The chest cavity wouldn’t open. The chitinous membrane that he assumed was serving the purpose of rib cage had split just fine under the laser scalpel, releasing a burst of hot gas that smelled faintly of burned coffee, but it had closed again and remained locked tight, despite their best efforts with the retractors.

“God fuck Philips, put your fucking back into it,” Halstead shouted at the young surgical assistant. Philips was cranking with all his might on the retractors’ ratchet handle, the veins in his neck standing out in thick pulsing cords.

“It looks like he’s put his back, legs, and part of his spirit into it, doctor.” Chalice said and crossed her arms with a sigh. Her night black corporate uniform absorbed the light from the operating table lantern, cocooning her in a dark pocket that reduced her to a floating blond-tressed head atop a square-cut silhouette.

“We might as well slice a section out of that carapace, doctor,” Knock’s voice came over the operating theater’s speakers. He’d wanted nothing to do with the corpse and had insisted on overseeing the operation from the comfort and security of the observation room.

“You don’t think that will kill him?” Halstead shouted in response, then took a deep breath and, in a softer voice said, “I believe there’s still a man in there, you know.”

The speakers clicked again. “The patient’s care is our primary concern, doctor. That has not changed. But time is of the essence, and we have no idea what’s happening under that shell. The sooner we can get a look inside, the sooner you can improve your diagnosis, wouldn’t you agree?”

Philips was still straining with the retractor, and looked at Halsted with pleading, bulging eyes. The doctor waved him off and the assistant let out an explosive sigh of relief, almost falling off the ratchet handle.

“Very well. Preparing to make a patch-cut here,” Halsted said, and drew an X on the mottled surface of the carapace. Philips arranged the necessary tools and handed a small cutter to the doctor. He took it up and with four deft slices inscribed the designated shape. Philips took the cutter from him as he finished and replaced it with a suction cup-tipped instrument that the doctor pressed onto the patch and pulled. The square of tissue came free with ease, releasing with it more of the burned coffee odor.

“What in God’s name?” Halstead asked, peering into the hole he’d cut. In the observation room, Knock swiveled the overhead camera to gain a better angle of the bloated body on the operating table. There were black tendrils worming their way out of the cut.

“Leeches, or worms?” Chalice asked, still reclining in her shadows.

“They’re insubstantial, almost gaseous,” Halstead said, poking at the writhing tentacles with forceps. “But they have form, and force. Ah, look!” The tentacles were lengthening, and meeting each other across the open patch of carapace, forming a latticework, weaving together and congealing, hardening into new tissue. “It’s regenerating. My God, look at the speed of it.” Halstead poked his forceps into the closing wound and the fibers adjusted to absorb them. A moment later the instrument was fused into the surface of the shell, as though it had sprouted there of its own accord.

“Fascinating,” Chalice said. “It looks like it’s going to take more than this to get beyond the thing’s defenses. Let’s just run a scan on it and stop chopping away like barbarians.”

2015.02.17 – 2023.09.13

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