The prick of a needle woke Sta-Hi up. Muddy dreams... just brown mud all night long. He tried to rub his eyes. His hands wouldn't move. Oh, no, not a paralysis dream again. But something had pricked him?
He opened his eyes. His body seemed to have disappeared. He was just a head resting on a round red table. People looking at him. Greasers. And the chick he'd been with last...
"Are you awake?" she said with brittle sweetness. She had a black eye.
Sta-Hi didn't answer right away. He had gone home with that chick, yeah. She had a cottage down the beach. And then they'd gotten drunk together on synthetic bourbon whiskey. He'd gotten drunk anyway, and must have blacked-out. Last thing he remembered was breaking something... her hollowcaster. Crunching the silicon chips underfoot and shouting. Shouting what?
"You'll feel better in a minute," the chick added in that same falsely bright tone. He heard her poodle whimpering from across the room. He had a memory of throwing it, arcing it along a flat, fuzzy parabolic path. And now he remembered slugging the chick too.
One of the men at the table shifted in his chair. He wore mirror-shades and had short hair. He had his shirt off. It seemed like another hot day.
The man's foot scuffed Sta-Hi's shin. So Sta-Hi had a body after all. It was just that his body was tied up under the table and his head was sticking out through a hole in the table-top. The table was split and had hinges on one side, and a hook-and-eye on the other.
"Stocks and bonds," Sta-Hi said finally. There was a nasty-looking implement lying on the table. It plugged into the wall. He attempted a smile, "What's the story? You mad about the ... the hollowcaster? I'll give you mine." He hoped the dog wasn't hurt bad. At least it was well enough to be whimpering.
No one but the chick wanted to meet his eyes. It was like they were ashamed of what they were going to do to him. The stuff they'd shot him up with was taking hold. As his brain speeded up, the scene around him seemed to slow down. The man with no shirt stood up with dream-like slowness and walked across the room. He had words tattooed on his back. Some kind of stupid rap about hell. It was too hard to read. The man had gained so much weight since getting tattooed that the words were all pulled down on both sides.
"What do you want?" Sta-Hi said again. "What are you going to do to me?" Counting the chick there were five of them. Three men and two women. The other woman had stringy red hair dyed green. The chick he'd picked up was the only one who looked at all middle-class. Date bait.
"Y'all want some killah-weed?" One of the men drawled. He had a pimp mustache and a pockmarked face. He wore a chromed tire-chain around his neck with his name in big letters. BERDOO. Also hanging from the chain was a little mesh pouch full of hand-rolled cigarettes.
"Not me," Sta-Hi said. "I'm high on life." No one laughed.
The big man with no shirt came back across the room. He held five cheap steel spoons. "We really gonna do it, Phil?" the girl with green hair asked him. "We really gonna do it?"
Berdoo passed a krystal-joint to his neighbor, a bald man with half his teeth missing. Exactly half the teeth gone, so that one side of the face was flaccid and caved in, while the other was still fresh and beefy. He took a long hit and picked up the machine that was lying on the table.
"Take the lid off, Haf'N'Haf," the chick with the black eye urged. "Open the bastard up."
"We really gonna do it!" the green-haired girl exclaimed, and giggled shrilly. "I ain't never ate no live brain before!"
"It's a stuzzy high, Rainbow," Phil told her. With the fat and the short hair he looked stupid, but his way of speaking was precise and confident. He seemed to be the leader. "This ought to be a good brain, too. Full of chemicals, I imagine."
Haf'N'Haf seemed to be having some trouble starting the little cutting machine up. It was a variable heat-blade. They were going to cut off the top of Sta-Hi's skull and eat his brain with those cheap steel spoons. He would be able to watch them ... at first.
Someone started screaming. Someone tried to stand up, but he was tied too tightly. The variable blade was on now, set at one centimeter. The thickness of the skull.
Sta-Hi threw his head back and forth wildly as Haf'N'Haf leaned towards him. There was no way to read the ruined face's expression.
"Hold still, damn you!" the chick with the black eye shouted. "It's no good if we have to knock you out!"
Sta-Hi didn't really hear her. His mind had temporarily ... snapped. He just kept screaming and thrashing his head around. The sound of his shrill voice was like a lattice around him. He tried to weave the lattice thicker.
The little pimp with the tire-chain went and got a towel from the bathroom. He wedged it around Sta-Hi's neck and under his chin to keep the head steady. Sta-Hi screamed louder, higher.
"Stuff his mayouth," the green-haired girl cried. "He's yellin and all."
"No," Phil said. "The noise is like... part of the trip. Wave with it, baby. The Chinese used to do this to monkeys. It's so wiggly when you spoon out the speech-centers and the guy's tongue stops moving. Just all at-' He stopped and the flesh of his face moved in a smile.
Haf'N'Haf leaned forward again. There was a slight smell of singed flesh as the heat-blade dug in over Sta-Hi's right eyebrow. Attracted by the food smell, the little poodle came stiffly trotting across the room. It tried to hop over the heat-blade's electric cord, but didn't quite make it. The plug popped out of the wall.
Haf'N'Haf uttered a muffled, lisping exclamation.
"He says git the dog outta here," Berdoo interpreted. "He don't think hit's sanitary with no dawg in here."
Sullenly, the chick with the black eye got up to get the dog. The sudden pain over his eyebrow had brought Sta-Hi back to rationality. Somewhere in there he had stopped screaming. If there were any neighbors they would have heard him by now.
He thought hard. The heat-blade would cauterize the wound as it went. That meant he wouldn't be bleeding when they took the top of his skull off. So what? So the fuck what?
Another wave of wild panic swept over him. He strained upward so hard that the table shifted half a meter. The edge of the hole in the table began cutting into the side of his neck. He couldn't breathe! He saw spots and the room darkened...
"He's choking!" Phil cried. He jumped to his feet and pushed the table back across the uneven floor. The table screeched and vibrated.
Sta-Hi threw himself upward again, before Haf'N'Haf could get the heat-blade restarted. Anything for time, no matter how pointless. But the vibrating of the table had knocked open the little hook-and-eye latch. The two halves of the table yawned open, and Sta-Hi fell over onto the floor.
His feet were tied together and his hands were tied behind his back. He had time to notice that the people at the table were wearing brightly colored sneakers with alphabets around the edges. The Little Kidders. He'd always thought the newscasters had made them up.
Someone was hammering at the door, harder and harder. Five pairs of kids' sneakers scampered out of the room. Sta-Hi heard a window open, and then the door splintered. More feet. Shiny black lace-up shoes. Cop shoes.