“What is it now?” damn he’s annoying. All I want to do is finish my nap.
“I’m having a problem with him again. He won’t eat his gruel. Says it tastes like monkey poop.”
I want to fly out of bed and lock my hands around Jason’s skinny neck and squeeze until my fingers snap. Instead I take a deep breath and whip the covers out of my way. My pajamas are thin as rice paper, and I feel the cold air shriveling my nuts. Why did I get chosen to work in a stupid cave? What the hell did I ever do to anybody? I mean damn it anyway, I’ve sucked more ass than a gay mosquito, and still I get stuck babysitting a freaking head.
“I’m gonna drown that moron in his gruel.” I take long strides, setting Jason’s stumpy legs scurrying to keep up.
“You shouldn’t talk about the General like that. He’s a great man. Without him, the slugs would’ve got us for sure.”
Jason’s sniveling slithers into my ears, threatening to drive me to rash acts. I stop and pivot sharply. The little rat bounces off my chest and stumbles back. As he tries to catch his balance I crack him a good one on the mouth with the back of my hand. He clutches his already-swelling lips and cowers as I make to smite him again.
“Don’t tell me how to talk about anyone, understand? Everyone thinks it’s so goddamn funny that I’m the Head Nurse, don’t they? Even you, you whinny little turd. I’ve caught you snickering behind my back! You can’t even feed the freakish thing, and you’re gonna tell me all about how great the General is? I’d rather the slugs have pulled me down into their stinking hell with the rest of the Southsiders. It would have been better than playing caterer to an ungrateful, gangrenous head. Now get yourself together, shut up, and let’s get this over with so I can get back to sleep.”
The twerp quivers like a wet chihuahua as he stands up and smooths out his muddy smock. I really don’t like Jason. I never have. We proceed the rest of the way to LAB 7a in cold silence. I slide my level one ID card through the slot and the laser instantly decodes the information. The reinforced steel door before me swooshes open, and like always, I feel like I’m in a goddamn episode of Star Trek.
LAB 7a greets us with the usual potent stink of formaldehyde and rotting flesh. I just never get used to that smell. My stomach jerks and tries to liberate my lunch. My mouth waters and fills with pre-vomit bile, but I force the whole delicious mouthful back from whence it came. I spot what’s left of the General.
General Justin Cornhower Jr., decorated war veteran, began his career as a draftee in the Conflict in the Middle East and soon discovered he had a penchant for military service. He rose through the ranks in the subsequent and frequent wars at an uncanny pace, finally landing himself inside the upper echelon of the Pentagon. About a year or two later the slugs came. It seemed a much-anticipated meteor was going to strike the Earth after all, but don’t panic they said, it’s much smaller than originally thought. What they didn’t say however, was that it was infested with colonies of semi-solid parasites that bore an innate hankering for human blood. Within a week, half the population of the southern hemisphere had been turned to gelatin and sucked into the ground. They drank us like soda pops on a hot day. General Cornhower, while de-escalating a nuclear pissing contest between India and Pakistan, fell victim to a slug and remains the only survivor of a slug attack to date.
He was subjected to considerably less of the body-dissolving goo than most victims, and some folks account his miraculous and gruesome recovery to this fact. And there are those still clinging to a tattered faith in a benevolent omnipotence that feel he was chosen by the Grand Wazoo to lead the human race to victory. Some even whisper that he’s the second incarnation of Christ, come to crack a few sinful skulls. Whatever he is, all he’s got left is his own head, pumped full of brain-stimulating chemicals and shocked to life every ten minutes. Since his attack four years ago, he’s learned to tune into the primal hive-mind shared by the slugs. All the science geeks figure it has something to do with the residual parasites still feeding on his flesh. He’s a living detection system and the sole early warning system for enemy attacks. All that aside, he’s a stinky, hateful prick.
He’s thrashing around on his serving platter, wallowing in overturned NutraGruel and howling as a surge of life-sustaining electricity rips through him. What’s left of his thinning hair stands straight out from his scalp, like gray needles stabbed into a pin cushion. I suppress my laughter with some difficulty.
“General, sir,” I choke out the words, trying not to sound like I want to play basketball with his moldy melon. “Jason tells me you’re giving him problems with the gruel again. We’re not going to have another incident, are we?”
“NutraGruel tastes like monkey poop and you know it! Christ in Heaven! Don’t we have any chicken noodle soup around here?” His words issue from speakers wired into his vocal cords in a disturbing, mechanical voice—kind of like a trash can trying to talk through an amplifier. Watching his head rock back and forth with the motion of his jaw makes me queasy, so I avert my eyes.
“Sir, as I’ve stated countless times, NutraGruel is the only sustenance you can intake when you’re lacking things like a lower body and a stomach. What the hell are you going to do with chicken soup? Slurp it up and piss it out your neck?” As I speak, I feel my tenuous control over my anger dissolving further. “You need this paste, and you need to let it absorb under your tongue. Like it or not. And if you’re not going to eat it on your own, I’m going to stuff you like a Thanksgiving turkey full of the nasty stuff.” That voice I try to ignore in the back of my head hisses at me that I’ve gone too far, that after all, he is a General. Too late now, I guess.
Gen. Cornhower shoots me a look born both of hatred and shock. I feel him willing me to die, trying to kill me through an act of sheer mentation.
I snort and force a grin.
“So how ‘bout it? Are you going to eat your dinner or choke on it?”
Silence. We stare at each other for what seems like an hour, locked in a kind of old west showdown. High Noon, just me and the head. Finally, I break and scoop up a double portion of monkey poop in my right hand and advance on the General in a semi-crouch. I see the strategic fires leap up behind his eyes, plotting, conniving. Damn, this isn’t going to be easy.
“Touch me and I’ll bite your heathen fingers off, so help me Jesus,” he barks, snapping his teeth together to emphasize his threat. That’s when I bolt forward and try to snatch him off his tray with my other hand. Why is he grinning?
Ah, no, the shocks! How could I forget about that? Just as I grab a handful of gruel-greased hair, electricity rips through the both of us. I swear I hear him laughing.
I can’t scream. All my muscles contract at once in a burning symphony of galvanism. My teeth feel ready to crack in the vice of my jaw. I want dearly to let go of the General and punt him like a football, but my hands only clench tighter. The electricity ceases, and I collapse, hair smoking and nerves aflame. My last thought before I fade out is this: It’s not quite as funny from this end.
I open my eyes to behold Jason’s weasel-like mug grinning down at me. My body is blessedly numb from a morphine drip.
“I guess I’ll be spending time in the brig, eh?” I grunt more than speak.
“No, the General said you were helping him eat when the LifePulse fired out of sequence,” he says and his thin grin wriggles back into place.
Well I’ll be dipped. I thought the old stump would’ve ratted me out and asked that I be drawn and quartered.
It’s then I realize the General is a great man. Now the two of us get along fairly well. We have an unspoken understanding and mutual respect. I keep all that to myself, though, at least around Jason.