In the suddenly dimmed room full of seated strangers, I heard subdued coughs, the click of a heel, the crack of a knuckle, and the hushed hiss of fabric shifting against fabric or against the hard plastic chairs.
The room brightened from the front, where the image slowly appeared and came into focus, radiant white and familiar. Gasps and murmurs rippled through the room as eyes adjusted to the monotone image and grasped the subtle sight of the unexpected.
I smiled fondly at the years-old image, but my smile faded as a chill of dread bloomed between my chest and stomach. I exhaled through my lips and took a long slow breath.
I straightened my spine and gazed at the image, wondering what was to come.
When we started off, we were just trying to “build a better x-ray machine” as Wu kept grinningly insisting. When we realized we had the materials, the means, and the expertise to actually build an imaging technology that would make Wu’s hokey slogan a grand understatement, we checked ourselves and each other. We kept our heads on straight. We asked ourselves questions about morals and ethics, and how our invention might be used for nefarious purposes, and what we could do to thwart that and protect people, help people, save people. That was the ultimate goal, past the glory and recognition of genius, past the overwhelming realization of all the money we would be making. The childhood dream of being heroes. Of saving the world. With imaging technology that was affordable, portable, rugged, and reliable. And best of all, flexible. Capable of imaging all different kinds of tissues from solid bone to fleshy liver to liquid blood. Seeing, and seeing into, and seeing through.
It wasn’t our intention to shift, or even unseat, anyone’s paradigm or worldview. And yet that is what we were about to do. We were about to present an undeniable fact that everyone in that room would be able to check up on. And in doing so, we were about to unleash one of the most exhilarating and frightening things that humanity has ever encountered…true change.
We called it the stromascope.
The first images we took using it looked like ordinary x-rays. It was easier for us to “calibrate” the scope to image bone. So we took pictures of laboratory mice, of our own hands and feet, of various objects in our workshop. The scope’s field of vision was small. We wanted to make sure it could do the basics at a small scale, before we build a bigger and better version. We didn’t realize that the scope was already seeing more. Then we built it bigger.
The first picture we took with the larger prototype was of my torso. I’ve always had bad posture, so I stood up as straight as I could when Wu joked that if the image came out looking crisp and pretty, it might make it into the paper we’d be writing, and the talk we would be giving someday. We were already happy that we had invented a machine that could take x-rays without hitting people with actual x-rays. Of course, we’d have to prove the comparison by taking traditional x-rays of everything we had imaged with the stromascope. But that was for later. That day, we waited for the image to develop. It took a few minutes. We would work on speeding that up. We would work on someday being able to take real-time video. But first things first.
The image was crisp, and it was pretty. It looked just like an x-ray. We patted ourselves on our backs and everyone claimed drinks were on me that night. But then came the question.
“What is that?”
At first blush, it looked like some kind of centipede was coiled around the base of my spine. Then it seemed to vanish until the top of my ribcage, where it reappeared, wrapping parts of itself, its limbs we supposed, around my uppermost left ribs. On closer inspection, it wasn’t centipede-like at all. Its body structure mimicked that of my spine, only much smaller and more slender, like the tail of a vertebrate. We couldn’t see its head, assuming it had one.
Of course we thought it was a hoax. No one was laughing as everyone glanced around at everyone else. Each image we took with the stromascope was proof of its worthiness, of its future place among the tools and instruments that advanced science and medicine. As immature as Diane may have been in the moment she took a picture of her hand as she gave the wall the finger, that picture was legitimate and real. But this one…
The mood sobered quickly as someone suggested that we take a picture of my torso from the back. If the culprit thought it would be funny, he or she knew better now, and no one was admitting to any shenanigans.
There it was. Wrapped around the middle portion of my back. And this time, we didn’t bother with silent stares. We sat down at the conference table, and Wu announced that if the joker came clean then and there and stopped all further tampering with the scope or the images, all would be forgiven. After several minutes of overlapping conversations that grew more and more heated and tense, until someone actually went to adjust the thermostat, there came, once again, a question that changed the conversation.
“What if there is no tampering? What if the scope is functioning the way it should?”
I remember how hot my neck felt, of all things. I wanted to pull my collar away, but that seemed clichéd. I gulped instead. I wanted it to be a hoax. Because it if wasn’t a hoax then…
“What if that thing is real?”
Wu started making phone calls for me to get a real x-ray done that day if possible. The x-ray lab was too far away for me to walk, but campus transport would get me there. Still, three people volunteered to come with me. Wu sent two with me, and as he peered at the stromascope, he asked the rest to stay. He would image a few other people. Just to see what happened.
“All of us.”
“They’re inside all of us.”
“And always have been, I’ll bet.”
“How do you figure?”
“What would make you say that?”
Half of us spoke and half of us listened. Some of us were terrified. Some of us excited. But all of us were both comforted and disturbed by what the stromascope had shown us.
Each and every person who was imaged had one of the…creatures wrapped around the spine. They were in slightly different positions. They were of slightly different lengths and shapes, but they all seemed to be the same type of creature.
We had already signed non-disclosure agreements before we started working on designing and building the stromascope. Wu reminded us not to speak of what we had seemingly discovered.
The progress that followed, careful and meticulous, yet still a breathtakingly fast pace in so few years, was tempered and anchored by our solidarity. None of us were alone in our strange discovery. We had each other.
Each day thereafter, Wu had us meet in the morning, and talk through any anxieties and fears we had about what was inside us. Was it an alien invasion? Or were they interdimensional parasites? Did anyone feel anything different in their spines since discovering the creatures? We talked about the eagerness we had to make sense of it, to act, to do something. To make sure that we weren’t all walking around with spectral leeches that were sucking the life out of us.
Slowly, but surely, we organized our scattered and haphazard thoughts into a plan. A research plan. To address every question we could think of. Wu began assigning or asking for volunteers for small breakout teams. All of us would continue working on the main project, improving the stromascope, refining its vision. That was, after all, our core mission. But our new and parallel objective was to find out about the creatures within us.
One team would be responsible for imaging the rest of our bodies, to see if there were any other surprises lurking in our legs or arms, or heads. They would image various different animals. They would image human volunteers as well, and people in different states of health, in different neighborhoods, different demographics. The creatures were subtle, but anyone with a passing familiarity of what the human skeleton should look like would see them in the images. So the volunteers would have to sign a waiver. They had the right to know if we found anything unusual, but if we found the creatures in everyone we imaged, that would support the conclusion that it was not unusual to have a bony creature wrapped around one’s spine. Our lawyers and ethics officer would have to help us sort that one out.
There literature review team was tasked with finding any mention of a creature wrapped around the spine in factual historical records and in legends and folk tales. If the annals of medical history shed no light, then they were to delve into collected tales of quackery and pseudo-science.
At one meeting, Diane suggested a name for the creature (mashing up the Latin words for “backbone” and “coil”) that almost made it sound like it belonged in our bodies, the narumplexus.
We were surprised by how strange the medical history was. We had expected to find nothing.
There was a doctor-philosopher who lived some five thousand years ago, somewhere in the cradle of civilization. In his writings, he mentioned many concepts that modern medicine now knows to be wrong (though I have now started to wonder). He attributed seizures, for example, to possession of the body by external spirits. According to him, all human beings acquired the spine-coiling creature at some point in our lives. In his observation, they seemed to be necessary for our development. Only relatively healthy people had a thriving creature on their spines. When he observed the spines of very sick patients, terminal ones, the creature appeared to be diminishing along with the patient, or it was already gone. He used no tool to “see” the spines of his patients and fellow citizens. He claimed to have been born with a second sight, and to have followed the path of a healer to best make use of his gift.
The really interesting thing was that the imaging team was already starting to gather evidence that supported the conclusions of that five-thousand-year-old healer. All adults that were imaged had a narumplexus. Very young children did not, according to the images taken of our team members’ own kids. (Many people are, unsurprisingly, reluctant to volunteer their babies and toddlers for scientific research.) Corpses also did not have narumplexi, though the images hinted at “shadows” on the spine that seemed to indicate a narumplexus had once been present. We wondered what happened to it when a person died. Did it get absorbed into its host’s body? Or did entropy carry it back to its own phase or dimension, or wherever it came from?
We found a story, fictional but based on real people and real events in a tiny thirteenth-century kingdom somewhere in modern-day Siberia. One of those real people was a court physician who was present at the birth of his king’s bastard child. He was given strange instructions by the court magician, who said that the baby must be immediately baptized upon birth in a special potion that he had brewed, and that the court physician was to bring that potion back to the magician. The physician refused at first, suspecting the magician of trying to poison the child on the king’s behalf, in case it turned out to be a boy, and a possible threat to the sickly legitimate prince-heir. There was a personal rivalry between the magician and the physician as well. The king ordered the physician to comply. The physician insisted on checking the potion, testing it, not trusting the magician’s declaration of what was in it. The king agreed to that. Not finding any poisons or anything particularly harmful, the physician reluctantly agreed to the “baptism.” The thing was done. The potion was delivered to the magician.
Within days the bastard child withered away and died. The prince-heir grew stronger and stronger. Rumors spread and persisted that the magician had stolen one child’s health, her very spirit, to give to the prince-heir. The physician was certain of it, but could never find proof. Still…he tried. He had kept a portion of the potion he was supposed to give to the magician. He studied it till the end of his days. He made meticulous notes that bore no fruit. He even recorded the nightmares he started to have, vivid nightmares of insectoid creatures that coiled around his neck, suffocating him. He even drew them. They looked very similar to the creatures pictured by the stromascope.
Then there was the grand sculpture chiseled into a mountain that was nestled in the midst of a dense South America forest. Scholars believed that the sculpture was meant for multiple purposes, as a staircase leading up to the temple near the top of the mount, as a representation of older, titanic gods, and as an idol to focus worship, itself as holy as the temple to which it led. The sculpture was of a giant, kneeling on one knee to the ground, his head prone. The unusual part was that his spine protruded from his back, serving as the stairs, and wrapping around that spine, in a symmetrical spiral, was a smaller spine that sprouted the occasional pair of thin limbs. We were certain it was a symbolic representation of the creature that we thought we were the first to see.
We asked ourselves if we were just making tenuous connections, drawing false conclusions, falling victim to logical fallacies. Or were our stromascopic images the newest piece of this ongoing narrative through human history? The Tale of the Narumplexus.
We had invented a machine that could see what had before only been seen by those who were blessed, or cursed, with singular sight. It was not a miracle. It was science and technology. It was like the telephone that allowed people from opposite ends of the globe to hear each other’s voices. It was even more like satellite television. What only a few could witness, once upon a time, the whole world now could see and hear.
Our next question was what to make of our discovery. How would we sort fact from fiction in all the stories we had gathered? How could we determine if the stromascope’s images could be trusted if there was no other objective way to detect the narumplexi?
Yet, even as we asked the practical, responsible questions, we couldn’t help getting ahead of ourselves with wild speculations of future actualities built on past possibilities. The story of that thirteenth-century court magician, though sinister, intrigued us. We wondered if we could extract the narumplexus. It seemed that if someone was sick for a very long time, the creature withered and died. And if the creature was removed from a healthy person, the person died. But if a person died suddenly, as in an accident, the narumplexus might survive.
We continued calling it a “creature,” but we found no evidence that it was. Maybe the narumplexis could be defined as an “organ,” so that anyone who had signed up to be an organ donor would have already given consent for its removal. What if the narumplexi could be replicated and implanted into sick people to treat and cure them, as the thirteenth-century court magician had done for his king’s heir? Would it work, or was that just a story? Would the narumplexus wither and die? We seemed to have a symbiotic relationship. But we didn’t understand the subtleties of that relationship. We knew we needed the narumplexi and they needed us, but we didn’t know why.
There were ethical and practical challenges. None of the animals we imaged had a narumplexus. We hadn’t taken any images of our closest evolutionary relatives yet. But if we ever arrived at the point where we wanted to attempt transplantations, there would be no animal trials first. We wouldn’t know how to remove the narumplexi, unless we used that dubious thirteenth-century magical potion. Even if we could build a next-generation stromascope capable of seeing the narumplexi in real time, we would have no way of touching it.
We had discussions, answered questions, uncovered more questions, horrified ourselves with horrific suggestions, encouraged ourselves with noble proposals. We joked about trying to communicate with our mysterious uninvited but intriguing hitchhikers.
We would sit up straight in our chairs and declare loud promises not to make potions of extraction or plans for breeding if the narumplexi would just let us know they were sentient and intelligent.
We would grow sober and remind ourselves that part of the stromascope’s original purpose had been to make it unnecessary for us to continue poking and prodding and experimenting on animals to figure out how to heal ourselves. We wouldn’t need to if we could safely zoom in on everything we needed and wanted to see about ourselves and our inner workings.
The stromascope was our true mission.
A week before the talk was scheduled, we had the conversation. The “are we sure we want to do this?” conversation about announcing all that we had discovered and seen so far, even though the stromascope was still in its infancy. To some that meant we were being responsible. I wasn’t so sure. Now that we had given the talk, we were gathered in the hotel lounge, having the “are we sure we did the right thing?” conversation. Most were confidently in the affirmative. I listened to my colleagues.
“Don’t worry. They’ll dismiss us. People will take a long time looking into our findings, replicating our research, examining the scope. By the time they confirm our conclusions, the world will have gotten used to the idea. It won’t be as frightening. Unless they do end up being intelligent, or hostile, or both.”
“Right but assuming they’re not, if they’re actually part of our natural healthy state and we’re able to grow and transplant them and heal people…” Diane trailed off, brows raised, eyes wide, smiling.
“So they’re like trees, just here to passively help?”
“A tree could hurt you if it falls on you,” I said.
“Come on. Say not ‘nay!’”
I sighed. “I’m not saying ‘nay.’ I’m just saying we should remember our policy of making sure our humanity is keeping pace with our technology, with our discovery.” It was a conversation we had had and would need to have again and again. But I could see that it was not the time for sober moods, and I added, “I’m just warning you guys. I’m taking it upon myself to make sure that none of us end up like that creepy magician stealing souls from newborn babies.”
I left the conversation to the sound of light chuckling. I wandered onto the garden patio to get some fresh night air. I walked past the lighted fountain and spotted a familiar figure leaning against a rail, drinking what appeared to be a club soda and staring up into the starlit sky.
I made sure Wu heard me approach and asked if I could join him. I wasn’t normally one to intrude upon another’s solitude, valuing it so much myself. But the sight of him had given me some comfort in the midst of my uncertainty.
“I’ll understand if you want to be alone,” I said, taking a step back.
Wu smiled. “First we learn about the cloud of microorganisms that we always carry with us. Now, the narumplexus.” He turned his face away and up to the sky. “We are never alone. Is that a comfort or a curse?”
“That depends on whether or not they’re friendly.”
Wu was silent for a long while, and I almost decided to leave him to his thoughts, when he spoke again.
“According to some philosophies, the spine is the base of a human being’s power and energy. So it is no wonder that there are creatures, both benign and malignant, who seek to take part in that power, to share in it, or to usurp it. To be so bold as to wrap around our spines…makes me wonder if they were invited as friends to do so, or if they just took what they knew they had the power to take.”
“Doctor Wu, now that we’ve revealed our findings to others, invited scrutiny and collaboration, I’m sure we won’t let things get out of hand. We won’t abuse this creature, if it is a creature. Or let it harm us if that’s what it’s doing. But I think we’ve already found out enough to conclude that it’s not hurting us.”
Once again, he turned to me and smiled. “Oh, I’m sure of that too, my friend. The real question isn’t whether or not they’re friendly. The real question is…are they even separate from us? Or are they us?”
With that, I felt a sudden tingle go down my spine.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Stromascope” by Sanjay Patel.