Arras had changed out of her clothes and into something like a hospital gown. Having removed her eyepatch and anything metal, she laid her head back on a foam-frame pillow; the plush material pressed the earphones she had been given firmly against the sides of her head. Once the contrast medium, a special dye they had injected into her arm, had enough time to circulate through her body, she was strapped down to the table to ensure she wouldn’t squirm during the procedure. The straps were only to keep her still, not to restrain her—she knew that. Yet she found herself having to manage her breathing, to keep her heart from pounding out of her chest. Only been a few days since she had been in a similar position, shackled in place for a few doctors to involve her in their medical malpractice beneath Nellis Air Force Base.
However, thinking about it further as she waited for the procedure to start, she realized she just wanted her patch back. Though she had only been wearing it for just short of a week, she felt exposed and vulnerable without it.
“Alrighty, then,” came a low, gravelly voice through the intercom, “we’ll get this party started now. Just remember to stay perfectly still. None of us want to have to do this twice.”
“Understood,” Arras replied.
With a faint shake, the bed slid backward, pulling Arras into the narrow opening of the MRI scanner. With her head and most of her upper body inside the machine, she stared up at the eggshell casing only a few inches from her face. The scanner began its mechanical groan, and a constant veering noise soon became a loud thumping as the gradient coil and magnets inside the massive machine began to expand and contract. In a moment, Arras was surrounded by a loud, rhythmic pounding.
Arras closed her eyes as the procedure began. She was used to loud noises and claustrophobia; it reminded her of the brief field tests she had done in secret with Ridarin before she entered the rift. She was also reminded of when she used to wear a Reded armor—but she pushed those memories away. With the constant slamming all around her, and nothing to see but white walls, she kept her eyes closed and allowed herself to rest.
More than half an hour passed before the scan was complete. The sudden shift of the bed made Arras realize she had fallen asleep. As the bed ejected from the scanner, she lifted her head from the foam frame, feeling groggy. Through her still waking eyes, she saw Damon enter the room.
“How do you feel?” he asked her, immediately undoing her straps. “I’m surprised you managed to sleep through it like that.”
Somewhat taken aback by that, Arras wondered if that was strange. “It didn’t seem so difficult.”
With a hearty pat on her shoulder, Damon brought her back from thinking about what he had said too much. “Go get dressed,” he told her. “I’ll meet you back in Ethan’s office when you’re ready.”
Shortly after that, Arras found herself sitting in an office chair next to Damon. Her patch safely around her head once again, cover her left eye, she felt more secure than she had in the scanner.
Sitting across from both of them was an old, balding man with deeply pocked cheeks. He had introduced himself as Ethan Rhodes, but that was all the personal information Arras had on him. Besides the name, all she knew was that he and Damon were old friends, and that they used to “work together.” The idea of using some random person like Ethan for such an important job made Arras uneasy, but if Damon trusted him, then she decided she would try to do the same.
“I can’t thank you enough, Ethan,” Damon said as the old neurologist typed rapidly at a keyboard.
“Not a problem, considering who it is I’m helping,” Ethan replied with a deep, slightly phlegmy voice. “It wasn’t too hard to get my radiologist buddy to let us borrow his scanner for an hour—I just owe him a drink. But who cares? What with all the hubbub going on right now, it’s not like folks are flocking to their local radiology clinics.”
“We’re certainly grateful for you pulling so many strings in our behalf,” Damon said, still maintaining a kind of decorum. “But it’s your ‘discretion’ we appreciate the most.”
Discretion—that was the whole reason they had gone to a local radiologist’s office in the first place. Damon and Arras both thought doing this at a hospital might run a higher risk of attracting attention.
“Forget it,” Ethan grumbled back. Turning away from his computer, the wrinkles in his forehead deepened, and he stared at Arras and her eyepatch. “Still, I have no idea how you managed to get your ass in a mire like this.” He then turned to Damon, any semblance of seriousness gone, replaced by the kind of annoyed look only friends could share. “And I suppose you aren’t going to tell me anything else other than ‘it’s safe to put it through an MRI.’ Eh, what a world…”
“I’m sorry for stonewalling you, Ethan,” Damon replied, an almost involuntary smirk twitching at the corner of his mouth. “We just need a skilled neurologist who might be able to tell us what we don’t already know.”
With a deep-throated grunt, Ethan waved a hand, as if to swat away Damon’s idle praise. Turning instead back to his computer, he hit a few keys, then brought up the results of Arras’ scan.
A series of cross-sections of Arras’ head appeared on the monitor. Displaying one after the other, the progression of images showed her skull in pale-blue, filled with swirling cutaways and layers of her brain. The longer they watched the images, the more they realized what Ethan wanted them to see. The dye had been attracted to a complex tangle of what looked like luminescent cracks inside the brain itself. These numerous hairlines crawled their way across each of the scans, all of them ultimately branching out of one source—the back of Arras’ left eye.
“I don’t imagine you’re one for sugarcoating, so I’ll just tell you like it is,” Ethan explained to Arras, stopping the display at a single scan. He ran his fingers over the screen, pointing as he spoke. “These lines, all of varying sizes and lengths, have swarmed the gray matter on the surface of your brain. Considering this is the place where most of your everyday thought processes occur, that’s already problematic. But, as bass-ackwards as it sounds, that’s not really what worries me. What worries me is that they’ve established something like a root system deep in the white matter.”
Combing through each of the images once again, Ethan stopped at one which he thought illustrated his point. Arras and Damon both looked at what looked like a long stretch of crooked twigs, each one burrowing its way deep into Arras’ brain, stopping toward the back of her skull.
With a sigh, Ethan jabbed a ruthless finger at the LCD screen, pointing out three specific areas of the scan: one spot at the base of the brain, near the brainstem; and another two near the center, one right below the other.
“The bottommost one is your cerebellum,” Ethan continued. “The two in the middle are your amygdala and your hippocampus. Whatever the hell this thing is, it’s stitched its way into some pretty delicate places. To be frank, it’s a wonder you’re even alive right now.”
“I take it that means we couldn’t eventually remove the object,” Damon observed, looking from the monitor to Ethan.
“Not unless you want to turn her brain into mincemeat,” Ethan balked. “It wouldn’t even be a surgery; it’d be downright butchery!” He returned to the scans, turning from disgust to deep thought. “Even if we could remove the damn thing, I’ve got a feeling that would be a bad move.”
“In what way?” Damon asked, studying Ethan closely.
Pointing at a cutaway of Arras’ left eye itself, Ethan said, “Look at this thing. Its insides don’t resemble your run-of-the-mill human eyeball, not at all. But that’s not the weirdest part. What sticks out to me is that its design, with all its complexity, looks almost deliberate; like it wasn’t some haphazard object shoved in her head, but something carefully and intricately installed. I don’t think this thing just set down roots and blindly spread into her head.” Sliding his finger back across the scan, he poked the three areas of the brain he had mentioned before. “While it’s taken most of the brain in general, it’s like this thing intentionally focused on these three areas.”
As Arras listened to Ethan’s explanation, she remembered the dreams she had experienced while in her coma, before she had ended up with this eye. She could remember Ila. Ila in her dreams. Ila on the battlefield, beckoning her to save Danny from mental collapse. A rescue that was only possible because of this eye—the eye Arras believed Ila had given her. It only made sense to her that there would be some possible method to the obtuse madness of this strange eye.
“Given that you say you haven’t experienced any negative effects, mental or physical,” Ethan went on, turning back to Arras, “I can’t help but wonder if this thing might not be parasitic. If your body’s not trying to fight it off or reject it, and if you’re still high-functioning despite the mess in your head… Well, I wonder if this thing might be… symbiotic. It’s just a gut feeling, but there you go.”
“Symbiotic or not,” Arras said, her voice soft and low, “what is it trying to do with my brain?”
Leaning back in his chair, Ethan thought this question through with folded arms. “It’s all over the place, and then there’s the fact that I’ve never seen anything even remotely like this, so I can’t say anything for certain. Considering the areas it’s put the most effort into infesting, it could tamper with anything from your emotional and social processing to your ability to encode, store, and retrieve memory. Now as for why anything like this or anyone who put it there would want to do all that in such a garish way, I haven’t got the slightest clue. This is all assuming these string-things don’t spread any further, by the way.”
From there, Damon and Ethan discussed how they should proceed, symptoms to look for, as well as any options Arras might have. However, as they carried on their bleak conversation, Arras found herself entirely distracted.
Staring into the still scan of her own brain, thinking of how all of this was sitting in her head right now, it was as if the room and everyone else in it dissolved into nothingness. It was just her and these images. Soon, it was as if the images were circulating once again. As if she could command this of the computer from where she was sitting.
Without warning, Arras felt an intense pain erupt in her head. As if a needle was being pushed through the side of her head, she clasped at her hair, her fingers hooked like claws as she endured the sudden stab. When the pain ended, she felt Damon’s hand on her shoulder; he watched over her with almost parental regard.
Ethan rolled in his chair across the floor, stopping right before Arras, examining her closely with his eyes.
“What just happened?” he asked her. “Can you describe what you felt?”
“It was just a headache,” Arras muttered, untangling her fingers from the lengths of her hair.
“Sorry, kiddo,” Ethan replied bluntly, “but people in your position don’t get to write events like this off as ‘just a headache.’ You’re gonna need to get a lot more talkative.”
“I said I’m fine,” Arras persisted, raising her voice enough to get her point across.
With an annoyed sigh, Ethan pushed back from her, fixing his eyes on Damon now. “She’s just as stubborn as you are!”
With an apologetic smile, his hand still on Arras’ shoulder, Damon said, “Birds of a feather, I suppose.”