"They're collecting human brain-tapes," Sta-Hi said as his father parked the car. "And sometimes they take apart the person's body, too, to seed their organ tanks. They've got a couple hundred brains on tap now. And at least three of those people have been replaced by robot doubles. There's Cobb, and one of the Little Kidders, and a stewardess. And there's still that robot who looks like me. Your surrogate son."
Mooney turned off the ignition and stared out across the shopping-center's empty parking lot. An unpleasant thought struck him.
"How do I know you're real now, Stanny? How do I know you're not another machine like the one that had me fooled all week?"
The answering laugh was soft and bitter. "You don't. I don't. Maybe the diggers switched me over while I was sleeping." Sta-Hi savored the worry on his father's face. My son the cyborg. Then he relented.
"You don't have to worry, Dad. The diggers wouldn't really do that. It's just the big boppers that are into it. The diggers only work there, making the tunnels. They're on our side, really. They've started a full-scale revolution on the Moon. Who knows, in a month there may be no big boppers left at all."
A dog ran across the parking lot. keeping an eye on their car. They could hear loud rock music from two blocks away. The pheezers were having some kind of party at the Gray Area bar tonight. In the distance the surf beat, and a cooling night breeze flickered in and out of the car windows.
"Call me Sta-Hi, Dad. Which reminds me. You holding?"
Mooney rummaged in his glove compartment. There should be a pack of reefer in there somewhere... he'd confiscated it from one of his men who'd been smoking on duty... there it was.
"Here, Sta-Hi. Make yourself at home."
Sta-Hi pulled a face at the crumpled pack of cheap roach-weed, but lit up nonetheless. His first hit of anything since back at the Disky Hilton with that Misty girl. It had been a rough week hiding out in the pink-houses and then getting smuggled back to earth as a shipment of spare innards. Rough. He smoked down the first jay and lit another. The music outside focused into note-for-note clarity.
"I bet old Anderson's at that party," Mooney said, rolling up his window. Damned if he was going to sit here while his son smoked a whole pack of dope. "Let's go check out his house, Sta-Hi."
"O.K." The dope was hitting Sta-Hi hard... he'd lost his tolerance. His legs were twitching and his teeth were chattering. A dark stain of death-fear spread across his mind. Carefully, he put the pack of reefers in his pocket. Must be good stuff after all.
Father and son walked across the parking lot, behind the stores and onto the beach. The moon, past full, angled its silvery light down onto the water. Crabs scuttled across their path and nipped into hidey-holes. It had been a long time since the two of them had walked together. Mooney had to hold himself back from putting an arm across his son's shoulders.
"I'm glad you're back," he said finally. "That robot copy of you ... it always said yes. It was nice, but it wasn't you."
Sta-Hi flashed a quick smile, then patted his father on the back. "Thanks. I'm glad you're glad."
"Why..." Mooney's voice cracked and he started again. "Why can't you settle down now, Stanny? I could help you find a job. Don't you want to get married and ..."
"And end up like you and Ma? No thanks." Too harsh. He tried again. "Sure I'd like to have a job, to do something important. But I don't know anything. I can't even learn how to play the guitar good. I'm only ..." Sta-Hi spread his hands and laughed helplessly, "I'm only good at waving ... at being cool. It's the only thing I've learned how to do in twenty-four years. What else can I do?"
"You ..." Mooney fell silent, thinking. "Maybe you could make something out of this adventure you've had. Write a story or something. Hell, Stanny, you're meant to be a creative person. I don't want to see you end up wearing a badge like me. I could have been an illustrator, but I never made my move. You have to take that first step. No one can do it for you."
"I know that, too. But whenever I start something it's like I'm ... a nobody who doesn't know anything. Mr. Nobody from Nowhere. And I can't process that. If I'm not going to win out anyway, I'd rather just..."
"You've got a good brain," Mooney told his son for what must have been the thousandth time. "You tested 92nd percentile on the MAGs and then you ..."
"Yeah, yeah," Sta-Hi said, suddenly impatient. "Let's talk about something else. Like what are we going to do at Cobb's house anyway?" They had walked a couple of kilometers. The cottages couldn't be much further.
"You're sure they built robots to look like you and like Anderson?" Mooney asked.
"Right. But I don't know if the robots still look like us or not. They use this stuff called flicker-cladding for the skin, and it's full of little wires so if you pass different currents through it, the stuff looks different."
"But you figure Anderson's in one of these robots now?"
"Come shot! For sure. I saw a nursie taking him apart. It..." Sta-Hi broke off, laughing hard. Suddenly, with a reefer in him, the image of Cobb lying down in that giant toothed vagina ... it was too funny for words. It was so good to be stoned again.
"But why lure you and him all the way up to the Moon just to tape your brain-patterns?"
"I don't know. Maybe they respect him too much to just kidnap him and eat his brain like anyone else. Or maybe they don't have any really good brain-dissecting machinery down here. And me ... they just wanted to get me out of sight any way that ..."
"Ssshhhh. We're there."
Thirty meters to their right was Cobb Anderson's cottage, silhouetted against the moon-bright sky. The light was bright enough to show the Mooney's up clearly, should anyone... anything ... be looking. They doubled back to where a stand of palms reached down to near the water's edge and crept up to the cottages, staying in shadow.
The cottages were dark and deserted. It seemed like all the pheezers were out partying this Friday night. Mooney and Sta-Hi sidled along the cottage walls until they came to Cobb's. Mooney held them there, listening for a long two minutes. There was only the regular crash and hiss of the sea.
Sta-Hi followed his father in through the screen door and onto the porch. So this was where old Cobb had lived. Looked pleasant enough. Sta-Hi looked forward to being a pheezer himself someday... which only left about forty more years to waste.
Mooney put on a pair of goggles and flicked on his infra-red snooper light. He'd forgotten to bring it last Friday. He looked the room over. Lipsticked cigarette butts, baby oil, a wet bikini... signs of female occupancy.
That old white-haired babe was still living here. All week she'd been here with, Mooney now realized, Cobb's robot double. The two of them had been living here together waiting, though she didn't know it, for Cobb's mind to show up. Had it?
Briefly Mooney wondered if the robots could fuck. He could use a bionic cock himself, to keep Bea happy. If that whore hadn't always been sneaking out to the sex-clubs, Stanny never would have...
"What the fuck are you doing?" Sta-Hi demanded loudly. "Talking to yourself? I can't see a damn thing."
"Hussshhhhh. Put these on. I forgot." Mooney handed Sta-Hi the second pair of infra-light goggles.
The room cleared up for Sta-Hi then. The light was so red it looked blue. "Let's try the bedroom," he suggested.
Mooney led the way again. When he pushed open the bedroom door and shone his snooper light in, he had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming. Stanny was lying there, his features blurred and melted, the nose flopped over to one side and sagging down the check, the folded hands puddled like mittens.
Sta-Hi let out a low hissing noise and stepped forward, leaning over the inert robot on Cobb's bed. "Here's your perfect son, Dad. Be the first one on your block to see your boy come home in a box. The big boppers must have found out I was back. One of us had to go-"
"But what's happened to it?" Mooney asked, approaching hesitantly. "It looks half-melted."
"It's a robot-remote. The central processor must have turned it off. There's a circuit in there for holding the flicker-cladding in shape, but ..."
There was the sudden crunch of gravel, so close it seemed to be in the room with them. An engine was running, and a heavy door slammed. People were coming!
There was no time to run out through the house. Feet were already pounding up the front steps. Mooney grabbed his son and pulled him into Anderson's closet. There was no time to say anything to each other.
"Mr. Fwostee thaid he'th in the bedwoom, Buhdoo."
"Hey, Rainbow! Git yore skanky ass in here and help me lug this sucker out!"
"Ah don't see wha you big strong meyun cain't do it alone."
"I thtarted a hewnia yethterday witting thomething."
"Liftin whut, Hat-N-Haf, yore pecker?"
The three voices shared a moment of laughter at this sally.
"The Little Kidders," Sta-Hi breathed into his father's ear. Mooney elbowed him sharply for silence. A coat-hanger rattled, oh shit, but the voices were still out in the living-room.
"This's a naahce pad, ain't it, Berdoo?"
"Y'all want one lank it, Rainbow honey? Stick with me an yore gonna be fartin through silk."
"Thass sweet, Berdoo."
"You two wovebihds bwing the body out, and I'll watch the twuck." Haf-N-Hafs heavy footsteps went back down the steps. The truck door slammed again.
Berdoo and Rainbow walked into the bedroom.
"Whah... isn't he a saaht? He looks lahk a devilfish!"
"Don't you worry yore purty haid. He'll taahten up onct Mr. Frostee reprograms him."
"But wait, hunneh. Don't he remaahnd yew of the man who's brain we almost ate that taam? Last week over to Kristleen's?"
"This ain't a man, Rainbow. This here's a switched-off robot. I don't know what the hail man you're talking about, girl."
"Ooooh nevvah mahnd. Ah'll git his laigs an you take tother eyund."
"Okey-doke. Watch yer step, the sucker's heavy."
Grunting a little, Berdoo and Rainbow wrestled the body out of Cobb's house and down the steps. The whole time, the truck's engine ran.
Cautiously, Mooney stuck his head out the closet door. The bedroom had a window on either side, and through one window he could make out the dark mass of an ice-cream truck. There was a big plastic cone on top of the cab.
Two dim figures stopped at the side of the truck and laid something heavy on the ground. A third man climbed down out of the cab, and opened a door in the side.
One of them turned on a light then, light which picked out every object in the bedroom. Terrified, Mooney threw himself back into the closet. He made Sta-Hi stay in there with him until they heard the truck drive off.