The curious thing about the future, given its ever-shifting uncertainty, is how little the fundamental things change.
The course of human evolution, out from the dying ball of rock that their first planet became and up into the stars, was as complex and convoluted as it was when the first tiny bacterium began to divide. Interstellar travel took humanity further than it had ever thought it would go, taking generations to fall into even the nearest reaches of space, and by the time they reached solar systems resembling their own, they had all but lost their connection to the blue-green ball no longer hanging untouched amidst seven sisters. By the time they made contact with the great, seething mass of life beyond their borders and began to colonise, humanity had already adapted, as it always did, to the stringent demands of adversity. Humans grew and spread, separating out from their original groupings of nationality and culture and creed – because what did those divisions matter when there were hundreds of other species who had long since disregarded them – breeding and interbreeding, settling wherever they could find a niche in the vastness of civilised space.
“The Human race did not take without giving. Whether we wanted what it brought remains a subject of some debate.”
The Dreaming Ones, 'Our Waking Years'
“It is the most important thing of all," Mr Hutchinson often told his son, "that you remember; our race is a pure one. There must be no dissolution of the bloodline. Reason, logic and duty; they are the foundations of our society."
He believed his father implicitly, well-raised as he was, and when he met a suitable girl he proposed to her, and married her; there was no doubt at all in the minds of his family that they would go on to have beautiful children, perhaps an estate somewhere on New Duluth. He behaved just as they thought he ought to, by and large – nothing spectacular, but at least he conformed – right up until the point where, somewhere in the second year of his not-very-happy marriage, he announced out of the blue and entirely unforeseen by even the best mind-readers that he intended to leave.
"Oh yes, dear? To that nice little farm the Browns have up for sale over on Paradise Five?"
"No," said Kenneth Hutchinson decidedly, and there was something already a little harder, a little more determined about the set of his jaw, "to the Los Angeles Spaceport."
"Aw, Cap'n, is this really necessary?"
Captain Harold Dobey turned to fix his ranger with a gimlet stare. "Listen to me," he said. "There is no room for a loose cannon within this department, Starsky. You think G'tain is going to testify after you broke his arm? It's keep you out of sight or kick you to the drop, and babysitting should keep you out of trouble.”
Sergeant David Starsky, detective-class ranger, shifted under his superior's scrutiny. “Scumbag had it comin',” he muttered, darkly. “Didn't smell right, I told Mistan-”
“I don't want to hear it,” the cyborg snapped, setting off again; Starsky jogged to catch up. “Vice wanted your nuts for breaking that case, as if a gelding would cool that temper. I had to pull in a lot of favours to get you this assignment.”
"But Cap'n," Starsky said, aware that his tone was verging on a whine. "A rookie?"
"Hardly." Dobey paused at the main entrace to the L.A.P.R. habitation block and narrowed both eyes; the mechanics in the left whirred ominously. "This isn't a rookie, Starsky, I've told you that. Took the exams for ranger in a VIGE chamber on his home planet. And that's Minnesota, ranger."
"Minnesota? Ain't that one of the Western Arm homeplanets?" Starsky dodged sideways as a group of officers - all fellow mongrels, for there were few officers here on Los Angeles who didn't have some kind of human ancestry - came hurrying past on their way to the department, a few of them nodding in friendly fashion; he flicked his tail at them in greeting. "What, y'goin' to tell me he's a purebreed human next?" He grinned at a childhood memory. "Ma used t'tell me stories about them, used to tell me they'd -"
"For heaven's sake, Starsky, what the hell d'you think he is, living on Minnesota all his life? A Drassetti?" Starsky almost choked on his caffeine shot, and Dobey rolled his mechanical eye in an expressive gesture, pulling him to the side. "Of course he's a purebreed. Psychic powers, the works. That a problem?"
Still coughing, Starsky waved a hand at him. "Talk about throwing a guy for a loop," he said hoarsely.
"If you knew anything about current affairs," Dobey said unkindly, "you'd have been thinking about mental shields from the get-go, rather than kid's tales your Ma told you. Can you handle it, Starsky?"
The mongrel bristled, the back of his neck tingling as his hackles began to rise. "Who d'you think you're talking to, Manetti? If anyone on this station can handle it-"
Dobey grinned unexpectedly, halting Starsky's indignation. "That's more like it. Get a bit of that fire in his guts and this purebreed might make it; I need beings who care about the work they do. And if he can get you to think before you start leapin' on things twice your size, then that's all for the good."
Too surprised by the sudden change of mood even to backchat, Starsky simply stared as the captain schooled fierce features to their customary gruff expression and strode importantly into the residential tower's main reception; a tall humanoid figure in a dark grey jumpsuit turned as they approached. "Ranger Ken Hutchinson, meet your new partner; David Starsky."
The first thing Starsky noticed about his new partner wasn't the blond hair, the blue eyes or even the unmarked pure-human skin; he kept them to savour another time, but for now, he was pretty interested in the way Hutchinson just stood there amongst his luggage, ever so slightly off-balance, looking like he'd done the galaxy a wrong and was determined to right it.
He didn't miss the start of surprise when Dobey barked his name, either, and slunk forward - he made damn sure it was as much of a slink as possible - to hold out his hand. "Starsky," he said, with a smile that he knew showed all his teeth.
Hutchinson's eyes travelled over him in slow fascination, which was kind of nice; they lingered on the tail. Or perhaps on his ass; Starsky was often unsure which, but took it as a compliment, either way. "Hu - Hutchinson," the purebreed said, a bit faint, and grasped Starsky's hand. A degree or so cooler, the skin a little thinner. Bones a little weaker. "You're - from -"
"Brooklyn, Veirral," Starsky said, secretly amused and not too bothered about hiding it. He lashed his tail, deliberately, and Hutchinson followed the movement as if hypnotised. Behind them, Starsky picked up the faint sound of Dobey's false eye rolling in its socket. "You not from around here, then, Blondie?"
He shouldn't stare. He'd seen far weirder things (People, he reminded himself, rolling his parents' disdain for other species off his tongue, far weirder people) on the shuttle transport from Duluth, people of all different shapes and sizes, shades and hues. A slightly darker-skinned humanoid with a hairless, mouse-like tail shouldn't turn him into a gawping child.
Starsky didn't appear to mind in the least. In fact, judging by the delighted chirrup of his emotional current as they weaved their way through the corridors, he was both amused and flattered by the attention. That was a relief; everyone else Hutchinson had accidentally stared at thus far had battered his psychic defences with anger, the emotion that his people had sought, above all others, to suppress. He wasn't used to it, the raw, visceral kick of red fury, strong and animal and intoxicating. No wonder these people killed; how could they stand that fire burning inside their heads?
Luckily, before he became completely lost in his own thoughts (such a danger, here, to lose oneself, when at home it was almost expected of you), Starsky paused, hefted Hutchinson's case into a better grip and gestured to the nearest of the myriad, indistinguishable grey doors. "Your quarters," he said, turning with a mock-bow. "With the lock already keyed to your DNA; pretty quick work, huh? Took 'em three weeks to get my scanner set up. Go on, go on, get it open, huh? This thing ain't exactly feather-light."
"O-Of course," Hutchinson said, stumbling a tad over the still-unfamiliar act of verbalising his speech. He stepped forwards, trying to work out what Starsky meant by his words. They sounded annoyed, but the mongrel's mood hadn't altered a jot from curious amusement. "Sorry, you didn't have to-"
"Okay, first rule? Partners tease. Second rule? No apologisin', unless you step on my tail. Third rule? Open the damn door."
Hutchinson's lips twitched of their own accord. "You got it." Unaccountably pleased by Starsky's brusque manner, he breathed onto the DNA-scanner, waited for the telltale buzz of acceptance, then pushed the door open with a shoulder. The room was fairly nondescript, just big enough to hold a bunk (with sheets! Sheets rather than an atmospheric conditioner! He definitely wasn't at home any more), two chairs and a desk and a door that stood ajar to reveal a tiny sonic shower room. He stepped inside and dropped his two smaller cases to the floor as his new partner walked in. "Home sweet home, huh?" he said, and was gratified to hear Starsky laugh in response.
"Well, it's not the Ritz, but at least you're not sharin' showers," the mongrel grinned, hopping up onto the desk in a single, smooth movement. "Privileges of rank, Sergeant Hutchinson."
"Wonderful. What do I get if I go for Lieutenant, an extra square foot of floor space and a few throw pillows?"
Starsky's grin widened, and this time the amusement sank into Hutchinson's skin like a caress, knocking him back a pace with its suddenness. He threw up a swift wall, his knees buckling to dump him on the bunk, and Starsky was beside him in seconds, all concern and warm, cautiously stroking hands. "Shit, you okay there, Blondie? Jeez, should've known better than to drop shields on you so quick, you just seemed-"
"No, it's fine," he managed to get out, trying to bob on the surface of the concern that was now washing over him, swimming stronger with every breath. "It's- something I've got to...learn to cope with."
"Well, yeah, but not all at once. Hey, you want some water or something? There's a vendor down the hall, I could-"
Hutchinson drew in a deep breath, sitting up straighter and feeling the too-hot hands drop from his arms; Starsky was crouching next to him, blue eyes fixed on his face, and he risked a pat to the man's upper arm. "No harm done," he said, his voice now level, defences strong. "And now I'm definitely not worried about your reaction time under stress."
Starsky made a face that was all mock outrage. "Do I look like some backwater star-tripper to you?" he demanded, grinning. "Trust me, I'm as good as you're goin' to find around here." This was said as a stated fact, rather than a boast. "'less they haul in somethin' with some freaky teleportin' abilities."
"Yes," Hutchinson said, trying a very polite psychic nudge, but he'd never been the best at that kind of thing (never the best at anything), and Starsky's arm stayed in place around his shoulders.
"So," Starsky said, and stretched, his back arching like something feline. "You, uh, you out here all alone, then?"
Startled by the change in topic, Hutchinson blinked at him. "Uh, I - I didn't bring anyone with me," he said, confused, and wondered suddenly if this was some obscure kind of partner-gaining ritual. The handbooks hadn't said anything about it, but they hadn't said anything about people with tails, either. "But I, I guess I've got you?" he offered.
Starsky hesitated, and then grinned. "Yeah, you sure have. But I didn't think you'd want to take things that fast, didn't have you down as that type."
"You don't want to be -" Hutchinson paused. "Ah," he said, bemused, as the grin widened. "Yes. You, uh, you're talking about procreation. Is it possible for two males here?"
He meant it sincerely. Same-sex pairings were unheard-of on Minnesota, as they had no procreational value, but it was well known that mongrel physiology was completely different. Perhaps the notion was no more outlandish than cyborg police captains or beetle security guards?
Starsky, however, seemed thrown by the question. The grin slipped a little on his face, sliding into what looked something like caution. "Well, jeez, I wasn't thinkin' that far ahead," he said, though his jocular tone had grown a little forced. "You, uh... Yeah, it's possible for humans, if you don't mind growin' your kid in an incubation tank rather than a womb. 'Course, if one of you goes back to somethin' birdlike or reptilian, y'can have an ovipositor surgery, no problem." The mongrel kept his gaze averted through the explanation, only looking back at Hutchinson when he'd finished. "You, uh, were you plannin' on-"
"No," Hutchinson interrupted, hurriedly. "No, I, We...Um. I don't think it would be a good idea to pursue reproduction before I've even started work."
That caused Starsky to chuckle ('a shorter, quieter paroxysm denoting a less powerful state of amusement') and reach forwards to pat his arm. "Too right, partner. Gotta play the field till you earn your stripes. You had any training yet?"
Sensing that the conversation would last rather longer than he had been expecting, Hutchinson followed Starsky's example and shuffled backwards on the bed until he could brace his back against the wall, stretching out his legs before him - for some reason Starsky's gaze tracked the movement. He supposed they did make something of a contrast; Starsky's leaner limbs were clad in what looked to be denim-replicant (and surely no-one would let the genuine article get so ragged), incongruous alongside the moulded sleekness of his own jumpsuit. "I completed all of the Academy courses via media link," he said, in answer to the mongrel's question. "Advanced as far as I could through VIGE, then sent in the application for field experience and wound up here."
"VIGE, huh?" Starsky repeated, slowly. His shields faded a touch, no doubt due to the new direction of his concentration, and Hutchinson was surprised by the fierceness of his curiosity. "Y'know, virtual immersion ain't exactly the same as reality. It can get pretty ugly out in those skies, on those streets. How do you feel about gettin' your hands dirty?"
Hutchinson thought about Duluth, clean and pure beneath a perfect sky, the silent complacent certainty of home. "Sounds pretty good to me."
Starsky looked at him a second or so longer, head tilted in a way that reminded Hutchinson more of something animal than something human; he resisted the odd urge to tilt his head the same way, to see if maybe he could see what Starsky was seeing (did they even see colours the same, or was Starsky's world more alien than he realised?). "Yeah," he said eventually, and grinned. "Yeah, figured it probably would. Tell you what, you're goin' to stick out like - well, like a blond purebreed wanderin' around a seedy spaceport, parner."
"We're officers of the law," Hutchinson said, a little startled by this, and Starsky grinned.
"Hey, I ain't sayin' we're not." He unfolded himself from the bed in a single fluid movement, brushing up against Hutchinson's side as he did so; it was clearly not accidental, but nor did Starsky seem to mean anything by the unnecessary contact. "Come on, boy, need t'introduce you to my baby."
Hutchinson stared at him. "Baby?" Conversation with Starsky was turning out to be more confusing than he had anticipated.
Starsky blinked, and then laughed outright; he held out a hand, and Hutchinson found himself hauled swiftly to his feet. "My baby," Starsky confirmed, grinning. "My Interceptor-rated, candy-apple red baby."
The cruiser was indeed red. Blunt-nosed and surprisingly broad for a personal vehicle, it seemed to squat in its parking space with the same air of restless, barely-contained energy that Starsky himself gave off. There was a flashy white stripe bisecting the cruiser's entire length, sitting just above what looked like modified ion surge boosters, and the navigation fins sparkled with polish. Even the viewscreens shone, darkened as they were to hide the vehicle's interior. It was not what he had expected a ranger's cruiser to look like. It was – ostentatious.
Most surprising, however, was the distinct projection of surly dislike that hit Hutchinson as he clambered into the passenger seat. The Interceptor rating apparently included sentience as a necessity.
Perching a little nervously in his seat, Hutchinson listened to the dull throb of the engines as they powered up, watching his new companion tinker with the queer, bulbous controls. "So it's like riding a horse?" he asked, transfixed by the slow, almost reverent sweep of Starsky's fingers over the humming console. "You use your body to command it and its inferior intellect-"
Starsky interrupted him with a snort, slit-pupilled eyes rolling to meet his with a sort of exasperated amusement. "Why's it got to be 'command''? Don't go callin' my Torino inferior, she's smarter than I'll ever be! You think I could navigate at lightspeed? 'Sides, it ain't commandin', you have to ask real nice if you want to go anywhere."
“I'm not really -" Hutchinson started, but then remembered what he'd been trying to teach himself. "I mean, we, my people, we're not very used to asking."
Starsky stretched past him to reach some obscure control, his arm brushing against Hutchinson's chest; there was something alien but familiar about his smell, so close, and the warmth. "Figured that," he muttered. The engine noise shifted up a tone. "Now, baby, play nice, huh?"
Hutchinson stiffened, and then realised belatedly that Starsky was probably talking to the - car? Creature? He really ought to buy an info pack, he thought, maybe send one home to shock his parents, and smiled privately at the thought. Aliens and freaks, all right.
A jolt almost sent him out of his seat, a mind-wave of something very irritable; Starsky, seemingly unaffected, peered at him in vague puzzlement. "Hey, Hutchinson, y'okay?"
He was feeling more than a little unsteady on his feet by the time Starsky finally brought the Torino to a halt in the rangers' port; he tumbled from the speed-cruiser with a definite sense of being expelled from a vehicle that was glad to be rid of him. Starsky followed suit, popping up on the other side of the ship and springing up onto the blunt-nosed hood to clamber, cat-like, over to Hutchinson's side. "So, what d'ya think? She's somethin' else, right?"
"Something else indeed," Hutchinson agreed, carefully. Nausea squirmed in his stomach, so unfamiliar that he felt his face twitch with it, and concern smacked into him like a marauding Beserker.
"Man, you okay? You look a bit shaky there, you want to sit down?"
Hands on his arms again, gripping his elbows tight, but this time the touch was a welcome distraction from his rebellious organs. "I, er, th-think," he stammered, trying to deflect and vocalise at the same time. I sure hope this becomes easier with practice. "Um. Water, I think? I've never – er."
Starsky butted their foreheads together, so swiftly and gently that Hutchinson only really felt the aftershock of the touch, and continued to peer at him. "Never been upside down at sound-speed? C'mon, purebreed, let's get you settled in normal gravity again."
With that, he led the way out of the parking lot, apparently ignorant of the odd looks that Hutchinson attracted, and down yet another nondescript hallway to a door that had a large, garish poster covering it. To Hutchinson's surprise, the door slid open at a tap, the DNA scanner dark and inactive. Starsky nodded him to the chair, which he sank gratefully into, and disappeared out of the room again with a large red mug.
Hutchinson glanced around the quarters, intrigued. 'Lived-in' was the most appropriate description; though tidy, the cramped space was festooned with all sorts of accoutrements, from non-holographic images to curious wood-like knick knacks. There was a complex arrangement of netting and string dangling from the ceiling just above head height, the purpose of which he couldn't begin to fathom, and the bed was unmade. He wondered if the clutter of belongings was ordered in some way to direct the mongrel's mental energies.
As he filed away all of the details for consideration, nausea receding with every breath, he became aware of an odd scratching sound coming from the desk area. It sounded like the nest-building that his mother's decorative songbirds got up to in the early hours, a rustle of down and organic fibres that denoted the presence of a creature. Starsky didn't really seem the sort to possess so finicky and unsociable a pet...
The officer in question reappeared at that moment, concern still radiating off him in waves. "Get this down," he advised, passing over the mug and choosing to perch on the arm of Hutchinson's chair rather than pull over one for himself. Hutchinson sipped at the contents; pure reconstituted water (he'd heard that rain fell on the spaceport from time to time, but that it was more likely to corrode metal than provide drinking water). "She ain't normally so frisky," Starsky added a little guiltily.
"I'm sure we'll get along just fine," Hutchinson answered as smoothly as he was able.
"Guess I never thought, what with the - you know." Starsky made a peculiar gesture with fingers tapping at his head. "Brain stuff. Must be a bit tricky sometimes, huh?"
"Sometimes," Hutchinson said, and for some reason (probably that he was still shaken from being hurtled through the air in a tin can at the speed of sound) added, "I'm accustomed to the - to, uh, to other people - thinking. It's the different ways, make it difficult to -" and then he bit himself off before he could say anything more embarrassing.
Starsky, however, was nodding, as if Hutchinson hadn't just confessed to being not entirely in control of his own mind. "Sure," he said easily. "Y'got a lot to get used to," and just like that, a wave of muted acceptance, just enough that his muscles relaxed.
The odd noise was still coming from the desk. To distract them both, Hutchinson nodded towards it. "Uh, Starsky? You -"
"Oh, that?" Starsky grinned, his eyes crinkling in the corners. "That's Louise." He bounced to his feet and eased the drawer open carefully. "See this, Hutch? Pure Tinnexan smooth-coated flying squirrel."
'Hutch'? He wasn't sure he liked having a new name on top of everything else. Obediently standing, he peered over his new partner's shoulder from a safe distance away. Something small and dark-furred peered back at him through tiny, beady eyes, oddly shaped wings half-furled. To Hutchinson, accustomed to only a small selection of rodents, it looked suspiciously like someone's failed genetic experiment. "Uh, it's - nice," he said lamely. "Is it - very good to eat?"
That earned him a wave of outrage, one that in his shaken state sent him back a step; Starsky's hands closed around the creature, hoisting it up to his chest where it commenced a displeased display of squeaking and wriggling. "She's a pedigree flying squirrel, not an entrée," the mongrel protested, tail lashing. "Don't you have pets on Minnesota?"
Hutchinson stared. Pets were meant to provide decoration and entertainment, an immediate symbol of their owner's status. 'Louise' resembled the creatures that his father paid to have culled before they infected the livestock. "Erm, sorry?" he hazarded, not quite sure why Starsky was so upset. Perhaps it is...a companion? "I didn't mean to offend."
Blue eyes narrowed in what he recognised immediately as an 'aggravated glare', then the mongrel sighed, his grip on the animal slackening enough for it (her?) to scrabble up onto his shoulder, where it began to groom itself with an offended air. "S'okay, you weren't to know," Starsky said, though Hutchinson noticed that he stepped backwards to sit on the desk rather than rejoin the purebreed by the chair. "So, do you? Have pets, I mean?"
"Of course we have pets, just not -" Hutchinson swallowed his words. "They're, uh, I mean, not usually - like that." Louise paused in her grooming to fix him with another hard, beady stare. "I, my parents had a dog once."
"A dog?" Starsky's eyes widened, the slit pupils almost round. "A real dog?"
Hutchinson shrugged. He'd seen old Earth pictures of canines; Jupiter hadn't been very much like any of them. He'd followed in Mr Hutchinson's footsteps until the day he died, held there by a firm mind-control that had come as easily and as naturally as breathing, little more alive than the cleaning drones. "Sure," he said. Louise, apparently taking exception to the tone of his voice, squeaked and flapped her way clumsily to the top of Starsky's head; he could sense her curiosity, nothing more complex. "Did - did you buy it?"
"Louise? Best investment I ever made," Starsky said solemnly, reaching up to pet the small animal; it squeaked again and fluttered frantic wings, this time in Hutchinson's direction. He ducked, instinctively, and fought against the other instinct to use his mind to push it away; small clawed feet landed on his shoulder, wings beating hard against his ear, and he winced. "Hey, look! She likes you! Now you've decided she ain't dinner. Probably be followin' you home and nestin' in your underwear." He stood up and stretched, long and sleek and muscular, and any reply Hutch might have made got stuck in his throat. "What'd you eat back on that rock o'yours, huh? Mouse soup?"
Teasing. Hutchinson reached up to cautiously stroke Louise - soft, tiny settled mind, small concerns of hunger, warm, danger past - and tried a smile. "Sure did," he said.
"Knew it," Starsky said, shaking his head. "Goin' to have to feed you up, Hutch. Get somethin' in there 'sides mouse soup and other people's thoughts."
Ah. He’d been wondering how long it would take for the trepidation to show up – Starsky’s words were flippant, but they hinted at the same hostility he’d faced since departing Minnesota. There were no outward signs of it that he could see – he’d made months of detailed study of social interaction between other beings, and Starsky’s body language offered no clues as to his mood. As he’d said the words, however, the tide of Starsky’s thoughts had shifted, darkened with the oily slickness of suspicion, so clear that it could only be an unconscious impulse.
Hutchinson continued to pet Louise, momentarily distracted from his consternation by the animal’s content, then he looked over at Starsky to find himself being studied. “Look, Starsky-“ he began.
The mongrel interrupted him with a wave of his hands, bouncing forwards from the desk with a curious duck of his head, suddenly awkward. “Oh, sure, no problem, I’ll just- Sorry, she’s normally shy of strangers.” Starsky stepped close and reached out, warm fingers that tingled against Hutchinson’s neck and cheek, then Louise was ensconced in the mongrel’s grip and his fresh alien scent was sharp in Hutchinson’s nose.
“Don’t you go getting settled, now,” Starsky was saying in a coaxing tone, as he carried the creature back to the desk; Hutchinson felt a curious impulse to touch his vacated shoulder, as if to reaffirm the removal of the scratchy, tickly warmth. “Hutch ain’t your new scratchin’ post, little lady, even if you do have a thing for blonds.”
The moment broken, and with it that little ripple of darker feeling, Hutchinson felt his rehearsed, explanatory speech fading from the tip of his tongue (‘...not an adept mind-reader and will never enter your thoughts without your express permission, though if you cannot accept my word on that, I shall not be offended if you wish to be assigned a new partner…’). Instead, he watched Starsky climb up onto to the table and, with only a slight crouch of preparation, spring up into the mess of overhead netting with a flick of his tail, depositing the squirrel on a steady strand of string. Judging by the ease with which the action was performed, it was clearly a habitual exercise.
“I suppose the phrase ‘cat’s cradle’ would be an inappropriate reference to make?” he said, after a moment, causing Starsky to turn away from Louise and smirk down at him.
“That depends on whether you think I’m regressing to feline or human behaviour; we were all monkeys once, y’know. You tellin’ me you’ve never felt the urge to start climbing and see where you end up?”
Not when you grow up around branchless trees. Hutchinson leaned on the back of the chair, trying not to stare at the minute tremble of the muscles in Starsky’s forearms. “I’m not sure I could get as high as you, p-partner.”
Blue eyes were intent on him again, still fiercely curious. “Well, not right now you couldn’t, you look bushed. Guess it’s been a bit of a wild day for you, huh? Want to grab somethin’ to eat, or...?”
Abruptly aware that Starsky had probably had enough of shepherding a clueless purebreed, Hutchinson demurred. “I should, er, be getting to my- to my quarters. I, um, I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Eight o’clock sharp,” Starsky said. He shifting, dropping down to dangle momentarily by his hands,then land back on the floor. “Well, er, sharp-ish. Dobey wants us on patrols and observation, get you used to the city, so clockin’ in late ain’t exactly a problem. You okay to find your way back?”
“I remember the route. Er,” Hutchinson offered his hand, uncertainly. “Thank you for, er…”
The mongrel clasped his hand firmly, the skin around his eyes crinkling with amusement. “Hey, what are partners for? Go on and get some rest, I need you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for tomorrow.”
“...I may need to work on the tail.”
The walk back to his quarters was uneventful. Curious looks and hushed whispers followed him, as did a near-constant sense of interest and surprise, tinged with the citrus-sharpness of alarm, but he managed to avoid attracting too much attention. Apparently Starsky had been right; he stuck out, all right. A lifetime of being considered thoroughly unremarkable had not been adequate preparation for the experience. At least the spaceport was primarily populated with rangers who, by necessity, had been trained in mental shielding – his headache was on the way to becoming bearable.
As the door to his quarters hissed shut behind him, Hutchinson allowed himself the luxury of a deep, indulgent sigh. The dull gunmetal grey of the walls was reassuringly bland, in contrast to the garish palette of the spaceport’s colour scheme. Architecture had long recognised the need for artificial environments to reflect the variety of the natural outdoors, a philosophy that did not match up to the gentle pastoral honey tones of his home farm or, indeed, the quiet beige of university halls.
The purebreed sat on his bed, feeling the unfamiliar yield of the blankets. Meditation would be a good idea, he needed to process the tumultuous events of the day, he needed the methodical surety of unpacking and tidying his mind, but he was so tired…
His last thought, before sleep descended, was of the foreign touch of hot skin and the twisted look of a smiling mouth.
Starsky was up early.
He usually left it until at least seven, counting on the sun shining in the window - he preferred to sleep with the blinds open - to wake him. The first sun to rise at this time of the year, Ventrix One, was also the weakest, and so there was little of the pre-dawn light when he slapped off the alarm at six-thirty with a growl and blinked dopily into the gloom.
New partner. Right.
Getting dressed took very little time; he took a few minutes to scold Louise out of her nest in his favourite jacket, but was shrugging it onto his shoulders before a quarter past seven, and ducking out the door ten minutes after that. "Mornin'," he greeted his next door neighbour, a Ventran who worked in Atmospheric Pursuit, and she raised one spiked eyebrow.
"My, we're out the door early this morning, Starsky, aren't we?"
Starsky grinned at her. "Got a date for breakfast."
"Your new partner? I'm hearing rumours of tall, blond and gorgeous, or is that just me pickin' up echoes of your wishful thinking?" she asked, the corner of one of her mouths curling with amusement
“Got it in one, Kerry,” he said, his grin widening as her crest unfurled with interest. “So, if you'll excuse me?” He turned on his heel, not waiting for a response, and headed for the grav jump.
“Run along, little kitty!” Kerry called after him, teasing. “And bring him back here tonight, I want to see if he really is that blond!”
The walk to the purebreed's place wasn't long, even with the jump that took him up six levels; the quarters had been recently vacated, their previous occupant having made lieutenant a couple of weeks back, and they must have been assigned with Hutch's particular needs in mind. It was a quieter level than Starsky's, home to the older of the unmarried rangers, the mature rangers with slow lives and slower thoughts, and no families to drag them into their own residences beyond the central hub.
Starsky took some time to tug his jacket into place before knocking, placing his feet firmly on the ground and raising a mental shield with a moment's concentration; Hutch (Hutchinson, he reminded himself, but the diminutive persisted) wasn't the only one who had to adjust.
The door opened in a heartbeat, revealing the long, straight-backed form, clad in what looked like exactly the same greyish-blue jumpsuit as yesterday, the pale face set in an expression of polite blankness. “Good morning,” Hutch said, after a moment's pause. He sounded like an actor who'd forgotten a line, the words hurried and yet oddly mechanical. “Did you- ah. Did you s-sleep well?”
Better than you, by the look of things, the mongrel thought, wryly; the purebreed's brow was slightly furrowed, as if in concentration, and his eyes had the pinched look of someone who'd woken from a fitful rest in a completely alien environment. Just like the rookies in the 'Cade. Starsky smiled, reaching out to pat the purebreed's arm in greeting. “I always sleep well after a visit from a handsome stranger,” he said, figuring the joke might help Hutch relax a little. “Ready for your first day on the job?”
“I thi - yes,” Hutch replied, stumbling only a little over the reply as he stepped out of the door. “You said we'd be patrolling this morning? I take it that means we'll be going by cruiser?”
“Hey, slow down there, partner. Beings cannot function on enthusiasm alone,” Starsky said, watching Hutch as he turned to seal the lock with a quick breath on the scanner. “What do you fancy for breakfast, huh? I'm buyin'.”
"Breakfast?" Hutch turned back towards him, blue eyes wary. "I - I've already had a protein shake."
"One of those weird things outta packets?" Starsky wrinkled his nose. There were some beings who claimed that eating pure nutrients were better for you than the mish-mash of processed flavoured food that was available on a space port; certainly real organic food was far beyond his own price range, but he'd rather eat any amount of tasty but dubious reco-food than those packets of flavourless powder. "That won't keep you goin' two minutes. Tell you what, I know a guy who does these great pastries, says he uses real flour. What d'you reckon to a donut, huh?" Might cheer you up, he added silently.
Hutchinson bit his lip, and Starsky was reminded that his new partner had very likely caught the wave of disapproval. "If you like," the purebreed said cautiously, "and, uh, thank you for the invitation."
Starsky grinned at him. He couldn't think how he could ever have been worried about the sinister tales; Hutch seemed so much like a floundering water-dweller on dry land for the first time that he couldn't imagine many people's suspicions would survive past the first meeting. "It ain't a prom, Blondie," he drawled, and slung an arm around his companion's marginally taller shoulders in order to tow him away down the corridor. "Least I can do, feed you up."
"I would be glad of the chance to - to try to - blend in," Hutch said, matching his stride after only a slight hesitation; his shoulders were stiff. "I, I remember what you said last night about - sticking out and being - noticeable."
Had he said that? Starsky winced, and squeezed the broad shoulders. "Hey, don't worry 'bout it. You'll be like a native in no time," he said as soothingly as he was able, and to his pleased surprise Hutch relaxed marginally. "Just got to get you settled in, is all."
“Settled in,” Hutch said thoughtfully, testing the phrase. “I hope... That is, I aim to acclimatise as quickly as possible.”
Won't happen till that guard comes down. “No problem,” Starsky said, flicking his tailtip at a passing mongrel woman as she threw a few pheremones his way. “Hey, you like cheese?”
'Cheese' turned out to be a limp, rubbery substance melted between flaps of reconstituted wheat product. Hutchinson carefully dissected the item, intrigued by the way it resisted being sliced by the cheap cutlery, and covertly watched Starsky consume his with alarming speed and start on the round, sugared reco-pastry that he'd referred to as a 'real flour donut'.
“You, er, going to eat that blintz, or-”
Slightly proud that he was able to recognise the unspoken question, Hutchinson pushed the plate towards his partner. “I'm still feeling rather full,” he said, carefully.
Starsky grinned around his mouthful, reaching for the tall receptacle that held the gloopy brown substance that apparently passed for milkshakes on the spaceport. “S'okay,” he said, muffled around the food; he was perched on the back of the booth, his feet braced against the tabletop, and his tail was moving in slow undulations against the wall. “You guys have fresh food, huh? Reconstituted takes some getting used to.”
Either Starsky was peculiarly observant, or his deception skills required a great deal of work. Hutchinson nodded, hoping he hadn't caused any offence, and reached for his coffee. “My parents- Well, actually, everyone I knew grew their own grains and vegetables. We...my family ranched cattle.”
“No kidding? Real cows, real meat? Man, no wonder you ain't keen on the reco-cheese.”
Hutchinson took a sip of the coffee, and was pleasantly surprised; it was far too sweet, and had the unfamiliar zing of something he supposed was caffeine (at home, coffee had been decaffeinated as a matter of course), but it was warm and full-flavoured. "This - isn't so bad," he said hesitantly, and Starsky's face split into a wide grin.
"Really? Course, y'don't find it that good everywhere, but it ain't bad here. Hey, Jarvis!"
A bald head popped up from behind the counter. "Who is callin'?" it demanded in a thick accent. "I got work. You want complaint, aamelion, you fill out -"
"Nah, Jarvis, it ain't a complaint," Starsky said in mildly offended tones. "I ever complain yet? M'friend, here, he likes your coffee."
Friend? Hutchinson shot a surprised look up at Starsky's face before he could help himself; his research had indicated that friendship was formed after a longer period of mutual acquaintance. "He does, eh?" Jarvis was asking, wiping his violet-skinned hands on a rag. "I make best reco-coffee t'is side of the station."
"He ain't lyin'," Starsky said with a grin, and jumped down from his perch, landing soft-footed and already digging in his pocket for his credit chip. "Y'all finished, there, Hutch? No eatin' in the Torino, mind, she gets kinda twitchy. Come on, we got a beat to run."
Ah yes. The Torino. Hutchinson surreptitiously activated the anti-nausea mist he'd injected into the meds patch on his suit; the drugs tingled against neck, chilling his skin as they were absorbed. The speed-cruiser might not have taken to him, but that didn't mean he had to suffer the indignity of travelsickness.
“Hey, baby,” Starsky crooned, when they finally reached the parking lot; the Torino hummed in response, a sleepy tendril of affection winding out to brush against the mongrel, souring into negativity when it reached Hutchinson. “Gonna be a good girl today, huh?” Starsky continued as he wandered around to the driver's side, running a proprietary hand along one shiny panel, seemingly oblivious to the cruiser's projections.
Hutchinson tried to reciprocate the Torino's greeting with a warmer one of his own, but the vague sentience either ignored him or failed to understand; when the door slammed shut behind him, nearly trapping his hand, he was inclined to believe the former option.
“Watch the paintwork,” Starsky said, a little sharply. “Play nice with her, she'll play nice with you.”
“Uh, sorry, I-”
“Don't mention it. Right, first thing we've got to do is inventory, then I'm going to take you on a grand tour of the whole stinkin' cityscape. Ready for a true cultural experience, buddy?”
Hutchinson had known, before he arrived, that Los Angeles was large; it was in fact the largest of the Unified Systems Spaceports, big enough that it eclipsed the tiny uninhabited planet of Shebl, which orbited for the most part in its shadow. He had expected to find a maze of streets and levels, but not the amount of sheer disordered chaos that seemed to characterise every inch of the landscape travelling by outside the windows.
"And this is the City proper," Starsky was saying, manoeuvring the Torino up a traffic level, closer to the impossibly high towers that soared out of the middle of the spaceport, high enough that the first light of the second sun was already glinting off polished duranium while the streets far below were still in semi-gloom. "We don't get much disturbance here 'cos it's damn hard to mug an android, y'know, especially the newer models. Get lots of theft, but that's more of an issue for uniform, usually." He swung them left, across another line of traffic and onto a freeway; the Torino picked up speed instantly and buildings started to blur. "Y'go past here, you get to Nightside - never gets the sun, see?"
"S-sure," Hutchinson said, overwhelmed; they seemed to have gone through a dozen districts, each one as confusing as the last, each one with hundreds of alleyways, from the heights to the murky ground levels. "I - didn't realise - is this all our beat?"
Starsky smiled, waving another cruiser in front of him as he changed lanes; the freeway was quieter than the inner city routes, the lightspeed ban lifted, and there was a distinct feeling of glee rising from within the Torino's engine. “No, thank Founders,” he said, with feeling. “We'll be in the lower levels of Nightside and East Drop, verging into South Current and Little London if we're feelin' adventurous. That's our patch, but working homicide and vice takes you all over, so the sooner you catch up on geography the better. Patrolling's – I guess it's the way we read the skies and the streets to find our suspects. Can't investigate from a glass box, y'dig?”
Luckily, Hutchinson was saved from having to ask if it was important that he could dig by an enormous food rig which veered so suddenly into the Torino's path that Starsky hissed a startled curse and slammed the cruiser into an abrupt dive, speeding beneath the rig's ponderous underbelly, all pitted and blackened with neglect, rolling up alongside the cockpit to blare his horn violently at the huge blue driver.
“Watch it, reh'ek!” the mongrel yelled, waving a hand over his window to fade out the shimmerscreen that blocked him from the other driver's view. He grabbed for one of the controls on the dashboard, causing it to light up with the bright green of a communications link. “LAPR, we got your reg-plate on file, if you pull a stunt like that again-”
The rig driver curled his flipper in their direction, the sneer on his face marking the gesture vulgar or, at least, insulting, and Starsky snarled, tossing the comm link control back into place with unnecessary force. “Should never've let 'em get airborne, useless scum,” he growled, anger spiking off him in aggressive, glowing shards. “Back home, rigs like that stay on the ground where they damn well belong. Ain't enough airspace in the universe for 'em. Anyway, this is where Nightside starts.”
Hutchinson refrained from comment. He was having a little difficulty controlling his respiration; Starsky's fury was unexpected, completely at odds with his usual demeanour, and the sudden shift back to easygoing calm was as jarring as the full-blooded launch into anger. He'd heard of 'air-rage', studied it in advance of taking his cruiser tests, but he'd never imagined it could be so vehement.
“Hutch? You all right? Hey, that wasn't anything to worry about, the Torino could'a dodged that truck in her sleep.”
"I am - glad to hear it," he said cautiously, letting the shiver of received emotion fade away. Outside, the world plunged abruptly into semi-gloom again, the shadows of the City mottling the run-down stacks of buildings with curious patches of light; transparent floors on the towers, Hutchinson realised after a second of confusion, evidently designed either as an attempt to alleviate the shadow or to provide a more pleasant working environment. "Is - is there much crime in Nightside?"
Starsky flipped a control to signal left and pulled off the freeway, the pull of forward motion still noticeable even with the dampeners working to stabilise them when he decelerated. "Crime in Nightside?" the mongrel asked, a strong flicker of amusement reaching out. "Like there are Armetti at a corpse. Ain't the shinin' towers of civilisation down here, Hutch, it's just ordinary people tryin' to make a livin'; problem is that the sharks all want t'make a livin' off them."
“I see,” Hutchinson replied, studying the activity that bustled along the streets in every direction. Even here, far below the skyline, the walkways offered death to a careless pedestrian; the drop, whilst far less daunting, was still the most obvious danger. Not that one would think so, watching the Nightsiders jostle for space. At first glance, people had the same rundown look as the buildings; jagged-edged and rough, with hunched shoulders and suspicious eyes, but he could make out smiling faces amongst the scowls and closer inspection revealed that, whilst shabby, many of the beings were wearing clothes that couldn't be cleaner.
It was intriguing.
He was distracted from his observations by his partner, who let out a strange huff of breath and wrenched the Torino into an abrupt turn down a sidestreet. “Well, well, look what we got here,” Starsky said, as Hutchinson scrabbled for balance, the cruiser's stabilisers failing to catch up with the sudden movement. “If it isn't Fat Rolly...Time for an introduction, partner, come on!”
With that, Starsky brought the Torino to a halt, vaulting out of the door mere seconds later. Bemused, Hutchinson followed, stepping out into a close, cloying atmosphere, the City's clinging dust thicker here than it was higher up. His eyes stung with the irritants and he hastily wiped his hands over them, hurrying to catch up with his partner. The mongrel was looming over a short, squat man with oversized, rodent-like ears, cowering back against a wall. The creature was unbelievably corpulent, almost as wide as he was tall, and he was rubbing clawed paws together in a an agitated manner. Fear rolled off him in waves, almost stopping Hutchinson in his tracks, but with it came a distinct tang of calculation, panic bleeding through into a curious flit of dark, electric-quick thought patterns.
“-me on, Starsky, I ain't done nothin', why d'you gotta pick on me, huh?” the alien was whining, as Hutchinson approached. “It's persecution, what if I made a complaint huh, huh?”
Starsky was smirking. Amusement was not the foremost current in his mind, however; he was barely containing a roiling mass of disdain and disgust. “No chance, Rolly,” he said, his accent thicker than before. “Ain't a complaints form in the 'port that'll read your scrawl. Still on the first alphabet, aren't you?”
Rolly squirmed, his pudgy face gleaming with sweat, and his eyes flickered desperately from side to side. “That ain't funny, man, that ain't funny, I got my schoolin' same as anybody else. What business you got messin' with me, anyway, I ain't-”
“I know, I know, you ain't done nothin',” Starsky interrupted, putting an exaggerated emphasis on the words; sarcasm. “See, I got a problem with that, chubs. Not only do I know it's a stinkin' lie cause I busted you last week for fencing hot VIGE headsets, I also got my very own mind-reader to get a good look inside your filthy head. See him?” At this, Starsky jerked a thumb in Hutchinson's direction, never once shifting his gaze from the other mongrel. “That's my new partner. Minnesotan. You know what that means for you and all the other chute-stuff down here? Means you even think about rippin' people off, and we'll come down on you like an Elywian with a sore head.”
Starsky took a step back, folding his arms casually across his chest. “Be seein' you, Rolly,” he said, dismissively, and watched as the little mongrel scurried away. When he was gone, the ranger unfolded his arms with a laugh, shaking his head as he spun on his heels to face Hutchinson. “You're gonna be the talk of the town,” he said good-naturedly, all of the menace falling away from him like meteor fragments off a deflector shield. “How's it feel to be a celebrity, blue eyes?”
Hutchinson paused, measured the sudden good humour before he spoke. "Invigorating," he said, and Starsky laughed. "Are mind readers, ah - unusual?"
"Well, yeah, non-insane ones are." Starsky reached out to pat him on the shoulder. "And you're from the Western Arm; don't see many purebreeds walkin' these streets, Hutch."
It was still difficult thinking of his empathic sense as unusual; the startling incoherence of untrained minds was still strange against his own, confused jangles of thoughts from every which way. At home, every thought was properly guarded, the only ones made public those that needed to be. Alien beings seemed to have little to no concept of shielding; even Starsky, who was at least making an effort, was -
And there, Starsky had done it again, he realised, temporarily derailed from introspection. 'Hutch'. He wasn't sure if the shortening of his name was some kind of necessary preliminary to a closer relationship, or whether he was expected to shorten Starsky's own name in return. It seemed a faintly ridiculous process.
Starsky was already clambering back into the Torino. "We'll go west," he said as Hutchinson slid into the cruiser beside him, this time snatching his fingers hastily clear of the closing door. "Take in the gamin' strip," and they were off again, and Hutchinson was too preoccupied with processing all the new information - Starsky flung it at him in anecdotes, seemingly at random, a haphazard learning curve - to request clarification.
It was almost noon (and who would have thought that an extra three hours in the day could feel so long?) by the time Hutchinson felt certain of himself to ask. Much to his relief, Starsky seemed not to take offence, merely raising a (surprised? curious?) eyebrow at him. "Aw jeez, does it bother you? You should'a said, I didn't mean to-"
"No," Hutchinson said, hurriedly, wondering if he'd misjudged the tone of voice again. "No, I'm not...It's not a problem at all, I just...Didn't know if it was standard procedure."
Starsky did look perturbed at that, a diagnosis that was confirmed by his next action; sliding the control column forwards, he engaged the Torino's autopilot, twisting around in his seat to face Hutchinson. "I, er, don't know about 'procedure' but - ah. I take it you don't do nicknames on Minnesota?"
Starsky shrugged, head tilted at a considering angle. "Thing is," he said, "'Hutchinson' is a hell of a mouthful."
He'd never been particularly fond of any of his names; the birthname was old, traditional, about as unique as his blond hair and pale skin, and 'Hutchinson' reminded him of too-quiet fields, deadened by perfection. "'Hutch'," he said, for the first time. "I - n-never expected -"
"Sounds warmer," Starsky explained, still watching him closely. "More like - aw, hell, you ain't like any purebreed I ever heard tell of before, y'know that? So I'm goin' to keep on callin' you Hutch. Unless y'want 'Inson', but that just don't work so well."
Hutchinson found himself smiling without even trying. "Fine by me, pal."
Starsky reached out, and suddenly there were fingers ruffling his hair. "Don't think that's the end of it," he warned, blue eyes gleaming. "Y'big blond - blintz."
"I - did you just compare me to food?"
“Take it as a compliment, food's my second favourite thing. Speakin' of which, how about lunch?”
Lunch was eaten standing on the sidewalk by the Torino. The suns were warm at this time of the day; Starsky wolfed down the last of his latest odd foodstuff and leaned back, squinting his eyes closed against the glare. "So, I think we ought t'have the inevitable question outta the way," he said, lazily, unmoving. "What're you packin'?"
Packing? Hutch stared at him, hoping for some further clue; when none was forthcoming, he swallowed. "Could you, ah - repeat the question?"
Starsky looked up at that, the curious gleam back in his eyes. "What're you packin'? Firearms," he clarified. "You did bring -"
"Yes," Hutch said, wondering if this was in any way a test. "I, uh - I wasn't wearing it, didn't think we'd be needing -"
"See this?" Starsky unzipped his jacket a little further and held it open; fitting snugly against his right side was the cold gleam of metal. "Saved my life more'n once. Y'need to be wearin' a gun on these streets, partner, if y'want to keep law and order." He let the jacket fall shut. "What did y'bring?"
The blaster was where he'd left it this morning, tucked neatly under the passenger seat in its holster. He hefted the solid weight of it in one hand, turning back to his new partner. "It's a Magnum GXI32," he said, and Starsky's eyes widened.
"Founders, you're plannin' on shootin' straight with that cannon?"
"Control, this is Zebra Three, request confirmation of clock-out time."
"Clock-out time registered at 19:08, Zebra Three. Yo, Starsky, you free for a beer tonight?"
"Sorry, Jax, I've got somethin' special lined up for later. 'nother time?"
"Sure thing. Don't stay out till all hours though, huh? If I hear Dobey's rant about punctuality one more time..."
Starsky laughed, tossing the comm link back into place. "She's going to bite my head off one of these days," he said, glancing across at Hutch to gauge his reaction; the purebreed was staring out of the window, blue eyes flickering as he studied the city. "Mind, that's not unusual in Ruvilli. You know, my brother dated a Ruvil once; when she found him in bed with another bein', she nearly tore him in half. Probably would've, if he hadn't been wearing a pair of loose-fitting pants."
But for a slight widening of his eyes, Hutch didn't seem to react much, though his head tilted a tiny bit to the side as he considered the story. Starsky watched, fascinated. The purebreed was turning out to be every bit as compelling as he'd first thought. Striking even without the added mysterious allure, the man was also charmingly naive, though he processed new information quicker than Starsky had previously thought possible. Moreover, he lacked the innate air of superior aloofness that characterised his race; the few public appearances made by Minnesotan delegates and diplomats had firmly cemented the myths that had grown up around the reclusive, insular planetary system.
Purebreeds, so the stories went, had pursued the expansion of their own intellect with such ferocity that they had shed emotional feeling as a hated distraction and, in doing so, had unlocked the psychic potential hidden within the human brain. The original group of Founders to set foot on Minnesota had shunned any interbreeding, isolating themselves from the native inhabitants and breeding only amongst themselves, creating a race of people so closely-linked on a genetic level that they were as at home in each other's heads as their own. Mongrel children who disobeyed their parents were told that if they stepped out of line one more time, the purebreeds would come and climb inside their minds to make them into good girls and boys. Purebreeds didn't have to listen to hear your thoughts, didn't have to look to know your darkest secrets, and the universe was lucky that they hadn't taken an interest beyond their own system, because if they ever did...
Well, it didn't seem like the myths were up to much; Hutch had taken an interest in the world beyond and he hadn't brought about much destruction at all, unless Starsky's ability to think clearly was a notable victim. The poor guy got spacesick in the Torino, for Founders' sake. "So, partner, how do you want to celebrate the first day going so well?"
That did provoke a reaction. The purebreed turned, raising one fair eyebrow, and said, "But you said-"
Starsky snorted, interrupting him. "Can't leave you alone on your first night as a proper ranger, Hutch. That's a hanging offence. So, what's it going to be?"
Hutch considered this for a few beats. The lights, now flicking on high above them as the suns both swam towards a hazy horizon, slid over pale hair and skin, smooth as a mirror. "Is it customary to, uh - to go - out?"
"Sure," Starsky agreed, already mentally reviewing his list of halfway to decent nights out. "We could grab dinner someplace. Or order in, back at mine,” he added, remembering Kerry's interest in his new partner.
"Is there a lot of variety? With, with food, around here."
"Variety?" Starsky grinned. "Baby, this's a spaceport. You want Brixian hotpot with extra Hungafi pepper, chances are you're goin' to find a place caterin' to your every need."
Hutch was frowning; there was a crease between his eyebrows that seemed to suggest it was something he did often. It was a shame, Starsky thought, because the few smiles he had seen so far had been far from unattractive. Very far, he amended to himself, aware that if the purebreed wasn't his partner and wasn't so damned interesting he'd probably have pulled a few more moves by this point. "Maybe we could - go to dinner?" Hutch suggested, and there was that smile, if a little self-deprecating for Starsky's liking. "Seems I've got a lot of things to catch up on before I'm going to be any use as a partner for you, huh?"
Sheesh. Talk about getting' heavy... Starsky slid the Torino out of 'park', enjoying the low roar of the thrusters powering up. “Come on, brain the size of yours? Won't take five minutes. So, er, how 'bout we go native for the first night? There's this Veirrallan place down in Little London, does the most amazing tacos...”
"Hey," Starsky said, some time later, licking sauce from his fingers with a total lack of regard for common hygiene, "don't mean t'be disparagin', but I'm kind of wondering how you'll be in a fight."
Hutch blinked. He'd long since finished his meal; he'd opted for one of the less hot dishes, much to Starsky's dismay, and had been surprised to find the bland taste of reco-food cleverly tempered by spice. "I've undergone the same basic training -"
"Basic training don't mean squat. Sorry," Starsky leaned back in his seat, feet swinging up onto the table - a waiting drone bleeped a warning, which was ignored - and scrutinised his companion closely. "Y'must have some kind of muscle under that jumpsuit, right? I'm just wonderin' - can you use it?"
Male to male challenge, Hutch realised with consternation, and instantly floundered while he tried to formulate a non-confrontational reply. "I - I can wrestle," he stammered after a moment, and Starsky grinned at him.
"Sure y'can. That involve your body, pal, or some kind of -" he twirled his fingers next to his temple, which presumably indicated Hutch's mental abilities.
Teasing, Hutch realised, a little thrown by the conversation. Why can't anything ever be straightforward?
"So," Starsky said, leaning back and stretching - the thin t-shirt outlined firm muscle, and Hutch wondered whether this were intentional or not. "I know this place - what d'you say to making a night of it?" His grin was easy. "Or I got a pile of ancient movies, can't ever see Star Wars too many times.”
Hutch glanced up to meet his new partner's eyes, aware he had been staring. "I, uh. I should - should go and -do some research," he said. "I -"
"Oh, sure." Starsky's enthusiasm dimmed slightly. "Yeah, figures you'd want to."
"I'm not ungrateful," Hutch said hastily. "But everything is very -" he caught himself before he admitted to his own confusion, to the overwhelming roar of thoughts in his head; admitting a weakness was looked upon with distaste at home - but Starsky was nodding, the feel of his mood softening, becoming something understanding.
"You do what you need t'do, pal," he said, and smiled swiftly. "Can see that head of yours might be about ready to 'splode by now."
"It has been...different," Hutch admitted, aware that he had even begun to slouch a little in his seat, weighed down by unaccustomed weariness and a certain sense of liberation from disapproving eyes.
"I'll bet," Starsky replied, bracing his elbows on the table and leaning forwards again. "You'll have to tell me about your homeworld some day, bet I'd stick out like a- like a cow in a duck pond."
Like a purebreed on a space station, Hutch thought wryly, then corrected himself; he might be a curiosity here, no matter how exaggerated rumours of his abilities were, but at least he was a curiosity amongst curiosities. Starsky would be considered a freak on Minnesota at best, at worst... He had always found the more stringent attitudes towards mongrels vaguely distasteful, even before making contact with the LAPR, but now... Starsky might have some unhygienic habits, but he was generous and good-natured, almost overwhelmingly friendly and firmly in possession of his own mind. On Minnesota, he would be disregarded as little more than an animal. It was a deeply uncomfortable thought.
"That's one way of putting it," he managed, pushing aside the unsettling notion with effort. "Minnesota - well, Duluth - is pretty much all countryside and farmsteads. The cities are exceedingly modest compared to all this."
Blue eyes were studying him again, alight with curiosity, and Starsky reached for his beer without looking. "Remind me to tell you some of the stories one day," he said, with a grin. "Your eyes'll be on stalks, bet you anything. Hey, you want to hear one before you go?"
"Stories?" Hutch asked, confused again.
"Yep." Starsky took a last swig of his beer. "Say they c'n make people move like puppets, take over control of you so's you'd walk out an airlock, off a cliff, kill someone - real crazy stuff, when y'think about it. Psychics burn up doin' that kind of stunt beyond mild suggestion, right?"
Hutch drew in a breath. There was a placid curiosity there, nothing more; Starsky wasn't accusing, was just - making conversation. "It's not a skill I've ever mastered," he said carefully, and Starsky took it as a joke, grinning hugely and clapping him on the arm.
“Sure y'haven't. It's just readin' people like a pad, huh? Oh, you want some of this?” he offered, when a passing drone deposited his fifth order of the night on the table. It was another dessert, a triangular slice that would have resembled cheesecake had it not been fuchsia.
“Um, no thank you.”
“Don't know what you're missing,” the mongrel replied, ignoring the cutlery provided to pick the slice up by hand. He took an enormous bite, his eyes sliding half-closed with pleasure, and as he did so, Hutch became aware a low, vibrating hum emanating from somewhere near the mongrel. Unlike the thrum of the spaceport's atmosphere generators, the sound was inconsistent, as if organic, and it had an odd, shifting timbre as if...
“Are- Are you- purring?”
Having his every move regarded as something novel and baffling, it turned out, was kind of good for the ego.
It turned out Minnesotans didn't purr, which was fair enough; Starsky had always suspected that that had more to do with his tail and his nocturnal vision than his opposable thumbs and ability to write his name, anyway. It didn't really seem like Minnesotans did much of anything besides worry, if Hutch was anything to go by. Worry, and accidentally read people's minds, and maybe occasionally do some farming. Really, the whole anti-purebreed thing was about as sensible as being afraid of the space-whales; a long time ago they might have been able to rip planets apart, but for the meantime the reality was a long way removed from the myth.
He left Hutch at the hangar. They came up over the drop - three thousand feet took a lot longer when stuck behind a group of arguing Silurians in a battered transporter; what they were doing at the Ranger HQ was not entirely apparent - and Starsky swerved into his usual docking bay; the magnets hissed into place and the Torino rocked gently, powering down with a hiss of warm thrusters. "Y'okay to find your way back?" Starsky asked, flicking the holoscreen to engage the alarms. "I, uh - y'got my number to call if you need anythin', right?"
Hutch nodded, fair hair blowing every which way as the door hissed open. "I'll meet you at - eight tomorrow," he said. "Partner."
Starsky beamed, delighted by the hesitant use of the word. "We're goin' to be great," he said, and reaching out laid a hand on Hutch's arm as the other turned to leave the cruiser. "Don't - don't sweat it, buddy, huh? We get all kinds up here, and ain't a tenth of 'em got your smarts." Some of the tension vanished from the purebreed's muscles. "Course, still got t'find out if you can -"
"I am perfectly adept physically," Hutch said, a trifle haughtily, and Starsky grinned.
"Care to prove it tomorrow?"
The purebreed eyed him. As evaluating gazes went, it wasn't the most charged scrutiny he'd ever been subjected to, but he made the most of it with a quick slouch and hip wriggle. “You're...on,” Hutch said, after a moment. “Is there a sparring ring or...?”
“There's a gym in the basement levels of the department. Bring plenty of bruise gel, buddy, 'cause you're going to need it.”
“I don't have-”
“Just a joke, just a joke. See you in the morning, Blondie.” He remained in the cruiser while Hutch got out, pretending to fiddle with the settings for the dampeners, watching the Minnesotan walk away through the viewing screens; eventually the tall, ramrod-straight figure disappeared from his field of vision and he slumped down into his seat with a sigh.
The viewscreen flickered, almost questioning, almost as if it picked up on his sudden unease. "He'll do okay," Starsky said in answer to what he assumed was an unspoken question, and propped his feet up on the dash, content for the moment to sit here and watch lights flickering past, far below. "Either that or he'll break into little purebreed pieces." Sure hopin' you don't do that, he added silently, squinting down into the dizzying black through a sudden lull in the traffic, imagining the news already circulating, gaining in mystery and embellishment; Starsky and Hutchinson, new rangers on the beat, mongrel and mind-reader. Could get used to havin' you around.
The Mongrels, as they are colloquially known, are the impure result of renegade human genetic experimentation. Known to be rowdy, rapacious, their minds unsubtle, they are barely worth consideration; they are, however, ubiquitous, and any study of their breeding habits will doubtless show that their numbers are growing. Whether this problem will eventually require management remains to be seen.
- Dr Ellen Brown, 'A Study of Inferior Species'