Benton walked through the hallways of the prison, half a step behind Officer Gurley. Despite the air conditioning, his palms were sweating. He’d been inside the place many times before, but never like this.
“You got your knives on you?” Gurley whispered over his shoulder.
“Yeah,” said Benton. “All my utensils, actually.” He patted a large nylon bag that was slung over his shoulder.
“Good.” Gurley shot him a grin. “We wouldn’t want to keep our dinner guest waiting.”
Together they passed a checkpoint and entered the most secure part of the prison. Death row. Their steps echoed down the hall like rocks tossed down a dry well. A bottomless sound.
“Here he is,” Gurley said at last, stopping in front of the final cell, isolated from the rest of death row by a massive steel door and two armed soldiers. “You ready? This ain’t gonna be one of your regular assignments.”
Benton took as deep of a breath as he could. “Ready.”
Gurley nodded then motioned to the soldiers. They unlocked the door, swung it open.
Inside, strapped to a cot like some sentient piece of meat on a spit, was the alien.
“Wake up, fuckface,” Gurley yelled at the creature. “Chef’s here. Time for your last meal.”
He’d seen aliens on the news plenty of times. Once he’d even witnessed one in the flesh, from a distance, during the Battle of Omaha. Close up, though, Benton could barely make sense of the thing; it had a head, sort of–a pulpy bulb that protruded from its torso like the mummified skull of a turtle. Its limbs were tangled and many, a writhing mass of between four and six appendages that resembled bruised eggplant and appeared able to operate as either leg or arm.
But Benton could only stare at its mouth. Somewhere between a beak and a sphincter, it scissored the stale air of the cell and blew a spray of silvery, rancid saliva from the underside of its nightmarish head.
Then, as the mouth twisted into a lipless grimace, a sound came from it.
“I am… hungry,” the alien moaned to Benton in a glottal brogue, its tiny black eyes springing to life. “So hungry. Thank you.”
Gurley chuckled and turned to Benton. “Your stove has been set up over there. If you need anything else, I’ll be just outside the door.”
Benton grabbed Gurley’s arm as he turned to leave. “Wait, so this is for real? His last meal, his explicit request, is for…”
Gurley looked at him with amusement. “Yes, it’s real. It’s some ritual they have, apparently, for soldiers who are about to be executed by the enemy.
“He wants you to chop off some of his flesh, cook it in front of him, and let him eat it.”
Benton groped for a reply. “But shouldn’t there be, like, a scientist or military official overseeing this or something?”
Gurley’s face curled into a smile. “The government already has thousands of these fuckers in custody. And believe you me, they’re having a field day. But this one? He’s ours to play with.”
Benton had cooked everything imaginable for prisoners on death row. It had always been a job, nothing more. But the war had changed everything. As Benton unpacked his knives and supplies and warmed up the makeshift stove, he glanced at the restrained alien across the cell and tried to imagine where to even begin.
“Before you ask,” it said, “allow me to show you.” It waved a tip of its tubelike limb toward a smooth, wet spot on its abdomen. “Here. The tissue will be tender. And underneath are organs, mostly vestigial, not necessary for digestion. You are a preparer of food, correct? You must be at ease with the practice of butchery.”
“I am. But this is hardly…”
“Please. Don’t be afraid. I know I am about to die. I only wish to be granted the sanctity of a last meal, as any of my people would.”
Benton couldn’t say why, but all fear drained from his gut as he approached the cot, knife in hand. Behind him, a pan spritzed with olive oil began to sizzle on the stove. The alien lay prone, twitching its spiraled orifice and moaning as if in some sort of prayer.
The first cut was messy, loud, wrenching, violent, wet.
The others were easier.