“I don’t understand it,” he said as he snapped his surgical gloves off and spattered the attending nurse with fat drops of blood.

The front of the birthing machine was a nightmare in crimson, so deep in some places that it was black, as though inked by a gory brush. Gobbets of purple flesh bobbed in the swirling drain, too large to fit through the opening’s mesh cover. The charcoal smell of cauterization filled the operating theater and mingled with a heady antiseptic aroma of what might have been ether.

“Is that fucking thing leaking again?” he shouted at the nurse, who looked at him with saucer-wide eyes. It had been her first procedure in ‘the Basement’, as it was known to the surface staff, and nothing could have prepared her for what she had just witnessed. “Nurse?” he asked and snapped his fingers in front of her face. She blinked and focused on him.

“I’m sorry, doctor?”

“The anesthetic pumps are leaking. Be sure to include it in your report.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, her voice coming from some far-off place as she turned to regard the octopus tangle of tubes and valves that was the gas engine.

“I really need to start attending the admission reviews,” the surgeon muttered, and took a last look at his most recent failure. He never blamed the equipment, and he was not about to start then. No, the patient’s expiration was the result of imperfect knowledge, and he would accept full responsibility for her death. He turned to leave, to wash the stink of the operation from his skin and find a cigarette, to think of what he was going to tell the board of directors that time, to both explain away the disastrous results and somehow secure another month of operating cost—

“Doctor!” the nurse called. Her thin voice a near-shriek. “Doctor!”

He turned back, half expecting to have to console the distraught young woman. Under the harsh glow of the theater lamp, he saw her with one hand on the gas engine, fingers flexed in mid-palpation, searching for leaks as he had asked. The other hand, gloved in latex and glowing with a sepulchral white, formed an outstretched finger that trembled and pointed at the patient’s corpse. For a moment he saw nothing but another surgical assistant who was unprepared for the work they were doing in the Basement, and then he noticed that the patient’s abdomen swelled, rolled, and flattened out again. He could not believe what he was seeing. Forgetting all hygiene protocols, he rushed to the side of the operating slab and laid his bare hands on the slick belly. A heartbeat later he felt the mass under his naked palms shift. Something kicked.

“Nurse,” he growled, rolling the ‘ur’ long, low, and with grave authority, “if you value your future career with us, you’ll give me a fucking scalpel right the fuck now.”

2015.03.09 – 2023.10.02

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