and cleared my throat. “Am I speaking with Gary right now?”
Gary suddenly sprung from his chair and grabbed onto the back of it. The chairs legs screeched against the floor. “Thelma, is that you?” he cried out towards the window. I flinched away from him and brought my arms tight to my chest. His focus soon deteriorated, and he suddenly became calm again. With the chair facing the other way, Gary sat himself back down slowly and folded his hands once more. His voice returned to a low dry monotone while he mumbled something to himself.
“Am I speaking to Commander Gary Thistle right now?” I repeated.
He allowed for a long silence before replying. “No, doctor. The Commander is absent at this moment.”
I turned back towards the window only to see a hazy reflection of my hazmat suit and whoever was sitting in that chair in the corner of the room. “Who am I speaking with now?” I asked.
His wheezing continued, but it was more pronounced now. Whatever entity was occupying the Commander’s body wanted to answer my questions, but the resources it needed to do so were dwindling. He was struggling in that dark corner of the room. His fingers flinched. His eyes twitched.
I knelt down beside him, and for the first time I saw his eyes. Usually I’d like to report on coloration and redness to determine the severity of different symptoms in my patients, but it wasn’t redness I saw. What I stared back at were two lifeless black beads, dripping with an equally dark goo. My heart leapt to my throat and knees snapped upright.
“Doctor,” he moaned. “We really must be going now. It is getting late. The spouse and offspring will begin to worry.”
I cleared my pulsating throat. “I’m sorry –” I cleared it again. “I’m sorry Commander Thistle, but you will be staying here under this facility’s supervision for the time being.”
The Commander’s pale, stricken skin began to fold against his curling smile. It rose up his cheek revealing one shiny pointy fang at a time until the corners of his lips couldn’t reach any higher. “Oh Doctor, perhaps we must describe our intentions with further reduction in ambiguity. We did not intend to bewilder the audience with misconceptions of invitation when we intend to remark upon matters of necessity.”
I took a large gulp of breath before asking my next and possibly final question. “Why do you need to be released so urgently?”
Somehow his wheezing continued to grow louder, his voice drier. His jaw snapped back and forth, then emitted a response akin to my greatest fear. “We have matters to attend to, doctor. The harvest is imminent.”
I’d seen enough to have him killed right then and there. It was clear enough to me we weren’t looking at some common parasitic infection. This was no tapeworm, no hookworm, or Ascaris – this was an alien lifeform pleading with me – pleading to be released onto the rest of the world where it could run roughshod over the human race and pick the bones off an endless supply of hosts. There would be no cure, no need for further studies – we needed nothing more than to stop this parasite in its tracks.
I waved at the one-way window. There was no handle on this side of the door, so I waited for Dr. Wallace to open it. I couldn’t stand another minute in a room with this thing. I heard the muffled sounds of the decontamination room whirring into action. But just then, the legs of the Commander’s chair screeched against the floor once more. I spun around to see him rising in labored fashion. Every movement was exaggerated and ungainly. Then the wheezing turned to crackling moans.
I banged on the door and cried out. “Dr. Wallace, open the door. Open the door now. The patient – open up!”
I kept one eye over my shoulder and one on the door. I couldn’t hear the decontamination room anymore, only Commander Thistle’s inhuman howling. His right shoulder dropped as if it was dislocated, and his body hunched over the chair. A thick, dark green drool fell from his hollering lips. “Doctor,” he yelled between howls. “Doctor, we really must be going now.”
I banged harder on the door, my fist tingling and growing number with each hit. “Open the door, Wallace. Open the door.”
Then the shuffling began. The Commander’s occupied body inched towards me, one harsh step at a time. His body swayed with each movement, howling in immense pain. He was only about a foot away from me in no time at all – striking distance if he extended his arm. I continued to bang at the door, but it was no use. It dawned on me that Dr. Wallace would never open the door.
The shuffling stopped. The Commander’s feet then locked into place. Immediately following, his howls abruptly stopped too. His dipping right shoulder and hunched torso slowly straightened. One last glob of green sludge broke from his purple bottom lip and smacked into the floor.
I stopped banging on the door. “Commander?” I think I said meekly.
The florescent tube lights began to flicker. I noticed the straightening movement in the Commander’s torso wasn’t stopping. He began to lean backwards. His arms dropped limp behind him. His neck followed suit, craning backwards until his beady blackened eyes met the ceiling. His silent mouth gaped as if it’d seen a ghost hanging from the ceiling. But soon it did more than just gape. The Commander’s jaw began to flail. It swung in every direction a jaw could move until I heard a pop and a crack. His bottom jaw detached from the rest of the skull.
I thought I’d see his tongue hang out, but I couldn’t be more wrong. Instead a long, pink tentacle projected from his broken mouth and slapped into his white t-shirt, instantly covering it in more green sludge.
I was too panicked to call for help – too shocked to raise another fist to that door.
Another tentacle sprung from his throat. Then another. And then –
Well, I don’t quite remember anything after that. All I know is I woke up in this bright room all alone. It has 3 white walls, and a somewhat reflective sheet of glass comprising the fourth wall, possibly a window. My neck hurts, but I manage to move it slightly. I see a neatly folded white t-shirt and a pair of navy-blue jeans beside the door with no handle. I think I’ll get dressed later – maybe when I can feel my legs again. For now, my focus is elsewhere. All I can tell you is its as hot as a desert in this room, but my body is as chilled as an ice cap. My stomach grumbles more than it ever has in my life. I’m starving, but there’s no food in this room. Something inside me beckons quietly. It tells me I have to leave the facility urgently. We have matters to attend to of utmost necessity. The hour is late. The harvest is now.