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'
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
Chapter by Azzy and Demus (Azzy)
- T'leek Santor, 'The Slow Drift Outwards'
“Today's the day, huh?” Starsky said brightly as Hutch approached, straightening from his slouch against the gleaming side of the Torino. They'd agreed to meet in the hangar this time, now that Hutch could navigate his way there on his own, and the purebreed was interested to see that his companion was chewing on a large slice of flat bread covered with reco-cheese and circles of meat. “You eaten yet?”
“Yes,” Hutch said firmly, suppressing unpleasant memories of the blintzes. Nutrient mixes might not be to Starksy's taste, but they were a far safer option than unidentifiable pastries. “You, er, would you like to wait until you've finished?”
Starsky grinned around his mouthful, amusement rolling off him. Hutch noticed that his tail was moving in loose, undulating waves and made a mental note between the correlation of mood and limb-movement. “Nah, s'okay. I can drive one-handed, a couple of years out in the black'll teach you that much. You ready to pick up our first case?” As he spoke, the mongrel made his way around to the driver's side by way of the roof, hopping casually up and disabling the alarms with a quick breath on the hidden scanner.
Hutch waited for his partner to get in before attempting to open the door. After a late night spent studying the cityscape's holomaps in an attempt to commit them to memory, he wasn't sure he could trust his reflexes to keep him safe from the sentient cruiser's distaste. “As I'll ever be,” he answered, sliding inside. “Do you mind if I put the seatbelt on?”
Starsky barked a laugh. The mongrel seemed to be in a good mood this morning; there was a concentrated eagerness to his thoughts and movements, zinging with a kind of energy Hutch had never encountered before. "Sorry, pal, but I disengaged 'em," he said, bringing the cruiser to life by stroking the dashboard; thrusters powered up around them, the floor shuddering slightly as they rose into the air. "Can't you just - hang on?"
Who would ever disengage basic safety equipment? Hutch locked the disapproval away hastily before remembering that Starsky had no way of sensing it. "Surely that contravenes several -"
"Hutch, she's an Interceptor cruiser with an ASI Torino sub-core. We don't need that stuff," Starsky said with a fair show of patience. He was already powering the Torino forward towards the dizzying drop down into the lower levels from the residential area, idly flipping switches as they sped up; glancing down, Hutch watched the thin mesh of the parking bay give way to the floor of the hanger, at this point no more than great unrefined duranium beams arching from wall to wall. A brief haze of cloud scudded across below them, then the Torino was shuddering as a buffet of wind caught it on its emergence from the hangar proper. "She'll catch us if we go flyin'."
There was a brief susurration of what felt like smug agreement from the strange machine-mind. Hutch made an unobtrusive grab for a strap that dangled promisingly beside his right ear. "I'm - glad to hear it," he said, hoping his disbelief didn't show. "I I doubt either of us have hidden capabilities for unaided flight."
The mongrel chuckled, sliding the control column back to engage manual; the Torino twitched as he did so, a shudder running from the elongated nose to the snub rear end, and Hutch watched Starksy's fingers stroke over the living black matter of what he persisted in calling the 'wheel' despite the fact it was clearly a cruiser-standard joystick. “Better hold onto your stomach,” Starsky advised, his tone leaping with excitement. “The gravitational stabilisers don't work as well as they used to.”
Hutch barely had time to tighten his grip on his strap before Starsky rammed the control column forwards, sending the cruiser into a nose-down vertical plunge with an ear-splitting whoop; for a good three seconds, Hutch felt his entire body slam backwards into the seat, unbelievable pressure dragging at him before the stabilisers caught up with the freefall, and miles of sky were whizzing past them at colossal speed, other vehicles passing in blips and flashes of colour, then Starsky was hauling the cruiser level, thrusters whining in protest as he dragged it out of its dive. There was a moment of internal uncertainty, then Hutch slumped forwards as the Torino slowed to a putter and turned, gently, in through the gaping doorway to another parking lot. Something on the dashboard bleeped to indicate a scan, then Starsky was easing the cruiser into a space, powering down and sliding the control column back into place as the magnetic clamps sealed.
The whole journey took less than two minutes.
Hutch blinked, and cautiously let go of the strap, noticing as he did so that his fingers had cramped. "Starsky," he said tentatively.
Starsky turned to him with a grin. "Yeah, partner?"
"Could -" His companion's mind was definitely, definitely self-satisfied, and he sighed, taking a certain amount of fulfillment from the outward sign of irritation. "Am I right in thinking that we could have walked?"
Starsky rolled his eyes. "Well yeah, sure, we could. If you fancied a twenty-minute walk and five grav jumps full of people runnin' late." He rolled out of the Torino, stretching luxuriously and waiting while Hutch extricated himself from an inexplicable tangle of wiring. "And ain't more'n a couple of floors up from here. And," slamming his own door shut with a flourish, "if we get there early, Ranin might've gone bakin' again and there might be somethin' left over."
“Uh-huh. Kit Ranin, Detective Sergeant First Class. You'll like her, we were in uniform together – she's from the same system as me, but one planet over. She...”
Starsky kept up the chatter as he made his way to the grav jump. Hutch fell into step beside him, happy for the chance to steady himself. He was beginning to wonder if his partner had actually acquired a driving license. If he had, it didn't say much for L.A.'s traffic laws.
The jump was as crowded as Starsky had feared. The mongrel sighed as they reached the line, his flow of gossip finally stemmed, and he exchanged a knowing glance with the uniformed ranger just ahead of them. Hutch kept half a pace back, a little uncertain of the correct procedure at this point, and studied the line's occupants; it appeared to be mainly mongrels of various shapes and degrees of animal-likeness. There were more uniformed officers than plain clothes, the uniforms themselves resembling two-piece versions of his own jumpsuit, and he was careful not to catch anyone's eye; the info-packs had been unclear on how much eye contact was deemed acceptable with strangers.
"Come on, Hutch," Starsky said, and actually reached back to grab his arm and tow him forward; Hutch stiffened, unsure how to respond to the sudden increase in physical contact, but Starsky seemed not to notice. ""Y'use a freighter line before?"
"My home planet is a civilised one," Hutch said after a bemused second, stepping forward behind him in line while the light glowed amber, and Starsky raised an eyebrow, twisting to look back over his shoulder.
"Hey, okay, I only asked. What, grav jumps don't break down on Minnesota?"
"Oh, are you the purebreed?" asked the being just behind Hutch; he looked as if he had some kind of Silurian ancestry, a vaguely reptilian slant to his nose and eyes at odds with a round, cheerful face. "Heard y'got partnered with Starsky; he still drivin' like a mad Drassetti on hormones?" There was a ripple of amusement from the surrounding crowd. "Good luck there, mate, you'll need it to keep up with that one."
He had just enough time to say, "Uh," before Starsky grunted, "Knock it off, Norl," and yanked him into the jump. Unlike the civilian grav jumps, the freighter had a solid platform that stood at rest for the cargo to be loaded before transportation. It was already half-full, the mass of rangers jostling good-naturedly for space, and Hutch reinforced his shields against the teeming morass of emotion.
The cheerful Silurian stepped in behind him, peering up interestedly. "So, you just got here, huh?"
Hutch glanced at Starsky, who let go of his arm with a start, as if he'd forgotten he was holding it. "Um, yes," the purebreed said, after a moment. "A – actually, I arrived two days ago, but -"
"Callin' in sick already?" Norl grinned; his amusement was a palpable thing despite Hutch's shields, fizzing in the air. "Landed yourself a real pro there, Starsk, he's going to go far with that attitude."
"No, I -"
"Sure is, Norly," Starsky interrupted, nudging Hutch gently in the side. "Been teachin' him all my tricks."
Norl's grin widened as the last ranger stepped in and the entrance sealed itself in preparation. "Only took him two days to learn all your tricks?"
"Like you said, the boy's a pro."
The gravity drop came with more of a kick than Hutch was used to, and the rush of upwards air was stronger; he grabbed at the nearest thing for balance and found that Starsky was there again, bracing him from behind with both hands on Hutch's shoulders as they sped upwards. The mongrel seemed to feel no real need to hold on; his mind was unperturbed by the movement, his muscles relaxed. The benefits of a tail? Hutch wondered, and then almost lost his balance again as gravity returned without any gradual increase; there was a thump and some raucous laughter behind them as someone landed back on the platform.
"This's us," Starsky said, patting him on the shoulder before letting go again, and Hutch stepped forward, through the invisible scanners - a spike of interest from somewhere nearby as his data was recorded - and into what a bright blue sign proclaimed to be Metro Precinct, Ranger Division: 24 C.
His first impression was one of space, but every inch of it filled with chaos. There was a blue-skinned child wailing at the top of its lungs while its parent shouted demands in some unknown language to a harassed officer in uniform; the noise of conversations both official and unofficial ebbed around them in bewildering complexity. Hutch tried to grasp at the emotions roiling around him, and after a few seconds put up as many shields as he possibly could, but the impression of brightly-coloured chaos remained. Even the walls were lit up with swiftly-changing images, rotas, maps, memos flashing past. "Starsky," he said, trying to regain some sense of order. "Where - where should we -"
"Y'okay?" Starsky had been exchanging greetings with a tall, thin humanoid, and now he turned to face his new partner. "Bit of a rush, huh? Kind of mad in here this time o' the mornin'; don't worry, it gets a bit more peaceful when everyone knows what they're doin'." He glanced up at a holo-imager displaying the time above their heads. "Look, I'll go'n try to find Dobey. Why don't you just -" he sidestepped a crowd of short, four-armed beings; Hutch thought they might be Talerii, "just - have a look 'round? Th'caffeine shots taste like Dracorn dung, but they'll wake you up," and Starsky disappeared into the crowd with a brief wave, ducking away into the middle of the room.
The crowd was, as promised, beginning to thin. Hutch opted to stay where he was, reasoning that Starsky would need to find him again, and leant cautiously back against the wall. Passers-by eyed him with open curiosity, some of them mumbling a brief greeting, some of them just staring with either hostility or confusion; he couldn't see why he was any more of interest than the blue-skinned child, now hiccuping quietly to itself.
Aggression, fear-driven, the fear rolling under that furious spike like a riptide. A bitter tang of morbid curiosity, almost swamped by anger. Hutch turned to face the source of the emotions; it was a Jilfey. She loomed over him, an eight foot tall insectoid with two arms folded across her chest, four muscular legs tapering down from a lilac thorax. Protruding behind her was a swollen, bee-like abdomen on which glistened the hook of a sting. Wickedly-curved mandibles twitched as he studied her, a low hiss rattling from between them.
The polite approach, then. "May I help you, ma'am?" he said, attempting what he hoped was a casual stance.
The Jilfey's hiss grew louder. "Ain't room on this station for egg-stealers," she snarled, a single drop of corrosive venom forming at the tip of her sting as her abdomen quivered with rage.
Egg-stealers. Just one more title to add to the tarnish coating his racial memory - the Jilfey, as industrious a race of architects and builders as the universe had ever produced, had once been thought a viable option for enslavement on his homeworld. Given a few genetic modifications, of course. The laboratories responsible were long since gone, written out of pure-breed history as a simple failed experiment, but a hive-mind rarely forgot the atrocities committed against it.
Hutch squared his shoulders, meeting the creature's gaze with every ounce of bravado he thought a ranger ought to possess. "If you wish to report a theft -" he began, aware of the rapid increase in emotional activity from the crowd; they were drawing attention to themselves. He would do well to diffuse the situation before -
"Hutchinson! Report to my office immediately!"
"Captain Dobey," Hutch acknowledged, glancing over his shoulder, and felt Starsky's approach before he saw it; his new partner prowled into place at his side, eyeing the Jilfey with dislike. "Ma'am, I - I hope you'll take any complaint to the Commissioner."
"I will," she hissed, and turned her glare abruptly on Starsky. "What you doin' hangin' with this type, mongrel? Got a taste t'go killin' innocents?"
"No more'n you want to go and nest in a hedge," Starsky retorted, and clamped one arm over Hutch's shoulder; he was quivering with indignation so heartfelt it needed no psychic probe. The loyalty was oddly appealing, if baffling after such a short acquaintance, but Hutch was learning to anticipate the unexpected. "Y'got somethin' against him, y'got somethin' against me, capiche?"
"Excuse us," Hutch said, as politely as he was able, and steered Starsky in the direction of Dobey's office.
The mongrel went easily enough, walking with the taut, bouncy stride of one attempting to contain his emotions. It was a fairly weak attempt at concealment. Hutch hesitated, calculating the probability of causing offence, then projected a slim tendril of reassurance, stroking over the jagged teeth of Starsky's aggravation; his new partner jerked in response, spinning to face him with the speed of instinct, and Hutch immediately withdrew. "Er, sorry," he said, in answer to Starsky's obvious surprise. "I, er, you - didn't want you to get a tension headache, partner."
Starsky's mouth relaxed into a grin. He dropped his shoulders, aggression leaching out into bemused fondness, and his arm found its way back onto Hutch's shoulders. "Gotta teach me that magic trick some time," he replied, bumping Hutch with his hip. "Might save us gettin' our heads chewed off if any bein' starts a riot."
Hutch shook his head. "I couldn't teach you. And I couldn't reach more than one, one person." It should be shameful, to explain his faults to another, but there was no disgust, no pity; it was likely that Starsky had no idea what a fully-trained high-level empath ought to be capable of. "Going to have to rely on our native charm and intelligence," he added, trying for a lighter tone.
"Piece of cake," Starsky said, as the door to Dobey's office slid aside. "Hey, cap'n, what's new?"
Dobey was standing at the window; he gestured them both to a seat, and Hutch lowered himself into one of the two chairs. Starsky hesitated, and then perched on the arm of the same chair, ignoring the perfectly serviceable alternative, his tail winding around the back for balance. "Dust," Dobey said without preamble, stomping back over to the desk. "The Hydrean that Ranin and Coles brought in? She's in the cells screechin' like she has twelve heads, not three, and she was talkin' about something big goin' down. I know it's Ranin's case, but I want you two on it. This operation's bigger than two officers and Vice ain't got anyone to spare. Starsky, get a hold of your snitches, see what y'can find out about a big shipment due in in the next few cycles."
"That ain't much to go on," Starsky said; the quick rush of emotions had gone, and now he was all concentration. "Any clue what quadrant -"
"Do I look like I know which quadrant?" Dobey snapped, and the mechanical arm extended two data pads to them in a faintly irritated hiss of hydraulics. "Reason the Hydrean's talkin' is because she was so strung out on the damn stuff herself."
"Three times the heads, three times the fun," Starsky said dryly.
Hutch picked up one of the data pads, scanning the crowded reams of information with a practised eye. Minnesota's premier university might have left him with a keen awareness of his own irredeemable flaws, but it had at least moulded him into a quick study. Starsky ignored the second pad, choosing instead to peer over his shoulder; this close, his musky alien scent was far more prominent, almost to the point of distraction, and Hutch buried himself in the scrolling words, all-too-aware of the mongrel's breath against his cheek.
"Starsky, have you lost the use of your hands?" grumbled Dobey. "The last thing Hutchinson needs is your ugly hide crowding him."
"Way I see it, cap', he was gotta get used to bein' crowded by far uglier hides than mine," Starsky retorted, amusement curling from him like a snigger; it was so vivid that, for a moment, Hutch wondered if the feeling was his own. He dismissed the thought as quickly as it had come - it was, of course, ludicrous - and returned his attention to the duty sergeant's report on the Hydrean, scratching absently at a niggling itch in the centre of his chest. It had been present since the day before, but he suspected that any suggestion that the cause might be a Tinnexan flying squirrel would be met with severe indignation.
Dobey's cybernetic lens whirred irritably as it sharpened its focus on Starsky, the cyborg's living eye narrowing alongside it. "A couple of cycles in that flashy cruiser of yours should be more than sufficient to acclimatise him. Hutchinson, have you been supplied with an emergency respirator?"
"You're a funny man, Captain," Starsky groused, before Hutch could reply, and he flung himself upright in a rush of slighted air. "C'me on then, partner, let's hit the skies."
The Torino was not pleased to see him. Hutch sighed, and tried to project something calming at the vague alien intelligence; it rejected him briskly, with a slight edge of disdain. "Hey, baby," Starsky crooned, sliding into his seat and stroking the console. "We got work t'do - c'mon, Blondie, this ain't sight-seein'." His grin took the sting out of the words. "I figure we need to start with the best, if we're going to bust this one."
"What's the best?" Hutch slid gingerly into his own seat, which point-blank refused to adjust around him, and the cruiser rumbled towards the drop. "Or, uh, who?"
"Who," Starsky confirmed, squinting at the nav panel and making minor adjustments with his fingertips. "Least, I think he's a who. We're goin' to see the Bear. Chances are if anything's stirrin', he knows about it." A pause, while they emerged from the hangar into the murky sunlight. "You ever meet a shape-shifter before?"
“No,” Hutch said. “No, we -”
“Don't have those on Minnesota, sure,” Starsky murmured. “Go figure,” and he powered the Torino out and down the drop before Hutch could draw breath to reply.
They passed an uneventful half an hour on patrol, with no sign of a shape-shifter (not that Hutch was entirely sure how one might identify such a being in the first place), but Starsky seemed largely unconcerned. They had abandoned the Torino at a docking bay a few corners back, and once up to sidewalk level Starsky had proceeded to meander along as if entirely without a care in the world, nodding in a friendly fashion to a pair of mongrel girls who returned the look with interest; Hutch, for his part, was a little more concerned with absorbing the sheer level of sensory information in the vicinity. The drop was a sharp void to his left, where in this rundown district security beams were only activated during the busiest hours, and walkers tended to avoid the edge; further in, street foodsellers provided a cacophony of sound and a variety of different smells that made his stomach, already a little uncomfortable from the flight, clench uneasily.
He took the opportunity to distract himself by watching Starsky. The mongrel's strut was almost more pronounced, out here on the street, tail lashing gently with an economy of movement that seemed to draw the admiration of more than one passer-by. By contrast, there was a barrage of constant confusing emotion directed towards himself from those same passers-by; suspicion and confusion, tempered with a healthy dose of what could very well be amusement. At least one of us is making a positive impression.
Starsky glanced back over his shoulder and Hutch, caught looking, hastily glanced away. Suddenly finding the graffiti on a nearby shop doorway fascinating (Starsky would, in all probability, find it offensive to know that he was being studied), he was about to make some mundane comment about the local folk art when Starsky stopped so suddenly that Hutch would have run into him had it not been for his mind, constantly scanning the world and halting his clumsy limbs when the mundane five senses failed to do so. This time, telepathy halted him in mid-step, freezing him in place before he could run into his new partner's back; Starsky's head was tilted back, his eyes closed in deep concentration, and he was drawing deep breaths in through his nose. Surely he isn't-
Before Hutch could finish his disbelieving thought, blue eyes snapped open and Starsky yelled, "Huggy!" before bounding forwards in a leap that carried him into the chest of a large blueish-purple reptilian being. The creature caught him easily, enormous talons settling a little too close for comfort, and a thoroughly-unlikely voice emitted from the lizard's mouth to say, "Hey, hound-dog, will I ever fool that nose?"
"Try 'kitty-cat' some time, y'never know," Starsky said, grinning, "Hug,this's my new partner. Hutch, meet Huggy Bear."
Hutch looked up, and up, and tentatively held out his hand to shake. "It's, uh - it's a pleasure," he offered.
The reptile's eyes crinkled with amusement, and then it was suddenly several feet shorter and more approximately man-sized. "Good t'meet you," Huggy said, smacking one large taloned hand into Hutch's. "What's up, m'man, you ain't never seen a shapeshifter before?"
"Hug's a bein' you want on your side," Starsky put in, as Hutch tried not to let his shock show. "Runs a bar just down the street. Great oxygen shots." He waggled expressive eyebrows. "How 'bout a date, huh? Jus' you'n'me?"
"What am I, the spare wheel on that space junk o'yours?" Huggy demanded, glancing back and forth between them; his mind was silent, Hutch realised with a jolt. In the chaotic heave of L.A.'s thoughts, the shapeshifter was a blank, blessed void. “C'mon Starsk, you can't go ditchin' me for every new face,” Huggy was saying, either oblivious to or ignoring Hutch's tentative probing of his thoughts.
Starsky snorted. “Show me your real face and I'll see if I can stick with it.”
“No can do, bro.” Huggy said, leaning back on his mauve tail. “You know how the Big A feels about droppin' charades.”
Apparently this sentence made perfect sense, because Starsky was nodding with a resigned air. “Guess you've got to follow one law, since you don't like any of the others,” the mongrel said, his tone light but slightly brittle; he was using humour to cover his genuine feelings on 'Big A', Hutch realised. “Speaking of which; any word from beyond about a big delivery comin' in? We ain't ever seen the dealers so twitchy.”
Reptilian eyes narrowed. Huggy's tongue flickered out to taste the air, tail shifting against the pavement, and Hutch found himself pondering the wisdom of having this meeting out in the open, where anyone could hear it. The pedestrian traffic might be sparse in South Current, especially compared to the rampant bustle of East Drop and Little London, but the ranger training had clearly stated that the utmost discretion was required during investigations. He'd have to ask Starsky to clarify the standard procedure.
Huggy spoke, distracting Hutch from his musings. “Can't say I've got anything duranium. My little birds ain't been singin' so loud the past few cycles. Want me to set a cat in with 'em?”
“Hell, set a few, pretend it's Founders' Day,” Starsky replied, wryly. “That all you've got?”
The shapeshifter shrugged, expansively. “Like I said, no one's talkin'. You tried Gillian? Last I heard, she was workin' the real food section of the Dust crowd – that girl always did like millionaires.”
“Gillian?” Starsky's thoughts sharpened with concentration and he nodded. “Thanks, Hug. Don't be a stranger, huh?”
Huggy's gaze settled on Hutch for a moment, dark with unreadable intent, and his lips curved with a smirk. “Count on it, whiskers. Be seein' you.”
Something twitched against his ankle as they said goodbye to Huggy, and he fought the urge to jump backwards. Starsky's tail wrapped itself lightly around his boot in what was almost a caress. "Hey," his partner murmured, something soothing in his voice as if he sensed Hutch's confusion. "If y'promise never to call me 'whiskers', I'll buy you a burger."
Whiskers? Hutch stole a sideways glance at Starsky's whiskerless face. It seemed mongrels were not the only species keen on bizarre nicknames.
Starsky tried to insist on the burger when they reached a vendor a few minutes later, but gave in with a bad grace when Hutch pointed out that it would only go to waste if Starsky were to buy it for him. "No wonder y'look like a beanpole," Starsky said disapprovingly, licking his fingers clean before wiping them on the napkin provided with his greasy snack, and then brightened. "Hey, talkin' of which, when're we goin' for a round, partner?"
Hutch hesitated. "When would be convenient?" he asked cautiously.
"Well, not right now," Starsky said with a gleam of irrepressible humour, jerking his head at the crowds of squabbling, exclaiming, busy inhabitants around them; he seemed to find so much amusing in life, Hutch thought, and wondered how many different shades of the same basic feeling there could be, glittering elusive beyond his imagination. "But how 'bout we go over to the gym after we finish up catchin' bad guys for the mornin'?"
“Sure,” Hutch agreed, falling into step beside his partner as Starsky set off in the direction of the Torino; it would, if nothing else, be a chance to prove that he possessed other skills, useful skills, beside less-than-perfect psychic abilities. He fought off the peculiar sensation of uncertainty; it was becoming all too familiar, he decided, and reached into his pocket for the infopad. At least he could continue his research while in the cruiser.
Gillian Ingram didn't look any different from the last time Starsky had seen her (a fancy dinner held by the Commissioner, where she had been on the arm of one of the quadrant's wealthiest businessmen and Starsky had been on security duty as penalty for his latest misdemeanour). Immaculately dressed, smiling, something warm about the way she greeted them and invited them inside the brightly-lit apartment - she ought to have been an actress, Starsky thought, accepting the tiny glass of fragrant tea with a distinct sense of unease. Sirens always made him edgy.
"What race does the lady belong to?" Hutch had asked in the cruiser, tapping something into his info-pad, and Starsky had actually had to think for a moment.
"Sylenian," he'd replied eventually, hoping he didn't blush.
"Ah," Hutch had said, skimming rapidly through the possibilities and pausing when he evidently reached the correct entry; Starsky could see the frown out of the corner of his eye. "I - I see.”
Hutch, however, was perhaps the only humanoid (and non-humanoid; such things were rarely discriminatory) Starsky had ever seen who wasn't turned into some kind of horny imbecile when first introduced to a Siren. In the face of gentle allure and seduction - Gillian might have morals, but she couldn't help her nature - Hutch merely took a meditative sip of the strong tea and asked its origin.
"New Montrassak," she said, her smile warmly pleased. Oh, Blondie, very smooth. "It's lovely to see you, gentlemen, but to what do I owe this pleasure?"
Starsky put his glass down on its saucer, the tiny clink drawing Gillian's gaze. “We've got problems, Gilly,” he said, sprawling back on the couch, happy to play the schmuck to Hutch's refinement. “We've got questions to ask and it seems like the whole city's gone deaf. You hear me?”
The Siren tilted her head, a single lock of hair falling across her face, and Starsky thought very hard about the joins in Dobey's cybernetics. “I'm not sure that I-”
“Ms Ingram,” Hutch said, leaning forwards in his chair; his voice had softened, though the tone was still firm and serious, and Starsky resisted the urge to look at him. “We have reason to believe that there is a large shipment of Dust due to arrive in the city, big enough to supply all of L.A.'s major dealers. If you have any information, any at all that might help us trace it, we'd be very grateful.”
Starsky affected to snort. “Yeah. So grateful that we won't even think about callin' up any of your clients. I ain't spoken to Gaertew since we closed down that joint over in Nightside. Bet he'd love to know which of his ladies clued us in.”
Gillian's perfectly made-up lips quivered. Guilt washed over Starsky in seconds, blind, nauseating guilt that he could even consider using such words against such a beautiful, delicate creature, how could he possibly -
Hutch coughed, pointedly. The heady rush of self-reproach stopped abruptly, filtering away as if it had never happened, and Gillian folded her hands in her lap with a smile. “So the rumours about you are true, then, Mr Hutchinson? A purebreed in the L.A.P.R., how fascinating. Tell me-”
“Dust, Ms Ingram,” Hutch said, patiently. Starsky smirked. Leaning on Rolly had been a better idea than he'd thought, if the mutterings on the rumour-mill had already reached so high. He flipped open his notebook, switching it to 'record' as Gillian began to speak; he liked it when a plan came together.
Starsky was bouncing on the balls of his feet, practically vibrating with eagerness. Hutch let borrowed adrenaline flow through him as he studied his opponent; he was fairly sure cut-offs that short would be illegal back on Duluth, and it was almost a shock to see that Starsky's skin was a warm, living colour, marred by a few faint scars but reassuringly human in appearance.
"C'mon, Blondie," Starsky said. "I'll go easy on you." The tail flicked from side to side. "Don't want t'break you."
"Break me? Ah, come on, Starsky. Where I come from we wrestle for fun."
"Promising," Starsky said, with a feral grin, and with barely a nod they closed. Starsky thought left and Hutch moved right, turned the swing to his advantage; Starsky twisted out from under him, too quick to predict, and Hutch barely caught the inclination before he was having to lunge to avoid the leg that swept out to unbalance him. They caught and held, struggling strength-for-strength together for a few seconds, and then disengaged, both panting, both considerably more wary.
The second time he didn't catch the thought, but he did catch a tell-tale twitch of well-defined muscle and ducked the charge, rolling them both over onto the mat. Starsky actually snarled in dissatisfaction and Hutch had the sudden bizarre thought that he was glad Starsky didn't mean to hurt him, followed by the most disconcerting thing of all; they were evenly matched, he realised. Perfectly evenly matched.
Starsky took advantage of his distraction to shove him down by his biceps, the breath knocked from his body in a rush. "Gotcha," he said, that grin still in place, and Hutch knew that despite the advantage they've both come to the same conclusion. "Y'fight good for a pure-breed."
Hutch didn't say anything, still catching his breath; Starsky was a hot, solid weight pinning him down, and that strange half-alien scent caught him at the same time as a stray shift of some kind of new emotion, one that sneaked out from under the surprisingly firm guards he knew Starsky had in place; it was alien in its complexity, and he put it aside rather than attempt to analyse it. "You fight good for a mongrel," he said, hoping the term would not be an offensive one, and to his relief Starsky laughed.
"You'd better believe it," his new partner said, and rolled off him, sprawling on his back on the mat. A light blinked at them from the wall, signifying their time in the gym area was up, but Starsky ignored it. "'s good t'blow off some steam," Starsky added a little hesitantly. "This, is - we should do it again, sometime."
Endorphins were buzzing pleasantly through Hutch's body, an illusion of well-being and contentment, logical and definable; he centred himself firmly, letting out a long, slow breath. Exercise had always helped him to make sense of his world; it was gratifying to find that things were no different on a spaceport, and after visiting Gillian and completing the rest of their beat he had felt badly in need of some kind of relief. "Not right now," he suggested, and Starsky laughed, turning his head to grin, his arm still pressing warm and damp against Hutch's.
The call from Dobey came while Starsky was still changing clothes. Hutch answered the comm link, glad for the distraction - Starsky used the muscular relaxation unit with a hedonistic air of abandon - and found that it was impossible to judge his new captain's tone without mind-to-mind contact. "He's - either very angry or very busy. Or both," he said cautiously, ending the call and turning just in time to see Starsky tucking in his shirt. "He said he wants us to report- five minutes ago, does that mean-"
"It's both," Starsky said, slinging his jacket over his shoulder and sauntering out of the changing area; Hutch fell in beside him. "Don't worry, pal, he's not too bad. Guess it just ain't easy, him being - y'know. Around here it ain't usually so bad, folks're used to all kinds, but some o'the people livin' up on the Heights -" he trailed off, shaking his head, while Hutch tried to think of a way to ask what he was talking about. "Hey, should've known our life of leisure couldn't last for ever. Let's hope someone got coffee."
There were four other beings in the small meeting room when they reached it. One, a tall, muscular mongrel with short dark hair and fingers that showed a slight webbing between them as she shuffled her papers, nodded to Starsky; the others all eyed Hutch with blatant curiosity, some of it turning to amusement when Starsky dropped down into a chair beside him. "Glad you two could join us," Dobey barked, fixing them with a glare. "Anything to bring to the table? Starsky, report."
“Not much to go on,” Starsky said, leaning easily on Hutch's shoulder. “Whatever's goin' down, it's got the bottom-feeders in a tangle. We tracked down one of Gaertew's girls, the one who plays for all the high-rollers? Seems there's a group that meets in an old ranger post over in East Drop; you remember, Cap', uniform had it before the gaseous rights riots?”
There was a murmuring of agreement from the rest of the room; Hutch made a mental note to read up on L.A.'s history of violent demonstration.
“Well, the word is that anything big in the supply line hits there first, but there's no way of knowin' which gangs are using it. The big names use intermediaries and chancers just go for it. That's all we've got so far.”
Dobey's oddly-clipped, machine-straight thoughts gave the impression of whirring as he considered the information. "It's all we've got," he said, drumming metal fingers on the desk, "and it's what we'll go on for now. I want you all on watch and watch, rangers. Four hours on, four hours off -"
"Nothin' like a stakeout," Starsky muttered, almost too quietly for Hutch to hear.
"How long do we keep it up, cap'?" asked one of the other rangers, his ear twitching impatiently.
"As long as it damn well takes," Dobey said with a healthy dose of righteous indignation. "This isn't a holiday camp!"
A lengthy speech ensued, the angry gist of which was that they were beholden to a sense of professionalism at all times, the end of which saw Hutch sitting alone at the conference table, Starsky having slipped off to the bathroom. The big female mongrel who had nodded to Starsky was sat nearby and she turned to face him with a smile and a burst of bright interest. "M'name's Ranin," she said amiably, holding out her hand. Hutch took it, feeling the callouses between the slightly webbed fingers; her mind was curious, nothing more. "The fuzzball over there's Coles, my partner. So you're kitty-cat's new boy, huh?"
"That's right," Hutch said, cautious.
"Well." She looked doubtful. "Just - make sure y'keep an eye on him, yeah? I went a week paired up with him once. Crazy hair-brained stunts; luckily I forgave him. Some haven't."
"Thank you," Hutch said coolly. "I'll bear that in mind.” The advice appeared contrary to his observations; while informal, Starsky was very far from being irresponsible, unless his choice of transport was to blame (Hutch's shins still ached from the bruise the Torino had given him the night before). "I hope to stick around a little bit longer than a week."
Ranin grinned. Unsurprisingly, given that she came from the same solar system, her thoughts held the same chaotic non-patterns as Starsky's, turbulent even behind her inexpert shields, and Hutch tried not to read too closely. “Well, sure,” she said, nodding as Coles passed her a caffeine shot. “See if you can keep him out of trouble, huh? Dobey's the only reason he hasn't been kicked over the drop after his last stunt; d'they tell you? Wound himself up on a child rapist case, went wild when a lead witness threatened to back out.” The mongrel paused, taking a sip of her reco-coffee, and fixed Hutch with a serious look as he struggled to reconcile Ranin's words with the gregarious figure of his partner. “Word is he would've broken more than the guy's arm if his last partner hadn't got there first, so you stay close. Don't tell him I said this, but he's one of the best detectives we've got; he was out of uniform before the commissioner could spit. Not that he stays in any of his clothes that long, but I guess you already know that, huh? He tried it on with you yet?”
Hutch gaped, stumbling over the sudden change in tone. “Tried - tried it - on?”
“He hasn't?” Ranin's tone was disbelieving and Hutch was aware, once again, of a vague sensation that he was speaking from an entirely different lexicon to the rest of L.A.'s inhabitants. “Man, are you welded into that suit thing? He only ever gives up on truly impossible - oh, hey Starsk.”
“Bad-mouthing me again, drippy?” Starsky said, from somewhere behind Hutch; the purebreed turned to see him leaning on the door frame, tail waving slowly in the air. “C'mon, we've got a long boring shift of house-watchin' to get to. This is where we sort the rangers from the thrill-seekers, partner," Starsky added, smiling when Hutch raised a quizzical eyebrow in his direction. "Guess you didn't complete the surveillance training, huh? Well, I don't know if you can get bored, but I sure do, so I hope you're up for a few hundred rounds of 'Twenty Questions' and some protein fondue.”
The Torino grumbled around them as they sat there, a hurried hour or so later, her engines silent but the low-level thought patterns ever-present. Hutch leaned back against the console, visualisers trained on the building opposite; it was cold here on the upper levels, and there was a thin frost starting to form already over the sidewalk beside them. "Only twenty questions?" he asked.
"Yep. And then we play it again," Starsky said, sprawling with feet propped on the nav unit. "Otherwise we'll be eatin' each other alive by dawn. Least, I'll be twitchy, and you'll just be - do you get bored?"
Hutch blinked rapidly. "No," he said cautiously. Boredom: dissatisfaction, to be uninterested in one's environment. It seemed improbable that Starsky would suffer from it, Starsky whose mind seemed always to have something new to flit to. "Doesn't seem like that'd happen on - on the job."
Starsky stared at him. "Hutch, anyone ever tell you your dedication levels're kind of scary?"
“I'll bear it in mind,” Hutch said, a little bemused by this; surely dedication to duty was of prime importance? Starsky seemed to attach far more importance to more distracting factors than he had previously thought could be wise, in a ranger.
The mongrel continued to stare for a moment more then shrugged, ripping the wrapper off a protein bar. "I go first," he said, mouth full of beige crumbs, “Then you. Okay, number one: what'd you make of Gillian?"
Hutch blinked, thinking back to the morning's interview. "Uh," he said. "I - an interesting species. Low-level instinctual suggestive impulses to trap weaker minds. Is she carnivorous?"
Starsky choked, spraying protein mix across the dash, and was suddenly and inexplicably convulsed with laughter. Hutch studied him in some alarm. "Carnivorous," Starsky gasped. "Oh, for - she doesn't eat people, Blondie."
"Survival, then?" He felt unaccountably worried in the face of Starsky's easy laughter, and busied himself with looking around; all was quiet outside, however, a natural result of the late hour in this neighbourhood. "She wasn't lying," he added, in an attempt to be helpful, while a still-grinning Starsky wiped his eyes. "I, uh, I couldn't - couldn't tell how truthful she was being, but it wasn't a lie."
“Good to know,” the mongrel said. He settled back in his seat with a deep breath, as if to school himself, and reached out to pat Hutch's knee. “Sorting the lies from the truth is what we do.”
Hutch wasn't certain, but there was a lurking sense of contrition beneath the words, slowing Starsky's amusement-quickened emotions, and he nodded. Starsky's hand withdrew. “Your turn, then.”
Only twenty questions. “Um. What's it like, having a tail?”
Thankfully, Starsky didn't find any humour in that question. Instead, he lifted his tail into the air, reaching out to coil around Hutch's bare wrist. It was surprisingly warm to the touch, perhaps a little tougher than the skin of Starsky's hands, and the surface was only very lightly-furred, the hairs thin and fine. “Probably about the same as you having hands,” Starsky said, his eyes trained on the building opposite as Hutch studied his tail. “It's handy for grabbin' stuff and I guess it helps me balance; gives away my mood if I'm not thinkin' about it, though. Gotta tell me if it's doing that, Hutch, I don't always notice. Hey, you warm enough over there?”
Hutch suppressed the next shiver, and nodded. "Don't need to see your tail to read your mood, uh - buddy," he said, touching the appendage with cautious fingertips, feeling the unfamiliar yet familiar texture; his own forearm felt surprisingly similar. The tail tightened around his wrist, a gentle squeeze, and then withdrew. "But I'll try."
Starsky grinned at him. "Okay. Question number two -"
"You had question number two," Hutch pointed out.
"No I didn't!" Starsky paused, and his eyes narrowed. "Aww, Hutch, that's not fair!"
"Question number three," Hutch said firmly, overriding this objection - it was perfectly fair; he was only following the rules. "How - how old are you?"
"Older'n you," came the prompt reply. "Not by many moons. My turn." He squinted, considering, out into the darkness. "Didn't you even - hey, y'know what I'm talkin' about, right? With Gillian, all those - urges. Didn't you get them?"
"Urges," Hutch said, hesitantly copying Starsky's movements and slouching deeper into his seat. There was a curious reticence around Starsky's thoughts, something that might be embarrassment. "N-no. Can't say I did."
Starsky gaped. "But," the mongrel began, "how can you not -" and then checked himself, evidently not at ease with the subject. "Okay, give it another go, Hutchinson. Let's see what you've got."
Sitting out on stakeouts always left Starsky feeling kind of like he'd wasted an evening, a guilty-frustrated sort of buzz that would last all the next day, driving him to heights of activity that would usually mean whoever was currently partnered with him ended up either threatening to rip his head off or (on one memorable occasion) handing in a strongly-worded letter of resignation to Dobey. Starsky was aware of this, but it wasn't until the morning after their third night on watch that he realised the fizzing frustration was missing.
He actually stopped dead in the corridor, four doors down from Hutch's room. "Huh," he said.
A young Jilfey who had nearly run into him gave him a wide berth, eyeing him with a degree of suspicion (not unusual; deep mistrust was some kind of evolutionary defence mechanism). Starsky allowed himself a few seconds to dwell on the possibilities - Hutch didn't bore him, wasn't likely to try to make insipid conversation for four hours and didn't have many annoying habits that Starsky couldn't either cope with or divert - before shaking his head and continuing on his way, breathing on the scanner to let himself into Hutch's rooms. They'd agreed that it made sense to grant each other scanner access; Hutch had suggested it, to Starsky's surprise.
"You're unlikely to steal all my possessions," the purebreed had said in a matter-of-fact tone, and then his forehead had creased, just slightly, in that way that Starsky thought probably meant his new partner wasn't sure if he'd misjudged something. "Is that -"
"'s fine," Starsky had assured him, patting him on the arm. And it really was; he liked to think that it gave their partnership an appearance of - permanence? Starsky snorted, stepping inside as the door hissed open. Guess I'm gettin' used to you bein' around for the long haul.
Hutch left things lying about like he expected something to come along after him and pick them up. As he retrieved an info pack from halfway under a pair of shoes, Starsky wondered if they had automatic cleaning droids on Minnesota. Probably the kind you don't even have to slip credit to, he mused, clambering onto the windowsill - the suns were warm at this time of the day, and he saw no sense in wasting opportunity - and drawing a finger over the slim device to activate it; Hutch was in the shower, and there wasn't anything to do in Hutch's rooms when Hutch wasn't there.
"A Guide to Other Species," he read aloud, and raised his eyebrows.
By the time Hutch emerged from the shower, already zipped into yet another charcoal grey jumpsuit, Starsky was halfway through the second chapter, his disbelief mounting with every sentence. “Mornin'-”
“Please don't tell me you've been reading this,” Starsky said flatly, before Hutch could complete his greeting. “Hutch, c'mon, this has got to be a joke, this - 'The resemblance between humans and their so-called 'mongrel' counterparts is barely cosmetic, at best',” he read, skipping back a chapter. “'Whilst it may initially appear that human traits have remained intact, further study will immediately reveal these traits to be mere echoes of former greatness; beyond the Western Arm, humanity is fallen and may, at best, aspire to the designation sub-human.' Sub-human, Hutch? You believe that?”
He'd thought that would sound angry. He had every cause to be angry; the fierce burn behind his eyes and in his gut had certainly felt like anger, thousands of years of evolution driving the hackles that stood up on his neck, the snarl that threatened in his throat. He hadn't stared into the endless darkness of the Infinerion Cascade, hot blood coating his mouth and smothering his skin, to see his entire race summed up in a single, derisive word, one amongst hundreds of clinical, analytical repulsion.
But it wasn't anger that made his fingers tighten against the oily smoothness of the info pack or made his voice rise in question; it was disbelief, pure disbelief, and a single look at his partner was enough to validate it.
Hutch was staring at him with quiet bewilderment. “Course I don't,” he said mildly, in tones that suggested Starsky was being utterly ridiculous; his hands jerked up as he spoke, reaching between them as if of their own accord, and the purebreed halted the motion with a confused glance. “Starsk, how could I – that - I brought that with me from Minnesota, it's the only guidebook published -”
Starsky let out his breath in a rush, shoulders slumping with relief, and he scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Jeez. I gotta tell you, your people are nuts. They honestly believe this crap?” He gestured with the pad, still showing the chapter entitled 'Mongrel Society; Similarities Insidious and Erroneous'.
“They have no reason to believe anything else,” Hutch shrugged, pulling the chair out from his desk and dropping into it. “Only those hand-picked to join the diplomatic missions ever encounter other races. We don't even receive news from other systems, and interstellar trade is conducted through diplomatic intermediaries. I'm the first citizen leave Minnesota since - well, er, since the Founding, as far as I know.”
“Rasstressak.” Starsky stared at his partner, trying to imagine a classroom with one sort of face, or a neighbourhood where everyone wore the same shape, spoke the same languages, ate the same food. Tried to imagine Hutch surrounded by tall, expressionless humanoids, a sea of grey and bland, empty faces. “Sounds hella dull, partner.”
"Dull," Hutch repeated, and paused as if tasting, testing the word. It was exactly the same reaction he'd had when Starsky mentioned boredom. "It's - safe. Our minds are extremely vulnerable during youth, before we can efficiently govern our psychic resources. Chaos is - difficult. Damaging, in fact.”
Starsky tilted his head, saw blue eyes track the movement, and considered Hutch's words. “That makes sense,” he said, gruffly. “Encouraging your kids to travel when they ain't got shields, must be sort of like sendin' ours into wa- into gang territory.”
“Worse.” Hutch shook his head, resting his hands neatly in his lap; he always sat like that, straight-backed and still, as if the notion of fidgeting hadn't occurred to him. “Attempting to process that much random information, without any sort of focus or filtration, can tear a psychic's mind apart. Our governments prioritise logic above all things; the more severe the threat -”
“The wackier the prevention method, I get it. Keep the pups afraid, stop 'em wanderin'.” Starsky waved his hand to cut off Hutch's lecture before it could begin. He hopped off the windowsill, landing easily and tossing the info pack carelessly over his shoulder. “Ignorance isn't what I'd choose, but I guess your government knows its people better than me, huh? Hey, you ready to go? We're on the next shift at the ranger's post. Hope you thought of some good questions, pal.”
The voluptuous female who came sauntering up to the Torino's was a surprise; not that there weren't plenty voluptuous females around the neighbourhood, but they tended to stick to the better-lit areas, not the shadow-filled bays and undercuts. Starsky unscreened the window, and she leant in, smirking, long dark hair carrying with it a hint of exotic spices; skin the colour of warm honey barely restrained by skin-tight scarlet material filled Starsky's vision and he swallowed, painfully. Hutch, beside him, coughed politely. "Ma'am?"
"'sup, my rovin' brothers," the newcomer said cheerfully, winking at Starsky; Starsky groaned at the familiar tones, slumping down further in his seat. "I got a name for you; Darraxi the Elder. Word is he's shakin' in his customised booties."
"Thanks, Hug," Starsky said to the breasts still filling much of his vision, and then curiosity won out. "You - uh, you got somethin' special on tonight?"
Huggy laughed, tossing his hair back over his shoulders – and boy did he ever like to mess with pronouns – before leaning in again. “'Side from finally fooling that nose o' yours? This liquid lady has some business to attend to that'll run a whole lot smoother with some honey upfront, y'dig?”
“I get you, but I'm not sure that front could get any further up,” Starsky replied, truthfully, eliciting another busom-quaking laugh from the shapeshifter.
“Can't get perks without perkiness,” Huggy said, grinning when Starsky groaned at his 'pun'. “Come by the bar tonight, hm? That means you and your tall drink of huulin.”
With that and a wave of exquisitely-manicured hands, Huggy was off, sashaying down the street with all the subtlety of a cat mongrel in heat.
Starsky tried not to stare. Hutch shifted in his seat, drawing Starsky's gaze away from the pert bounce of Huggy's rump. “What's huulin?”
“He means you. 'Tall drink of water' is Old Earth slang for a being and huulin is shapeshifter talk, means 'water-that-is-dead'.” The mongrel caught the purse of his partner's lips and, before he could ask, said, “It's cause they're a liquid species, they have to distinguish between huulin and 'water-that-is-life', huunine. You won't see Huggy drinking anything when we hit the bar. It ain't something they do.”
"Seems a funny kind of way for him to make a living," Hutch said, after a short, thoughtful pause.
Starsky shrugged, still trying hard to banish some unquestionably erotic images from his mind. He didn't really have any interest in ending up in Huggy's bed these days, but sometimes the shapeshifter would throw out a form that pushed all the right damn buttons; he suspected that a knowing Huggy took great delight in making him squirm. "Huggy's different," he said. "Actually quite likes bein' around the rest of us; reckon he thinks if he can get enough liquid into us we'll end up a tiny bit less huulin. What, y'didn't have him pegged for an idealist?"
"Anybody hoping to blend in with that form would have to be an idealist," Hutch said cautiously, and Starsky grinned. "So, uh - who's Darraxi?"
"Darraxi? Small-time boss, big-time loser," Starsky said, checking the viewscreen and seeing nothing but darkness. "Always seems t'get hung out to dry. I'd feel sorry for him if it wasn't for the blackmail, rape and horrible taste in shirts."
Hutch raised an eyebrow. “You police attire as well as behaviour?”
“How else would I look so good?”
The purebreed's lips twitched, just a little, then settled back to their usual bland line. “I'm not sure you'd appreciate my answer to that.”
Picked up teasing, huh? Starsky moved to prop his feet up on the dash; even with the new information, they'd have to wait for their relief to arrive before acting on it. Dobey might be an understanding sort of captain, but running out on a stakeout because of new intel was just the sort of behaviour that had earned Starsky his somewhat dubious reputation for reliability. In truth, trying to hide his delight at Hutch's increasing willingness to play his verbal games; unsuccessfully, it seemed, because the purebreed gave that odd little head tilt that meant he was receiving an emotional signal. “Just be glad I ain't picked up a warrant for you. How many times can you wear that thing before washing it, anyways? My nose won't stand for a stinker.”
“My clothes regulate body temperature with pinpoint accuracy,” Hutch replied mildly, tapping the grey material. “Any unpleasant bodily odour will certainly not come from me.”
“You know what the sentence is for giving lip to a ranger?”
Hutch continued to peer out into the darkness. “Well, according to subsection 27 of chapter 4 of the Los Angeles Laws and Ordinances-”
“All right, all right!” Starsky laughed, defeated. Hutch didn't look at him, but his lips twitched a second time. “Just my luck to partner up with a photographic memory. Hope you didn't pay too much attention to that book, Hutch, none of these lowlifes got past the first page. Especially Darraxi.”
“You're - personally familiar with him, then?”
Always so careful, Hutch's phrasing, like he'd learned how to speak from a manual. “Busted him a few times, never got anythin' to stick,” Starsky said, remembering prostitutes with broken limbs, families desperate to pay out rather than testify. “It's the little fish that've got more to lose, y'know? He can't afford to go under so when he can't cover up, he throws us another little fish to keep us busy. A guy makes enemies, behaving like that.”
"Enemies," Hutch said, thoughtful. "I thought, before, that all- criminals- were on the same side." A little smile. "Sounds like a stupid idea, but we don't- y'know, we don't have crime on Minnesota, as- as such."
Starsky stared at him, not sure if he'd heard right. "You don't- have crime. You don't have crime?"
"No," Hutch said; he sounded weirdly regretful in the wake of this revelation. "The- well, the Corps is more for - making sure everyone knows the rules; sometimes people- forget the rules, and then they get- reminded, I guess." A little crease crept in between his brows. "But we don't kill each other. Or steal, or- or fight, really. Not even a disturbance of the peace."
Starsky looked down at his hands in order to help hide his shock; he had a feeling he didn't succeed, because Hutch shifted uncomfortably, much less at ease than he had been a few minutes ago. "Hey," he said, and cleared his throat. "I'm all for not killin' and not stealin' things that belong to other folk, but between you an' me- I think we all need a bit of a disturbance of the peace sometimes."
"Yes," Hutch said doubtfully. "But what I mean is, it's not- it's- different, hearing about all these things that people, that they'll do to each other when it's something we, they, don't ever really- contemplate." He was a shade less pale when Starsky glanced sideways at him, as if the stumbling speech was more difficult than usual. "It's- fascinating. Disturbing, but fascinating. And I never- I never thought it would be this- varied."
“Varied,” Starsky repeated, dumbly. Crime, he'd always believed, was as endemic to society as disease to the swamplands. It was a symptom of life itself, one amongst thousands both good and bad, as crucial as the inclination to form social groups and hierarchies. What was that Old Earth saying about promises and pie crusts? You couldn't make a rule without somebody breaking it. If all you had was nothing, that was all you had to lose. “It, er- I never heard it called that before,” he said, after a moment's awkward silence.
Hutch didn't say anything.
Starsky was glad, for once, that he was sitting on his tail; no matter what Hutch could read from his mind, at least his extremities wouldn't be giving too much away. The purebreed was staring determinedly ahead, his eyes unreadable in the gloom, and Starky had a distinct feeling that his partner was hoping for some sort of violent disturbance to occur in the building beyond, to shatter through the tension. “So, you guys don't have poverty or anything?”
“Not...as such,” Hutch said, not moving an inch. “Each student is allocated a programme of study based on their native intelligence, personality and family resources, which in turn determines their career path. Everyone leaves school, uh, useful. Everyone contributes. If someone fails to complete their assigned education -” Hutch hesitated, his brow furrowing. Starsky noticed that his hands, so tidily clasped in his lap, tensed, the muscles bulging slightly under the skin. “Re- Re-conditioning is a-always available,” the purebreed finished. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, straightening up. “Everyone contributes,” he repeated, softly.
Ah. Starsky was struck by a sudden urge to touch, to comfort; Hutch didn't look vulnerable, tall and sleek and hard with muscle, unassailable, but Starsky's instincts were tickling at him, ordering him to move, to touch, to cover Hutch over with his warmth and not let go until- No, he thought, with a touch of amusement. He probably wouldn't appreciate that. “Doesn't sound like you get a lot of choice over there.”
Hutch blinked. “Choice is not always- It is seen to invite disorder. It's not- it's not vital to- Starsky, you have to understand, some of my people possess abilities that- well. It's best to say that should they choose to act in an ungoverned manner, there would be little to be done to stop them. It's not- not wrong to act for the whole of society, right?”
There wasn't much Starsky could say to that, for all that high school history had taught about the dangers of blind, unquestioning subservience. He made some sort of meaningless noise in answer, hoping that he didn't sound too weirded out, and swiftly began a conversation about the various sports that were played professionally and which were, in his opinion, a complete waste of everyone's time and energy. Hutch joined in, seemingly relieved at the change in topic, and Starsky found himself relaxing as the conversation went on; their relationship, their friendship, was far too new for this. The dissection of purebreed society and identification of its myriad flaws would have to wait for another time.
The droid on duty at the foot of the anti-grav jump to the 94th floor had actually tried to stop them from going up, some garbled message that clearly indicated an amateur hack of the core directive; Starsky had rather gleefully shot at it with a low-range laser beam, thereby rendering it inactive. "It was faulty," he said glibly when Hutch mentioned it, about halfway up. "Can't have that hangin' around, someone might get hurt."
Darraxi's apartment was tiny; it was rank with the smell of unwashed bodies and alcohol fumes, to which Darraxi himself was contributing. Hutch had kept his face slightly averted; Starsky's thoughts held a not-so-thinly veiled undercurrent of disgust. "I don' got it," Darraxi was whining. "I don't got the stuff, Starsky, what, y'got a warrant, comin' in here like -"
"Warrant?" Starsky asked, letting some of his distaste show; slit-pupilled eyes glanced around the squalid room before returning their unwavering gaze to the Alterian's face. "Forget warrant, we should be gettin' a pay rise. Right, Hutch?"
"That's right," Hutch agreed. "And Darraxi, if you so much as touch the blaster under that chair..." Threats didn't come naturally, not yet, but at least it held the ring of truth. There was a blaster under Darraxi's chair, a little wicked spider-gun; Hutch concentrated a little harder. "Or the neuron gas," he added, sensing the intent under the roiling heave of the being's sordid mind. It was amazing what a little Dust did to the brain.
Vivid yellow eyes moved restlessly in the little being's face as he scanned for exits, the dexterous tentacles that served as fingers twitching against the arms of the chair. “Wh- what d'you mean?” he asked, artlessly. “I wasn't- I wasn't gonna-”
“Save it,” Starsky said, brusquely. His tail was beginning a slow, measured swish through the air, catching Darraxi's wavering attention; it was predatory, Hutch realised, as Starsky's emotions sharpened with a beat-pulse of instinct. It was predatory, and the drug-dealer was beginning to sweat. “You think I can't smell where you're keepin' it? Got enough stashed away to keep all of your little girls leashed. They ain't changed the law about sellin' drugs to kids, y'know.”
Fear lanced out from the Alterian's mind, laced with memories of thin, half-starved faces and little hands grabbing for Dust cannisters; Hutch took a deep breath, blocking the images as best he could. Darraxi shivered. “You got no proof,” he whined, the unhealthy gleam of Dust-sweat oiling his skin. “You got no proof and I got rights, you-”
“Rights?” Starsky snarled, starting forwards; Darraxi yelped and the mongrel halted with obvious effort, hands clenching. Hutch caught the ricochet of his aggression, bringing with it the memory of Ranin's warning, and he moved closer to his partner. “Your rights begin and end with us, th'iaou,” Starsky continued, his tail lashing in earnest now. “And they're gonna end in this room if you give us what we want.”
“Dust shipments,” Hutch cut in hurriedly, as the Alterian shrank back in the filthy chair. “Word in the skies is that something big's headed for the city.”
“Something big enough to make the top dogs play nice,” Starsky added, folding his arms. “You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?”
"I don't got anythin' you wanna hear about," Darraxi said sullenly, but the words lacked conviction and his eyes lingered on Starsky's blaster holster. "All my business, see, I got it all legal and y'can't take -"
"Come off it," Starsky snarled. "Dust shipments."
"Hey, man, y'think-" Darraxi swallowed nervously, the mind-images flickering. "If I was involved in that sorta game, man, would I be sittin' here talkin' to the law? A bein' don't get far tryin' to climb to high, y'gotta stick to what y'know."
"You're just an honest supplier," Starsky said, heavy on the sarcasm.
"I got what people need," Darraxi said, flat eyes glinting dully, squirming about in his seat. "What they need. Ain't none of us don't need somethin', Mr High-Flyin' Ranger."
"So give it," Hutch said, sorting through the mêlée of thoughts, impressions, whirlwind images flickering in and out of focus; he'd grown too used to reading only Starsky, maybe, and the jump from almost soothing familiarity to this nauseating thread of bad intentions was disconcerting in the extreme. "C'mon, Darraxi, who's supplying you these days?"
The Alterian's gaze slid onto him, fresh sweat breaking out on oily skin. "Don't know what you're talkin' about."
Starsky's aggression, which had subsided to a low, grumbling flicker, flared beside Hutch, so sudden that the purebreed winced. “Wrong answer,” the mongrel growled, then in a blur of movement he had Darraxi by the throat, dragging him up from his prone position to slam, him against the wall, leaning in with head cocked to one side, teeth bared almost to graze against glistening skin. Before Hutch could react, Starsky's hands tightened, strangling Darraxi's panicked whimper. “One more try,” the ranger said, the muscles of his shoulders swelling against his thin jacket as he kept the drug-dealer pinned. “Answer my partner's question.”
Wide, abscess-yellow eyes slid closed as Darraxi hung in Starsky's grip, limp and motionless with fear. The Alterian's murky greenish skin had drained of all colour, leaving him grey and gasping, his terror a bright, bludgeoning scream that ripped through into Hutch's mind. Hutch, disorientated by the visceral punch of emotion, wavered for a moment; it was all the time Starsky needed to pull Darraxi forwards and ram him back into the wall, the Alterian's loose sack of a body hitting the wall with a wet smack. ”Where are you getting the stuff?” Starsky demanded.
Darraxi was whining in earnest now, thin tentacles coiled helplessly around Starsky's wrists, and his pain echoed sharply across Hutch's nerves. “V- Van- Vaneen,” the dealer stammered, choking against Starsky's grip; the mongrel loosened his hold a little. “Her new p-place at St- Sterrin's Walk.”
Starsky's lips twitched, though Hutch would have been loathe call that expression a smile. “Thanks for your time,” the mongrel said mockingly, and carelessly dropped the wheezing Alterian to the floor. “Don't go swannin' off anywhere, huh? Got our eyes on you.”
With that he turned, the bitter whirl of anger and ferocity dissipating with swift suddenness, and strolled out of the dingy apartment. Hutch lingered for a moment, trying to process what he'd just seen; he couldn't have imagined such intense anger from his equable partner, had never thought to see him exhibit such casual, easy violence with so little provocation. Aware that Darraxi was staring at him, his skin already darkening with bruises where Starsky had grabbed him, Hutch hurried after the mongrel, his thoughts in uncomfortable disarray; there was much more to Starsky – easy-going, cheerful, self-assured Starsky – than he had expected.
"See, way I see it," Starsky said as Hutch caught him up, his mind apparently having settled back into its usual chaotic mix of various vague desires, case-thoughts and swirling contentment, "we got nothin' to pull him in on, 'less he does a lot more'n talkin' about it."
Hutch frowned, thinking. "He's not just dealing," he said.
"Really?" Starsky slowed as they reached a vendor; this one advertised Real Food! in lurid flashing projections. "Hey, d'you want a burrito?"
Hutch peered into the interior of the booth; the drone stationed there was grease-stained and looked none too clean. "Uh," he said. "Maybe another time."
"You'll starve, eatin' that nutrient mix all the time." Starsky eyeballed the reader, which bleeped in acknowledgement of an optical ID; seconds later, the burrito swung out on a thin tray. "Go on, have a bite. Put some meat on you."
"Starsky, I'd rather eat space dirt." Starsky shrugged and took a bite himself, eyes half-closing in appreciation; bliss leaked through, probably deliberate. "That Darraxi? He's relieved we're following up on the deal. Really relieved."
Starsky, chewing, blinked in surprise. "Think he could be hidin' something bigger going down?"
Hutch considered this, taking his time to sort through the memory of nebulous feelings; nervousness, guilt, relief - "He's got some kind of big connection," he said, concentrating. "Something he's afraid we're going to find."
"Whew." Starsky swallowed. "We thought he was small fry, but if he's a small fry that knows what's feedin' off the top -" He shook his head. "Could bust this deal wide open." A warm arm was flung around Hutch's shoulders. "You're as useful as you are pretty, partner, y'know that?"
Hutch tried to sort through the sudden morass of meaning being sent his way and foundered; he gave in. "Is that a compliment?"
"You better believe it, blue eyes." Starsky grinned at him fondly. "Hey, you sure y'don't want a bite of this -"
Hutch sighed, made a grab for Starsky's left hand and took a bite from the burrito it held; to his surprise, it tasted almost like real meat, laced with spice and sweetness from whatever sauce Starsky had put on the top. He took his time chewing and swallowing, aware that Starsky had trailed off and was watching him, his fingers sticky under Hutch's. "Not bad," he said, and Starsky's thoughts veered quickly into a confused tangle of sharp hunger and animal jealousy, and away again; he released the hand. "Not bad at all."
“East Drop's a dud,” Starsky announced, breezing into Dobey's office the next morning with his coffee in one hand and a large Danish in the other. No amount of wheedling had induced Hutch to even consider eating the second one, so Starsky dropped it on top of Dobey's in-tray with a grin and flung himself into a chair. “We took tea with Darraxi the Elder last night, seems like Gillian was spinnin' us a yarn.”
His captain growled, the robotic in his right arm buzzing as he picked up the pastry, and bushy eyebrows lowered in displeasure. “Either that or Gaertew ain't rollin' as high as he'd like – Founders, Hutchinson, sit down before I get neck strain!”
Hutch startled, stammered an apology, and sank awkwardly into a chair next to Starsky; the mongrel hid a grin, unobtrusively hooking his tailtip around the purebreed's ankle. Dobey's brusque approach to captaining could take a little getting used to. “It's not Gaertew that's got Darraxi scared, that's for sure. Took a little shakin', but it was Vaneen's name that fell out. He said she's got a new place over on Sterrin's Walk that might be worth our time.”
Dobey's frown darkened and the muscle in Hutch's leg tightened for a moment, as if with a flinch. “Starsky, do you have any idea how thin this department is stretched? I've already got you two on loan to Vice and if you think we've got the manpower to set up another stakeout-”
“Not another one, the only one; switch the surveillance from the ranger's post. You've got to admit,even this is a stronger lead. It'll be the same duty roster, just a different view. Me an' Hutch'll put the squeeze on Darraxi, see if we can get something more concrete. How's that?”
“Sounds to me like you've squeezed hard enough for now,” Dobey said, narrowing his eyes at Starsky; the mongrel shrugged. Pressuring lowlives like Darraxi had never weighed too heavily on his conscience. It's not like he hurt anyone, right?
“Darraxi was hiding something, captain,” Hutch piped up, unexpectedly. He tended towards reticence in Dobey's presence, as he did with most people, and Starsky rubbed his ankle in thanks. The purebreed's shoulders shifted under Dobey's gaze, somehow contriving to shift even further back. “His mind was- He was definitely keeping something significant hidden. It...it scared him.”
“Fine,” the captain said, after fixing Starsky with a significant look. “I'll talk to Captain Jennings, see what she thinks. Meanwhile, you and Hutchinson can do some preliminary reconnaissance; cruiser-positioning, municipal surveillance pods, general ranger presence, the works.”
“Aw, cap', scope work?”
Dobey's scowl metamorphosed into a grin, though the lines in his forehead didn't lessen, and he sat back in his chair. “Scope work, ranger. Maybe it'll give you second thoughts about sending the whole department on a wild Floon chase next time, huh?”
Starsky stalked out of headquarters, heading automatically towards the Torino; Hutch paced silently along behind him, a worried crinkle in his forehead that Starsky knew meant he was perplexing his partner. "Let's go find Darraxi," he said, wrenching the door open manually.
Hutch blinked at him over the cruiser's hood. "Uh, didn't Dobey say we should-"
"Sure," Starsky said, impatient. "After we do this. Come on, Hutch, we have to go find Darraxi 'fore the bastard skips the port. I want to question him."
"Yes, but our assigned task-"
"Bend the rules," Starsky said, and Hutch's eyes narrowed a fraction. "Look, Blondie, I got things I want to find out, and then we should-"
"Go back and begin our assignment," Hutch said implacably.
That hadn't been what Starsky was going to suggest; he swallowed his words and nodded tersely. "Sure. Back. 'scope work and- yeah. Hey, think y'can read his mind again?"
In answer, Hutch raised an eyebrow. Starsky's irritation put up a good fight, but he couldn't hold onto it when Hutch was being almost feline in his disdain. “Okay, hotshot,” he grinned, dropping into the driver's seat. “You're the master psychic, I won't ask again.”
“Sure y'are. Is there anyone else in this Interceptor who can read minds?”
The purebreed sighed. It was becoming something of a habit, Starsky had begun to notice, a little audible tick that Hutch either hadn't noticed or simply didn't bother to suppress; the mongrel made a mental note to be as aggravating as possible whenever he thought Hutch had wound himself up too tight. “Just because I am genetically inclined to the task-” Hutch was saying, as Starsky powered up the Torino.
“Whoa there, Blintz, you got a dictionary over there? Ain't sure I'll be able to follow this.”
“...You're being deliberately facetious.”
“How can I be something when I don't know what it means?”
“You're cute when you're mad, Hutch.”
“I'm not mad.”
"It would be biologically impossible for me to feel such an emotion," Hutch said stiffly, running a hand back through his hair; and that, Starsky thought, was clearly untrue, because Hutch was flustered. "You think Darraxi needs to know we're on to him?"
"He knows," Starsky said, and grinned. "Least, he always thinks he does."
"- and the damn place was empty! Cleared out! And we go in there and there's some Midorian gang using it as a hideout and Blondie here just starts tellin' 'em why they're unhappy livin' there-"
"Genius," Coles said, hugely amused if the tone of his thoughts was any indication; it had taken all of Hutch's hard-won calm from the morning's meditation to sort through the clamour of two families of an unfamiliar species, and he was feeling stretched. "Any hint where the little bastard's gone?"
"Not much of a one, but to my way of thinkin', if he was clean he'd not have moved." Starsky pulled up a chair and sat down on it back to front, resting his arms on the back and grinning at Hutch; Hutch wondered at his good humour. "Then of course we run into a robbery, and who the hell runs a store and doesn't at least hire in a droid?”
Coles raised a single furry eyebrow; his alien ancestry was a great deal more apparent than Starsky's, the animal features far more pronounced, but he seemed positively normal compared to the Midorian gang members they'd had to move on. “C'mon, Starsk, you've been working Nightside all this time and you don't know why bein's don't trust droids?” he was saying, with a scornful click of his fangs.
Starsky shrugged. “Droids are droids, man. Ain't like A.I.s, they ain't capable of independent thought. You set it to guard, it guards. What's to be scared of?”
“Robophobia is common to illogical species,” Hutch put in, hoping to distract himself from his weariness. “The irrational fear that proven-reliable machines will develop sentience or malfunction in a dangerous fashion-”
“Whoa there, Blondie, put your textbook away!” Starsky said, with a flash of affection so strong that it had to be a projection. Teasing again, Hutch thought, pleased to have recognised it immediately.
“You're just jealous 'cause his mama taught him how to read,” Coles said, serenely, winking at Hutch.
Starsky's tail lashed. “Oh yeah? Well your mama-”
A bellow from the direction of Dobey's office made them both jump; Hutch winced. “Starsky! Hutchinson! Why aren't you scoping Sterrin's Walk?!”
That night, they didn't take the Torino, for once; Starsky would admit to being fond of the walk to The Pits after dark, when the sunsets turned the long strings of interweaving traffic into jewelled threads of light through the emptiness and the cooler air felt a little more like home. Hutch hesitated at the first shortcut Starsky took - an unauthorised grav jump with little more than thin steel railings - but followed willingly enough, his eyes wide open now and bright with interest.
"It ain't far," Starsky said as they reached the thirty-second level, pausing to let a family of Dar slither past. "Just around the corner - hey, mind the trash droid - and here we go, what d'you think, huh?"
Hutch was staring at the neon-sprayed, flickering building with a look of distinct alarm. "In - there?"
"Sure is. Most happenin' place on LA, if you believe Huggy. Come on, Blondie, 'less you just wanted to admire the architecture?"
“Does that count as architecture?”
Starsky chuckled. “Cut Huggy some slack, Hutch, shapeshifters are fluid, remember? How was he to know what buildings are meant to look like?”
The purebreed paused at the main entrance, studying the permeable membrane that Huggy had installed instead of a door. “But the laws of physics-”
“Bend around him, just like every other damn law. Come on,” Starsky insisted, taking Hutch by the arm and towing him in; there was the usual moment of morphic uncertainty, a not-unpleasant twinge that came from somewhere near the base of his spine as his bones struggled to remember what they had evolved into, then they were in. The Pits was pretty tame as far as most LA clubs went, existing across only two floors and three dimensions, but judging by the way Hutch was staring, nothing on Minnesota compared. True to his heritage, and in defiance of unwritten shapeshifter codes about blending in, Huggy had brought the concept of stability to a grinding halt. Almost every surface shimmered with inconsistency, walls and floors constantly shifting and reshaping according to the proprietor's whims. The bar itself was a single constant surrounded by an eternal state of flux, something that Huggy had once drunkenly described as 'life, man, that hep-cat groove we keep failin' to dig'. The dance floor seemed to be everywhere, even up in the not-quite-anti-grav gaming level, and the booths, far from being stationary, seemed to lap around their occupants like gentle, teasing waves.
It had nothing on the gaseous bars, or the starclimber pubs, strung like festive lights at the furthest edge of the atmosphere, within spitting distance of space's vacuum, but it was fresh and lively, lowlifes and do-gooders rubbing shoulders and swapping bodily fluids, and it had the coolest proprietor this side of Mexxilal's ice moons. Starsky had never found a better place to relax.
Hutch, by contrast, looked even more alarmed than he had by his first freefall in the Torino.
"Hey, look, here's law and order," crooned Huggy's voice, and the shapeshifter appeared from behind them (Starsky wasn't sure how). "But which is law and which is order? What it is, brothers."
"Keep somethin' clear for us, will you, Hug?"
"The Bear aims to please." Huggy's sharp look sideways indicated that he'd registered Hutch's confusion; one of the booths ceased in its attempt to morph into a rock formation, instead settling back into a mass of white plastic and trailing vines, reassuringly static by comparison to the rest of the room. "If I serve you at my humble bar, Starsky, you goin' to pay your tab?"
"Someday, when you find the scanner," Starsky said, laying his hands on Hutch's shoulders to gently steer him forwards; he couldn't resist rubbing the nape of Hutch's neck in a passing caress, and felt the purebreed relax unexpectedly. "Whatcha want, Blondie?"
Hutch took a deep breath, leaned back against cool plastic and the vines now sprouting tiny yellow flowers and said, calmly, "Surprise me."
Huggy's eyebrows, large enough in this body to count as extra limbs, climbed to beyond his hairline. “This your first trip to a bar, tauktak? You don't never give a bartender that kind of power.”
And before Hutch could stammer apologies at him for incorrect social protocol, the shapeshifter was gone. Starsky elected to sit on the actual seat of the booth, rather than its back and tapped Hutch's hand with a tailtip. “Don't worry, he won't bring you somethin' awful – Hug's good like that.”
“I..see.” The purebreed settled a little further down in his chair, actually slouching for the first time since Starsky had met him (had it really only been four days?). He looked more comfortable with a stable surface underneath him, scanning his surroundings with interest. “”So this is how you socialise?”
And back to the lectures. Starsky prepared himself for a great deal more than twenty questions.
"Kind of cute, isn't it?" A'jak mused with a teasing eye on Starsky. The other two eyes were fixed on Hutch, who was at the bar; they'd met A'jak by accident and Starsky was already wishing she would leave. "Gotta say, when you said you found something tall and blond, I thought -"
"Paws off," Starsky snapped, bristling. "None of your – techniques."
"My, someone's protective."
"Give me a break," Starsky said, still disgruntled. "And while you're about it, skedaddle off home."
A'jak raised an eyebrow, leaning provocatively closer. She smelt good, and she looked good (couldn't really fail to, what with only some strategically draped clothing hiding pale green skin that Starsky had, at one time or another, probably had his hands all over), and there was a hint of impatience in her voice when she said, "Starsky, aboya, you're no fun tonight."
Starsky narrowed his eyes. "I'm plenty of fun," he said, nettled. "I just ain't in the mood for - that kind of fun."
A'jak glanced pointedly downwards; Starsky fought the urge to cross his legs. "That all for your blond bit of fluff, then?"
Starsky sputtered on his drink. "Bit of fluff?" he managed. "Oh, man, please call him that. Actually, don't, I don't want to mop up the blood." Okay, so maybe he was exaggerating; Hutch would probably just frown and say something bland, one of those comments that didn't seem to mean anything much but then turned out to be a little but cutting when you thought about it later. "He's my partner, yeah? It's somethin' - different. I think."
A'jak shook her head, translucent curls flying. "Whatever you say, boy," she murmured, the corner of her full lips curving in a smile as Starsky sighed in frustration. "Whatever you say."
Starsky watched her sashay away, not without a tinge of regret - which she was, he thought, probably pretty aware of - and then turned to smile at Hutch, who was making his way carefully back to the table with a tray balanced in one hand; it tipped precariously and Starsky made a grab for it. "Hey, y'got me a Bingotian Breath? Aw, Hutch, this stuff's the best!"
"You said that about the last one," Hutch said, sitting down carefully. His cheeks were still flushed from the cocktail, Starsky noticed, and he was sitting even more upright than usual as if having to concentrate hard to remain in the unnatural position. "Uh, Starsk, can- can I ask you a, a question?"
"Shoot," Starsky said, taking an appreciate inhalation of the Breath and shifting around on the broad seat slightly; now, if he slouched, their knees were touching. "Y'okay, Hutch?"
"Sure. I just-" Hutch cleared his throat. "Gillian. I was just, I was wondering, how- why do you feel inclined to- mate with her when it's biologically impossible for Sirens to breed with a mammalian being?"
It was lucky he'd opted for a gaseous drink. If it had been liquid, he'd have been choking on it right now. As it was he merely spluttered, his throat catching on the last wisps of Breath, and had to take a moment to clear his throat. “Well, first of all, we don't call it 'mating',” he said, hoarsely. “Founders, we're not animals. It's sex, okay?”
“Sex,” Hutch parroted, obediently, and Founders damn whichever Bingoth came up with Breaths; Starsky's head was beginning to swim and Hutch's voice was far too soft and sensual a thing to say that word...
“Right,” the mongrel said, trying desperately to order his thoughts. “Right, so...Sex. Er. You- You didn't feel anything when you were there? No, ah....stirrings? Or, like, warmth?”
The purebreed's left eyebrow quirked, only by millimetres, but on Hutch that was like a full-on scrunched-up look of confusion. “Warmth,” he repeated, again. “Not that I noticed. Is that how ma- sexual desire manifests itself?”
Starsky stared at him, entirely confused. "For most species, yeah, I guess it does, 'less you're a long way away from anythin' humanoid or- somethin'."
"I had wondered," Hutch said, apparently unaware that he was making no sense. Starsky had sort of got the message by this point that Hutch had an iron grip on any reactions that might display anything other than calm ordered reasoning; he'd lumped together hunger, tiredness and sexual desire into the same category, and since he'd seen Hutch both eat and look like he was about to fall asleep on his feet he'd been assuming- "Other species do it too, huh?" Hutch continued, rubbing knuckles lightly over his chest in an absent gesture that drew Starsky's eye. "I mean, I hadn't- hadn't thought much about it, but it seems as if it takes up a lot of- emotion. A lot of thinking."
It was far too late for this conversation. Starsky took another long suck from his drink, wryly musing that at least it was good practice for whenever he decided to 'breed' and had to give The Talk. “Emotion, yeah, but not thinking. Your body tends to overrule your brain when it comes to this sort of thing.”
Hutch's eyebrow twisted further. “Emotion without- without thought?”
He sounded like he'd never even heard of such a notion, let alone experienced it, and Starsky needed a lot more drinks for this to make sense. “Hutch, are you telling me that you never-”
The purebreed's hand stilled and his mouth softened, growing a little slack – would any other being be gaping at him by now? "Not- Not sex, no, but I have...shared...with someone."
"Starsky, we're empaths. Psychics. We use our minds to be intimate."
"So you're tellin' me," Starsky said, fixing him with a look of extreme doubt, "that if some lovely bein' made a pass at you, you'd just- not want to-"
"We don't all have tendencies towards the hedonistic," Hutch said in that stiff tone that meant he didn't like the subject. "It's just a pointless exercise, Starsky. We rendered it obsolete."
Starsky clamped down relentlessly on the shock of - what, pity? Or just a need to prove Hutch wrong? - that swept through him. It seemed to work, because Hutch didn't wince. "Guess it makes the mornin' after easier t'deal with," he said instead. "If all you've done is think at each other."
The purebreed sighed, that long, deep sigh that meant he was carefully suppressing a negative emotion; Starsky wondered, off-hand, if he would ever be able to bypass that suppression instinct. Probably shouldn't make that an ambition. Hutch cleared his throat, distracting Starsky from his speculations. "There's more to it than basic thought-processing," the blond said, one long finger tracing idle loops across the tabletop. "It's like - It's like sinking into a pool of hot water, you immerse yourself in every nuance of the other empath's being, you let yourself drown in them as they drown in you... It can take days. I-" Hutch hesitated, his hand stilling in its motion, and his mouth tightened. "I only ever- I..."
"There was only one special lady for you, huh?"
Hutch looked sideways at him, eyes pale in the even lighting. "Yeah," he said, and then huffed out a breath that might, in another being, have been called a laugh. "It's not a recipe for happiness, even then." He must have sensed Starsky's burning curiosity, because one corner of that tempting mouth (do you people even do kissing, or is that too low-brow?) lifted a little. "It's clean, at least."
Clean? Starsky shook his head. "You're a headcase, Blintz," he said fondly. "See, you're missin' out on- on holdin' someone, on-" words failed him; he'd never had to describe what he took for granted. All he knew was that he wanted to be there the day Hutch discovered that that body of his could be played like an instrument, the day he lay there naked and sweat-soaked and begged to be touched, the day he let someone past that scared-empathic block on emotion. Starsky swallowed and forced himself to forget those images even as they presented themselves to him in lurid detail. Don't push it.
"I've got you to hold onto," Hutch said with a more natural smile. "So, how do you-" he waved a hand. "If not for procreation, then why- why go through with it? Do you just trust to chance?"
Starsky dropped his head into his hands. "Huggy," he said, muffled, and Huggy materialised at their sides. "Another drink?"
'The lease to be held by Mr Bear until the disintegration of the Unified Systems, collapse of the relevant planetary system or until such time as he should choose to leave the Unified Systems Spaceport Los Angeles: whichever should occur first.'
- Lease for 'The Pits'
Thank you to everyone who's reading - this story hasn't been abandoned, we promise!
In the shining dark, crying out
In the screaming silence, a distant light
In the reckless falling
Be still, my love.
- Dassat M'han, 'The Lost Souls of Infinerion'
"Mornin'." Rather unusually, Starsky didn't move from his chair; he was sprawled at an unlikely angle, head craned back to see into the hallway, and his greeting was absent-minded at best. Puzzled, Hutch glanced back in the direction he had come, and saw nothing to warrant such interest.
"Uh, Starsky, what -"
"What," Starsky said with a certain degree of relish. "That's the whole question, Hutch. What." He jerked his head. "Look closely."
Hutch squinted at the hallway, puzzled. For a moment he saw nothing unusual, but then something moved and he realised with a jolt that what he had assumed was a lift door was in fact a very well camouflaged humanoid, talking animatedly with Jax, whom Hutch had assumed was carrying on a conversation on her comm chip. "Dermatological morphing," he said, interested. "Unusual."
"He smells good," Starsky said, voice a little hoarse.
"Possible secretion of -"
"Nuh-uh, Hutch. No talkin' about secretions."
Hutch watched, bemused, as Starsky not-so-subtly craned his neck around again to look at the seemingly fascinating individual. He could sense a glassy kind of shimmer, something like and yet wholly unlike Huggy's quicksilver smoothness; the being was complacent, curious, thinking about itself. "Right," he said, and pushed himself up from his chair - Starsky didn't seem to notice - to wander over to the vendor in the corner.
Ranin startled him by meeting his eyes with a wave of something that felt a little bit like compassion when he passed her; the curiosity was there, too, in a different flavour, and he decided then and there that he didn't understand mongrels, would never understand mongrels, and probably had no hope of understanding them unless they stopped acting so irrationally. There was no reason for Starsky to want - He can't breed with it, Hutch thought, mildly exasperated, tugging a cup down and shoving it into the stasis field. He has no way of knowing whether it would accept any advances he might make; what is the point?
"He's always liked a challenge," Ranin rumbled in something that might have been called a whisper, joining him with cup in hand, and to his confusion added, "Don't fret, Blondie, he'll get bored, don't take it - seriously, yeah?"
Taking it seriously seemed to be exactly what Starsky was doing, at any rate. Throughout the rest of the morning Hutch watched, bemused, as his partner shot heated glances across the room, replied at random to any questions directed his way (though he seemed capable enough of making corrections to the copy of the new rota for their stakeout of Vaneen's place) and projected such a confused whirlwind of unusual emotion that Hutch excused himself, somewhere around midday, and made his way hastily to the bathrooms.
They were empty, to his relief, and the tiles had been cooled; he leaned against the wall, blinking slowly and absorbing the quiet. There was distant awareness of the busy building – there couldn't not be – and he could still feel Starsky on the floor above, but none of the immediacy, none of the uncomfortable prickly mongrel complications.
Hutch wondered if Starsky knew.
The revelation that he didn't want Starsky to find a – a partner, a different kind of partner, was puzzling. It must have some basis in logic, Hutch decided, breathing in slow quiet lungfuls of reconditioned air; it was simply that this environment, new and baffling, meant that Hutch's understanding of that logic had been flawed. He wasn't sure he liked the feeling; too much like balancing on the edge of the skywalks without Starsky at his back to steady him.
“This is foolish,” he said, very clearly, and was reassured when his voice didn't waver. Starsky would remain his companion, at least during work hours, and Hutch didn't need Starsky's guidance so much for anything else any more if Starsky didn't care to give it. Not that Starsky had given any indication yet, but Hutch was entirely prepared for the eventuality. It would be natural to miss one's guide, he added to himself. Not strange at all.
He was startled out of his reflections by the hiss of the door opening and the intrusion of an unshielded mind; curiously damp and smooth, it was bright with emotion and familiar...
“Hutchinson!” came a delighted cry, and Hutch relaxed. It was Norl. The stocky mongrel was grinning despite an unhealthy dryness to his scales and he patted Hutch's arm in a friendly manner as he trotted in, clearly headed for the amphibian moisturising shower at the far end of the room. “Takin' a break from the hotshot, huh?”
Clearly Norl's human ancestry had been particularly rambunctious, to have so thoroughly overcome any trace of Silurian reserve. Hutch let the waves of amusement roll over him, glad of Norl's emotional simplicity. “Something like that,” he said, after a moment. He'd never actually felt the need to 'take a break' from Starsky, not even in the claustrophobic confinement of the stakeouts, but it seemed inevitable that Starsky might and, given his interest in the new arrival, it might happen sooner rather than later.
The thought of evenings spent alone should not be unsettling. He had barely spent them any other way on Duluth.
Thankfully, Norl seemed too wrapped up in his ablutions to offer any further comment other than a laugh and Hutch took the opportunity to duck out of the washroom, his disquiet far from eased.
To his surprise, Starsky met him in the corridor outside the squad room, his shields restored to their normal strength and his mind a-whirl with motion. “Time to go, partner,” he said, breezily. “Dobey wants us on patrol whilst they set up at Sterrin's Walk, since you're still learnin' your way around.”
Hutch blinked. “But I have a nav. system-”
“That can't keep up at sound speed. Nav. tech don't cut it in these skies, you've got to learn it all the old-fashioned way,” Starsky smiled, circling his wrist with a tailtip to urge him into a brisk walk. “C'mon, I want to stop by that Prifuu deli on the way out.”
Hutch followed without complaint. At least some variables remained constant.
“Where are you-”
Starsky ignored Hutch's startled question. He was too busy concentrating on finding handholds; Nightside's ramshackle array of buildings might be as pitted and scarred as their inhabitants, but they hadn't been designed with climbing in mind. “Go round the back, see if you can find a jump!” he called over his shoulder as he made his way up, scrambling for grip. The Dengan they were pursuing was accelerating rapidly upwards, the vine-like tendrils that served as her hands making short work of the climb, and as athletic as he was, Hutch just didn't have the genetics to follow the same way.
The important things was to keep moving. Starsky drove himself on, ignoring the screams of protest from his muscles; he was too big, too old, to be scrambling about on vertical surfaces like a catling, but adrenaline seemed to be making up for that. He had no real hope of catching up with the Dengan, not unless she stopped for a chat on the way, but he would at least be able to keep her in sight until Hutch could cut her off. He was fairly certain the purebreed would be able to restrain her; she was a youngster, flush from what was probably her first kill, too stupid to wait for darkness to cover the evidence of her bloodlust and hopefully stupid enough to fall for an ambush. Rogue Dengans didn't care where they got their meat as long as it was fresh, and this one obviously hadn't been taught the difference between people and prey.
Suddenly, the Dengan ducked out of sight. Starsky swore and tried to move faster; that she'd stopped climbing was good. That she'd darted into a ramshackle warren of crampt apartments and easy victims? Not so good.
Starsky hauled himself in through the same window the girl had used, dropping to all fours with less than his usual grace, and caught the sickly-sweet scent of Dengan vapours instantly; certain carbon-based life forms were helpless to resist its paralysing effect, but for the unaffected, it served as a fantastic tracking device. Starsky broke into a run, following his nose, and fumbled for his comm link.
“Hutch!” he panted, skidding around a bend and nearly slamming into a wall. “Hutch, she's loose on the forty-first floor, heading for the centre. I've lost vis-”
“Got her,” came the abrupt reply. Hutch sounded almost as out-of-breath as him, voice tight with effort. “Starsk, I've got- Ma'am, if you continue to resist arrest-”
Starsky didn't waste time wondering what unholy purebreed powers Hutch had unleashed to intercept her so quickly. He just kept running; letting his partner get eaten by a Dengan definitely wasn't on his 'to-do' list for the day.
"But I don't got a permit," the unlicensed vendor whined. "What y'gonna do, haul me all the way back up there?"
The coat she was wearing had long, trailing pink feathers that fluttered in the breeze, some of them even detaching from the garment; Hutch noticed that Starsky's eyes were tracking the movement every now and then. He resisted the urge to sigh; one of the bites from their earlier chase was beginning to throb, a delayed reaction to the venom, and the afternoon had been long enough that he could feel a headache threatening. "Get the permit," he said, stuffing the pad back into the front of his jumpsuit. The illegal vending station let out a hiss of vapour. "And don't leave town; we may have some more questions."
"Uh," said Starsky when Hutch paused. "Yeah. Questions. Thanks for your time."
Hutch watched the girl scurry away, and then pocketed his badge with a sigh. "So, I guess we've got just about enough time to take one more sweep of the lower levels?" He made a move towards the Torino, pretending not to notice when Starsky stooped swiftly to capture one of the stray feathers and then hid it guiltily behind his back. "We've still got to fill out the padwork for that arrest.”
“Work, work, work,” Starsky grumbled, though there was no malice in it. He had fared slightly better than Hutch in the day's activities, sustaining only a couple of cuts and scrapes from their energetic chase. Neither was he showing no ill-effects of his implausible wall-scaling; Hutch had known that Starsky liked climbing, preferring an elevated surface on which to rest, but he'd had no idea of the implications. Clearly, Hutch had been getting a little too used to his partner's oddities and was in need of new surprises.
He clambered into the Torino, ignoring its projection of surly discontent, and watched his partner follow suit. “So, er, are- What are your plans for the evening?” he asked once they were up in the air. Starsky hadn't mentioned the precinct's new arrival since that morning, but it stood to reason that he would want to pursue his interest.
The mongrel shrugged in response. “We better have a quiet one after last night, huh?” he said, scanning the slow-moving traffic with irritation. “If we can get out of this dump, that is – rush hour just keeps getting longer and longer. Hey, you want stir-fry? I don't feel like eating out.”
“I- Stir-fry?” Hutch repeated, wrong-footed, and Starsky glanced over at him.
“Please tell me you know what a stir-fry is,” he said, his voice low with impending disbelief, and Hutch cautiously shook his head. “You don't- Jeez, how do you people survive? Okay, it's like this...”
Hutch listened with half an ear to the ensuing explanation; Starsky's mind wasn't focussed on food. Far from it, in fact, and a sudden uneasiness ran through Hutch that had nothing to do with the case and everything to do with the succession of improbably acrobatic images running through his partner's mind.
The sudden appearance of a bowl of reco-fruit salad halfway through the morning's padwork was alarming, but not quite as alarming as the predatory look that Starsky appeared to be directing two feet to the left of him from across the desk. "Er, Starsky -"
"Got some good news," Stasky said, as happy as ever to interrupt him, speaking in a low, fierce tone. "I had a few questions asked in the right places, pulled a few strings, and something's finally turned."
Ah. That explained it - the mongrel was prone to becoming intense when a promising lead worked out. Perhaps it was related to the hunting instincts that lay none-too-far below the surface of his subconscious; it was probably something to do with Darraxi. "It must be fairly important, if it's earned me a fruit salad," Hutch replied, setting the pad he'd been working on aside in favour of sorting through the bowl.
His partner smirked. "Oh, it is, buddy, it is. I just found out where Tsirki comes from, and boy, is he in for a treat!"
Gaze unwavering, slit-pupils narrowing as he concentrated, Starsky nodded. "Y'know, the new guy in Vice? The chameleon guy? Apparently they go mad for prehensile tails."
"Could be awkward." Hutch selected a peach and bit into it; Starsky's eyes slid sideways onto him, just for an instant. "Unless you mean he finds that tail of yours attractive, partner."
Starsky grinned. It was a rather feral expression, and Hutch was aware of the contained energy beside him; Starsky's thoughts were slightly hazed over with excitement. "He will," Starsky murmured, leaning over to snag some of Hutch's fruit. Hutch felt a sudden spike in interest from behind him and immediately blocked it out; voyeurism, even if Starsky didn't mind it, was generally frowned upon. "Hey, Hutch, what d'you think of my new jeans?"
Hutch glanced down, and blinked. "It," he started, and paused, to get his thoughts in order; there was really no way to comment on those jeans without bringing undue attention to the way they left absolutely nothing to the imagination. "They're, er, they're real nice, Starsk."
"Yep," Starsky agreed, without vanity, eyes once more glued to target. "Hey, you think doin' it with someone who c'n change their skin'll be freaky?"
Pheromones secreted in scent glands, Hutch thought crossly, and resisted the urge to repel the tendrils of interest that would seep through his shields no matter how much he built them up. "Guess you'll find out soon enough," he said, a little tersely. Uncomfortable with the spiking heat of Starsky's thoughts (so much more difficult to siphon them out of his mind, of late, as if his brain had tuned itself to the mongrel's frequencies), the purebreed got to his feet. “Coffee,” he said, when Starsky shot him a questioning look, oddly placated by the shift of his attention. “You want one?”
Starsky, having indicated his full caffeine-shot, watched Hutch leave, perplexed. It was unusual for the purebreed to go in search of beverages; he tended to play a bizarre game of 'Drink Along With Starsky', but they had been on continuous stakeout duty for some time, maybe his sleep patterns were messed up... The mongrel made a mental note to let his partner take the first nap on their next shift; turning back to his original occupation, he was startled to find Ranin sat in Hutch's seat, glaring at him.
“What crawled up your ass and died?”
Ranin's eyes narrowed and she leaned forwards, bracing her elbows on the desk so that her considerable arm muscles bunched. “It ain't my ass that's causin' ructions, whiskers.”
For a moment, Starsky was tempted to point out that she had more prominent whiskers than him, then the deliberate nod of her head in Tsirki's direction made her meaning clear. “Gee, Kit, I knew you were pinin' after some feline love, but I didn't know Minnie was putting up that much of a fight.”
“Don't be thick,” Ranin snorted. Her tail slapped ominously against the chair, a sure sign that her irritation was genuine. “You've been moonin' after Blondie since he got here, don't tell me you haven't noticed he's-”
Starsky's hackles twitched. “What's Hutch got to do with anything?” he interrupted, his voice just short of a snarl, and Ranin's glare softened.
“You really don't see it?” she said, then before he could answer, “Just – don't tie yourself up in Mr Exotic for too long, huh? You've got something to lose now.”
“Have you been eating raw prawns again?”
Ranin rolled her eyes. "Raw prawns, sure." She got to her feet, her movements angry and jerky, and Starsky glared right back at her.
"Listen, peabrain, what I got with Tsirki - it ain't - anythin' like what I got with Hutch, okay? He knows that. Hutch knows that."
"Told him, have you?"
Starsky blinked at her, momentarily taken aback, and then somewhere behind him Hutch said, "Told me what, huh?"
Starsky turned. Hutch had that uncertain smile he'd been wearing more often lately, the one that said the purebreed wasn't too sure how to react to a situation but was willing to make the attempt; 'Starsky reached out to steal Hutch's caffeine shot with what he hoped was unaffected nonchalance, and noticed that Hutch relaxed as their fingers brushed.' "Nothin'," he said airily then, taking a healthy swig, whined, “Huuutch, the sweetener is there for a reason.”
Hutch's lips twitched, then settled back into an uncertain moue and he took back his coffee, his gaze skittering away. "You had me worried for a moment there," he said lightly after a second or two, and something in Starsky's chest damn well twisted, nothing to do with Ranin's glower and everything to do with Hutch thinking that Starsky could ever leave...
"You comin' over tonight?" he asked, and it was remarkable how ludicrously enchanting Hutch's smile was when the wariness fled from it.
“Haven't got a choice,” the purebreed said with quiet humour, settling back into his chair. “We're on eight hours at Vaneen's, remember?”
The mongrel groaned, slumping so low in his seat that his new jeans audibly creaked in protest. “Aw, man,” he whined, winding his tail around Hutch's ankle under the table to tug, plaintively, at him. “That bastard Darraxi – bet he threw us a false lead so he could get away, ain't nothin' stirred in that pit for ages.”
“Starsky, the surveillance has only been in place for two days. Besides, it'll be an opportunity to relax and meditate,” Hutch said as he turned his attention to the padwork in front of him; they were off patrol for the morning, given the resumption of their nightly stakeout duties, and had been assigned the mindless task of cleaning up the evidence trails on the cases due for processing before trial. Dobey's evil little method for teaching Hutch the ins and outs of office drudgery, in other words. Sadist, Starsky thought, eyeing the stack before him and finding his annoyance soothed by a waft of sweet, alluring scent as Tsirki rippled past. Stakeouts and pen-pushing, all the joys of training up a rookie.
At least Hutch was a pretty rookie. And he hadn't moved his foot out of Starsky's grip – perhaps the padwork wouldn't be so bad.
After two days of fruitless stakeouts – during which nothing more interesting happened than the Torino deciding to lock Hutch out as what appeared to be some kind of practical joke – Starsky's scepticism was well on the way to being vindicated.
"About time," Starsky groused, when the comm link suddenly lit up at around two in the morning on the third night; he tapped it with a finger, the orange glow bright after the peaceful watching darkness. "Janison and Deltremmek, in position two blocks down. That's our cue to hit the skies, partner."
Hutch, startled out of a semi-meditative state, shook his head to clear it (an illogical move, only likely to make the subject more dazed yet, but he felt the need for some movement). "Still nothing," he said, suppressing a yawn; there was no bright spark of wakefulness in the vicinity save for Starsky's thoughts, flickering against his own until the sensation was almost comfortable. "Guess we're allowed to sleep, now, huh?"
Starsky grinned at him, powering up the Torino; engines hissed into life far more quietly than normal. Evidently his partner ordinarily neglected to activate the 'stealth' mode. "Sleep? I'm goin' to bed for a week."
"That could be difficult, given all that patrolling I saw written on our schedule." Lack of sleep made him less inclined to analyse, loosened his tongue; he tipped his head back against the headrest and barely caught Starsky's sideways look of amusement. "Don't you want to -"
"Fraktahth!" Starsky slammed unexpectedly onto the brakes as something lurched out in front of the cruiser, still at sidewalk level. Hutch, caught by surprise - Starsky's actions had been pure instinctual instant reaction - grabbed the dash as the buffers barely compensated. "What the fuck?" He glared out of the viewfinder, eyes narrowed.
Hutch peered out as well. A fine drizzle was now falling, the kind of mildly corrosive vapourised moisture that had brought his hands and face out in a rash the day before. "It looks like a person," he said, bemused. "I don't sense -"
"Oh, Founders, it's a damned AI," Starsky muttered, flicking the Torino's power back down again. "C'mon, partner. Let's go meet those even less fortunate than us," and he was out of the door and slamming it behind him before Hutch had a chance to register the words.
The rain flickered red-gold in the Torino's lights, blue at the rear; the crumpled form on the ground was stirring, picking itself up even as they approached. "Oh," it said, balancing unsteadily with one hand on the cruiser's hood. "Uh, hello, boys. Just you give me two seconds and I'll be right on my -"
“Licence," said Starsky, flicking his badge; it looked like a woman, Hutch saw now, one with long golden hair - slightly bedraggled from the damp - and large blue limpid eyes. "And number. Rangers," he added, unsmiling.
An AI. An Artificially Intelligent being. Hutch had never met one before; the Home Planets had deemed them dangerous, unsuitable for cohabitation. The old superstitions about the rise of the machines, of the cloned flesh growing too greedy, did not die easily. This one hardly looked threatening, however, and so many of his preconceptions had been proven - ill-advised. "You, uh, you really didn't ought to be out on a night like tonight," he said, adopting the sincere approach to dealing with the general public that Starsky seemed to favour and faltering when it became apparent that the AI was wearing a dress that left nothing of its extremely lifelike skin to the imagination. If he hadn't known better, he would have taken it for a female of his own race. "The streets can be dangerous -"
"Oh, and don't I know that?" the AI sighed - she, it was definitely a she - with a wistful smile. "I don't rightly remember seein' you around here before now, Mr Tall and Handsome. Ain't too often any soul takes an interest in my welfare."
"We - try to take an interest in the welfare of all our citizens, ma'am." Hutch caught a lick of amused exasperation from his partner. "If you wouldn't mind giving us your ID number?"
"We-ell, since you ask so nice and all," the AI said, and held out her arm, bare despite the chill; tiny glowing figures were evident on her wrist, even through the haze. "You goin' to take me in for questioning, Officer?"
Hutch glanced helplessly at Starsky, who shook his head. "We don't question AIs," he said in a low voice. "Too much paperwork and half the time it don't stand up in court."
The AI in question cocked her head sideways. "And there I thought I might get a nice dry bed for the night," she said, running a hand through her damp hair with a sigh. "Guess I'll just be -"
"Hold it," Starsky interrupted sharply, and suddenly he had hold of her arm; the grip was not ungentle, but she still flinched sideways. "Hutch, will you look at this?"
Hutch moved closer. There was another mark tattooed under the luminescent numbers, something in an unknown elaborate script that shifted under the manufactured skin in a whirling mass of colour. "What -"
"Marked. She's got an owner, and an Alterian owner at that." Starsky paused, and his eyes met Hutch's, the reason for his excitement clear; Kelsorra Vaneen herself might be a Valtan, but Darraxi's connections could only be Alterian. “To hell with the paperwork.”
The interview rooms weren't so much rooms as booths, sound-dampened and ruthlessly spartan. The AI perched on the edge of her seat, gazing about her through large blue eyes, while Starsky and Hutch held a hurried consultation just beyond her hearing.
"She won't get it," Starsky said; he was impatient, the feeling tart in Hutch's mind. "This's how she works, Hutch, this is her - her function."
"She's homeless," Hutch insisted. "She has no rights, can't we just - house her until the rain ends?"
"She's hardly homeless, she's working for - okay. Okay, you got it. Just remember, when some angry Alterian's chewin' on your arm because she's coded and trackable -" Starsky heaved a sigh and slouched against the wall, tail switching morosely from side to side, booted ankles crossed. "I don't like it, partner, any more than you; I s'pose I'm just - more used to it."
Something spiked in Hutch's mind, something that increased the burn in his chest, and he suppressed a wince. "Sure," he said, smoothly, blocking his thoughts from appearing on his face. "So, do we, uh - do we use 'good cop, bad cop' for this one, huh?"
The irritated jangle of Starsky's thoughts softened at that, easing into something more like an amused curlicue, and he shook his head. “Seems like all we're going to need is 'Noble Blond Cop',” he said, tail still moving restlessly. “Go on, do your thing. I've got your back.”
He wants me to lead the interrogation, Hutch realised, with cautious satisfaction. Perhaps it's time our partnership became a little more equal. He nodded, turning away from Starsky to face the AI, dropping into the seat opposite her. “Please forgive the delay, Miss,” he said, ignoring Starsky's mental sigh.
“Oh, I could forgive you anything, sugar,” the AI said, with a charming smile. Unlike every living creature Hutch had encountered thus far, the AI offered no maelstrom of jumbled emotion, no frantic rattle of thought upon thought – the electricity driving her consciousness was entirely artificial, the harsh electronic buzz of wireless light and circuitry, and Hutch could almost feel the relaxing of his overworked synapses.
He cleared his throat, pulling a report pad towards him. “Now, I have your licence number and serial code; do you have any further assignations?”
“Ain'tcha s'posed to a buy a lady a drink before askin' her name?” There was a faint whirr as the AI leaned forwards, clearly a glitch in otherwise silent machinery, and the smile faded a little. “'Fraid I ain't the engineerin' marvel I used to be,” she said, the bright blue of her eyes dimming slightly. “If you truly must know, officer, my daddy calls me 'Alice'. Sweet Alice, if you please.”
"Sweet Alice," Hutch repeated, noting down the name on a report pad. "And your owner?"
"This week's or last week's?" Sweet Alice said wistfully. "I ain't been runnin' with him for long, you understand, but his name's Tarson Drex. And he won me from a Valtan in a game of cards; a girl's price ain't so high when it's restin' on the way the cards fall, I guess."
Hutch blinked. That an intelligent being, even one fully engineered, could be handed over so easily seemed - intrinsically alien, akin to the slavery he'd read about at home. "And in the course of your, ah, your employment," he said, "have you - seen anything suspicious? Heard anything?"
Beautifully sculpted eyebrows rose, and then Sweet Alice smiled, bringing the truth to her name. "Honey, Drex is Alterian. Ain't a thing goes on in that sorta viper nest that ain't suspicious in some measure," she said. "But I get a nice new memory wipe every time I hear somethin' someone thinks I shouldn't."
“Full junk?” Starsky interjected; Sweet Alice nodded.
“The real deal,” she confirmed, as though Starsky wasn't speaking gobbledegook.
The mongrel snorted. As if sensing Hutch's incomprehension (which, to be fair, he probably was) he added “No chance of a database retrieval, then.”
Sweet Alice tilted her head to a perfectly-calculated angle. “Not unless you clever peace officers worked out how to unjunk, and you'll forgive me if I don't have any faith in that direction.”
“So your – your -” Hutch fumbled for the correct word and the AI's smile widened.
“Y'can call him daddy, sweetheart, it's what he likes.”
“Your employer,” the purebreed said, firmly, ignoring Starsky's muffled snigger, “might be engaged in illegal activities around the area we found you? Near Sterrin's Walk? You say he, er, 'won' you from a Valtan.”
“You boys wouldn't be chasin' Kelsorra Vaneen now, would you?” For the first time, a distinct unease entered the AI's behaviour; she sat back, the faulty circuit buzzing quietly, and glanced over towards the door. “I - I ain't heard nothin' about Sterrin's Walk. Nothin' at all.”
A full hour later, and they still had very little to go on. Starsky had taken over the questioning for a while until Hutch had kicked him under the table (a psychic nudge would have been better, but with their increasing familiarity it seemed - rude), reading Alice's distress in her clenched fists and wide eyes; she wasn't a suspect, he thought, and Starsky's eagerness was verging on demanding. Hutch had somehow managed to drag out some information after that point - precious little; the AI would sometimes drop a name, two names, where a programming glitch allowed her to, but when directly questioned she was firmly ignorant.
Sterrin's Walk, meetings, Alterian life support systems, ran Hutch's notes. There had been some references he hadn't understood; Starsky had gone pale with well-contained anger when Sweet Alice had mentioned 'young carriers', and other places she had mentioned were completely unknown to him. But there was more than might have been expected.
"I sure am sorry I can't help you," Sweet Alice said regretfully. At no point had she complained the questioning; although Hutch knew intellectually that she was programmed for malleability he fancied that she was actually eager to help them. "Love and affection ain't exactly what I feel for daddy and his boys."
"Could you leave?" Hutch asked, on some strange impulse, and she smiled at him warmly.
"Oh, I could leave, sure, but I got a trackin' chip and no wish to spend all my time out in the streets where any bein' can - see, handsome, my daddy ain't so nice, but he protects his property. You boys and goin' to promise to do the same if I start goin' it alone?"
"Can't promise anything, Alice," Starsky said somberly. There was a new emotion there now; Hutch thought it might well be something like esteem, or even respect. "You know we'd do our best to help you."
"You two cleanin' up the streets, huh?" Sweet Alice smiled, and reached out to touch Hutch's hand, briefly, artificial skin soft against his own. "I like that. Maybe someday they'll be clean enough and a girl can make her own way without fear of anyone tearin' her up for spares."
There was no response he could make to that which would not contain an empty promise; Hutch cleared his throat, looking down. "We - we'd like to keep you in overnight, just so that we -"
"Oh, no, boys, not 'less you've got somethin' to hold me on," Alice said, gently reproving; her eyes flicked to meet Starsky's impassive gaze for a second. "Why don't you go get me my paperwork so I c'n show my daddy what I've been doin' in your company way up here, handsome?"
Hutch hesitated, and then nodded. "I'll - I'll go do that," he said, with a glance of his own towards Starsky, and barely managed not to knock over the chair on his way out of the room.
"Got some thoughts you want to share, Sweet Alice?" Starsky asked when Hutch was gone; the AI made large eyes at him, that peculiar smell - metal, synthetics, peculiar chemicals and wrongness - hovering in the back of his nostrils. "Anythin' you ain't lettin' go in front of my partner?"
"Blondie's just fine; I'll do all my talkin' through him, I reckon," she said, idly twirling a lock of hair around one finger and smiling at him. "Though he ain't right, Detective. All messed up and no one to unravel it good enough to make a difference."
Starsky felt anger flush through him at that. "There ain't nothin' wrong with Hutch," he said sharply, and Sweet Alice shook her head.
"Nothing at all? My, and here I thought I didn't get programmed for diagnostics. All messed up," she repeated. "Electrical fires and fairy stories. Can't you feel it, flesh-born, how he's all burnin' up?"
System glitch, Starsky thought. It had to be a system glitch; there wasn't anything wrong with Hutch, and Sweet Alice wasn't programmed for anything besides her smile, her silly chatter and a predilection for whoring. "Think I've got a better handle on my partner than you do," he said, squashing his irritation.
"That's for sure," she agreed easily, and seemed to have nothing further to add.
Hutch reappeared after a few more minutes, flushed from having run down from the floor above (the grav jumps were out again, which meant that most of Metro had dramatically improved in fitness; there were only so many freight jumps you could do before the stairs started seeming way more appealing). He had all the forms and as Sweet Alice pressed her wrist patiently against each one for the electronic signature, Starsky smiled to himself.
Hutch swung around to him once Alice had taken her leave, inquiry in his gaze. Starsky shook his head, and draped his tail around Hutch's waist. "Just thinkin' how beautiful you are," he said soulfully.
The purebreed stared at him, brows knitted, and Starsky let the smile take over his face. Alice was so far from being right; every minute, every second, Hutch was getting better. Sure, he could seem cold, and he didn't seem to feel things yet, not really, not the way everyone else did; but he smiled now, and laughed, and teased back, and he was - learning, Starsky thought. "Your current ideal of beauty is presumably defined by your current sexual interest," Hutch said calmly, clearly sensing that Starsky was thinking about him behind imperfect shields and choosing to ignore it; he was rubbing at his chest again, and Starsky tried not to think about the smooth expanse of tempting skin underneath the practical jumpsuit. "And as I don't seem to be taking on the pattern of the wall -"
"Never pick holes in a compliment," Starsky told him, letting the tail fall away, and led the way towards the stairs.
Sweet Alice's testimony looked even patchier in sunslight. Hutch picked his way through his notes, the exhaustion of the previous night deep in his bones and heavy in his head, and wondered if a mongrel mind might make better sense of it; they'd left a note in the case logs about the Alterian link to Vaneen in the hopes that one of the other officers on the case would be able to substantiate it, but nothing had come whilst they'd been off-duty.
"Urgh, Starsky, not everyone wants to know!"
Hutch looked up at the irritated shout to see his partner raising apologetic hands in Ranin's direction, wearing a contrite expression that simply did not match his jauntily-cocked tail. "Can't help it, baby, you know that," the mongrel replied, his thought pattern an amused curlicue. "Hormones aren't something you can shower off and they stay off."
"What's going on?"
Ranin rolled her eyes at Hutch, running hooked fingers over the keypad of her computer. "Ask Curly," she said, shortly. "Seems like his mother didn't teach him anything about the dangers of bragging in public."
"You're just sore 'cause Minnie blew you off," Starsky retorted, sliding onto the arm of Hutch's chair with a wince. "Besides, it's not my fault you've got an overactive nose."
"Watch it, kitty, you're too far down the food chain to be making trouble."
Starsky flipped her an amiable finger, and then leaned right in close to Hutch, apparently studying the files on Hutch's pad. To Hutch's nose, he smelt the same as ever, faint hints of soap and normal, reassuring Starsky-smell, but the relaxed tilt of his body and the smug aura that surrounded him spoke enough on its own. Hutch thought about why he might be moving so gingerly, and then immediately tried not to think about it. "You, you had a - a good night?" he asked, stumbling a little over the expected small talk. He was surprised; Starsky's mind had been as sluggish as his own when they parted company, wistful-gold with thoughts of sleep. Now it was bright, verdant, swathed in heat and almost sticky to the mental-touch.
"Yeah. Oh, yeah." Starsky leaned down and pressed his nose into Hutch's hair. Across the room, Ranin sighed, loudly. "Hard work, though. Turns out chameleons're wild."
"Will you be seeing him again?" Hutch asked, something sticking in his throat for a moment, suddenly aware of his burgeoning headache and the burning itch in his chest; he cleared his throat, leaning away from his partner to pick up their Sweet Alice report.
"Don't know if I can take it," Starsky said, laughter threading through his voice and his thoughts. "Don't worry, Blintz, I ain't gettin' married just yet."
"'nough fun, pups." Ranin swivelled around on her chair and tossed an infopad across the room; Starsky caught it easily in one hand. "Your info from that AI came good, Starsky. Kelsorra Vaneen was seen four days ago leaving a bar with a couple of Valtans, including your old friend Darraxi, and three Alterians. One of whom is probably AK469's owner."
"Terrific," Starsky said, with a grin that showed many of his teeth. "Or it would be if Sweet Alice's testimony'd ever stand up in court."
"'Sweet Alice'? You namin' AIs now?" Ranin leaned back, frowning. "We have to do this the long way, Starsky."
Starsky slumped down into his seat, swinging booted feet up onto the table and heaving a loud sigh. "Kit, y'know how many hours I've spent on stakeout this month?"
“You know how many hours I've spent hearing you compain about bein' on stakeout this month, Starsky?” came Dobey's growl from behind them. The big cyborg's expression was harassed, but his thoughts were as ordered as they usually were; Hutch briefly envied him that. “This isn't a -”
“Isn't a picnic for baby Jilfeys, I know, cap'n,” Starsky grumbled; his movements as he stood were graceful, but betrayed his restlessness. Hutch thought of reaching out a second too late, and was unsure even then if it would have helped. “Let's get goin', partner.”
Hutch followed him quietly, turning Ranin's statement over in his mind, ignoring the spikes of interest that flared up at the other mongrel officers caught Starsky's scent. He'd snagged Ranin's infopad as they left and he raised it to study the dim CCTV images; Vaneen was in the middle of the group, her face emblazoned with a tattoo that was missing from the mug shot they had on file, but only one other face was clear. The being in front of her, a short Valtan with small, underdeveloped spines, had turned back as the image was captured, her mouth open as if caught in mid-sentence, and her teeth were stained the same murky green as Darraxi's, which could mean only one thing. She was a serious Dust-user.
“Starsky, one of the Valtans in this picture-”
“You noticed that too?” Starsky said, taking an odd half-step backwards so that they were walking side by side. “What's the betting she's as strung-out as our slippery little informant?”
Hutch frowned. “Gambling is-”
“Figure of speech, buddy. If she's wound as tight as that scumbag Darraxi, we'll have her on file. Time to make another house call.”
Almond-shaped eyes narrowed, barely visible through the tiny gap in the doorway, and a forked tongue flickered out to taste the air. “Ain't got no business with police,” a harsh voice said, the words oddly-pitched and slurring.
Starsky placed a hand on the door, aware of Hutch shifting at his back, and leaned in, trying not to flinch at the musky reek of rot coming from the tiny apartment. “How 'bout your business with Vaneen and Darraxi, Korchev? Sounds like supplies ain't getting' through as regular as you're used to.”
“Don't know what you're-”
“How long since your last hit?”
Behind him, Hutch cleared his throat. “Thirty-seven hours is a long time to go without,” he said, in his creepiest 'I-am-inside-your-head' voice, and Korchev hissed in shock.
Starsky grinned. “Yep. Brought my pet mind-reader. You lettin' us in now?”
There were a whole lot of nice nuggets of info that Korchev could give them, apparently. She was scared bordering on terrified of Hutch, so Starsky prowled around the apartment and let his partner do the interrogating; Korchev's eyes kept flicking between the two of them as she talked.
“I heard Vaneen got all kind of tabs on her. That's why I'm layin' low, see? Keepin' a low profile. Darraxi's runnin' scared and I ain't so happy about that, when the fat one runs we all gotta keep our heads down.”
“Running scared from what?” Hutch asked, making a note on his infopad; he did not betray any of the frustration that Starsky was tingling with. Talking to young Valtans was always confusing at the best of times, and this one had had her brain so addled by Dust that she probably didn't know too much of what she was saying herself.
“Th'hell do you think?” Korchev said scornfully. “She ain't afraid of none of us. She don't like cops.”
Hutch nodded, still making notes. “So what's she got to be so nervous about?”
“Ships comin' in,” Korchev half-sang, starting to rock to and fro; lucid spells were brief. “Need to hide 'em from – I'll tell you what it is,” she said abruptly, leaning forward with a shudder. “You get me what I need and I'll tell you 'bout the shipments. 's gonna change the world, risin' tide an' those as can swim get to float...”
Starsky abandoned his inspection of a grimy piece of stone-art and looked at Hutch. “She tellin' the truth?” he asked, excitement rising. If they could get a testimony out of Korchev while she was desperate enough to talk...
Hutch was looking at Korchev, who had fallen silent, slumped forward in her chair. “Yes,” he said, and cleared his throat. “She's, uh, she's telling the truth, Starsk.”
"So," Tsirki drawled, rolling over in Starsky's bed in a graceful display of slender limbs and bright-patterned skin, "what're you doing tomorrow night?"
"Tomorrow?" Starsky stirred half-heartedly, warm despite the sweat cooling on his own skin, and glanced at the chrono; a whole half hour before they had to leave. A half hour of conversation, he reminded himself a little wearily; T'sirki liked to talk after sex, inconsequentially, filling up silences Starsky would have been happy to just let go. Well, aside from planning one of the biggest drug busts in Nightside's history... "Uh, I don't know. You got plans?" he accompanied this with a slow grin and a suggestive stretch, and T'sirki smiled.
"Dinner somewhere? I heard about this place, just out of atmo range, so you can see the stars -"
Starsky shuddered. "Not my kinda thing," he said as flippantly as possible. "Hey, how 'bout we go out somewhere and I ask my partner if he can make it?"
"Your partner? The purebreed?"
"Got somethin' against that?" Starsky demanded, sitting up, the lethargy gone. He was getting annoyed with it, the way people always latched onto what Hutch was as if he didn't have any other qualities to recommend him. And Hutch was plenty of other things besides a species.
Tsirki raised an eyebrow. "I've got nothing against your partner," he said equably. "Calm down, man. And blonds aren't even my type, in case you're worried that way."
“Wouldn't matter if you were, Etch. Hutch doesn't – he, er, he's not wired like that,” Starsky said, allowing himself to be coaxed back down by caressing fingers.
“Not wired for men or not wired for non-humans?” Tsirki's voice was curious, but not intrusive; he was just being idly speculative. It made a nice change.
Starsky licked him, amused to see colours swarm across Tsirki's skin in response. “He's officially a wire-free zone, okay? Apparently they're above 'baser urges'.”
The chameleon chuckled, his skin rippling with burgundy and umber. “Baser urges, huh? How about you, hotshot, you got enough urges in you for Round Four?”
They were going to be late, Starsky decided, as he was rolled abruptly onto his back. Very, very late.
Hutch had supposed that Starsky would eventually introduce him to Tsirki; he had no interest in making himself known to the chameleon before that point, but circumstances conspired to the point that when he walked into the squad room after being briefed for the Vaneen raid he found, not his partner (it was late, and Starsky had headed back for a shower) but Tsirki, leaning with casual grace over Starsky's desk and apparently writing a note.
"Good evening," Hutch said coolly, moving around the desk to his own side. "Can I help you?"
The other ranger's head jerked up in surprise. Less alert than Starsky, Hutch noted. "Ah, you are - Hutch?"
"Hutchinson," Hutch agreed; 'Hutch' was for Starsky, for friends like Ranin and for Dobey, whom he trusted. "Can I help you?" he repeated.
"I've heard a lot about you," Tsirki drawled, setting the pad down and leaning back against the table, hips tilted at a provocative angle. "Dave likes you."
The way he said it was imbued with a wealth of secondary meaning and emotion and lurking turbulent curiosity. Hutch tried to search through them and floundered, caught in an unfamiliar mind and wrong-footed by a lingering not-quite-image of Starsky; Starsky was unaccustomed warmth and liking in this being's psyche, an excitement that entertained and lurked out of reach, and some of that was directed towards Hutch. "I am glad," Hutch said with as much composure as he could muster, aware that his words were stilted. "I return the sentiment," and Tsirki's thoughts twisted sharply into lively amusement as he laughed.
“You don't smell sure of that.” Camouflage inactive, Tsirki was a slim, humanoid figure, a couple of inches shorter than Hutch. His arms and legs were disproportionately long and thin, however, giving him a willowy appearance. His skin was finely-scaled, shading from human-peach to dark burgundy in broad, looping stripes and his hands tapered into three slightly hooked fingers. Hutch wondered what the aesthetic appeal was to a mammalian like his partner.
He opened his mouth to reply but Tsirki got there first, his skin tone rippling as he stepped away from the desk. “Ah, but that's none of my business, right?” he said, one hand moving to fidget with his shirt hem. “Being invisible most of the time, you forget what offends people... Dave tells me you're psychic.”
Hutch's chest throbbed for a moment, that same caustic, ticklish sensation that he'd felt the other day, and he rubbed at the itch, wondering what else his partner had been saying about him. “That is - broadly correct, yes.”
Curiosity, still Starsky-flavoured, pulsed brighter in Tsirki's mind. He tilted his head, a reflex reminiscent of Starsky, and studied Hutch with undisguised interest. “Bet you're sick of people asking you about it. Must be difficult, all these species with their different-shaped thoughts; before I came here, I had no idea one wall could contain so many colours. Played hell with my camouflage.”
Why is he telling me this? An attempt to forge some sense of solidarity? I am not his lover, Hutch thought, irritably. Aloud, he said, “One must adapt to one's circumstances, of course,” wondering all the while whether being non-committal could be synonymous with being rude.
Starsky himself interrupted them, still damp-haired and chewing on what might well be his dinner but looked like some kind of failed machinery component; he came loping around the corner and stopped dead when he saw them, odd pleasure and unease sparking along Hutch's sense of him. "Hutch! You, uh - you still here?"
"There was some research I needed to do," Hutch said, turning to gather his materials from his own desk; he felt them kiss, a brief pressure-rise like the patches of sunslight to be found travelling through Nightside. Tsirki murmured something, too low to hear, and Starsky answered in kind; ears unaccountably warm, Hutch reached out to straighten the sensors on his desk.
The hand on his arm made him jump. "Hey, buddy," Starsky said, a smile in his voice. "What d'you say we go out to dinner, huh?"
"I have no wish to intrude on -"
"You ain't intrudin'," Starsky interrupted, his fingers momentarily tightening, and the burn-itch-ache in Hutch's chest flared abruptly, stronger than it had ever been before so that he had to bite his lip to hold back an exclamation of surprise.
This, he thought with some severity, is starting to verge on the ridiculous.
"Later," Starsky said, warm and smiling; he gave the impression at moments like this that Hutch was the only being in the galaxy worthy of his attention. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Hutch echoed, blasted by affection, clutching tight and unseen to the rim of his chair, and Starsky squeezed his arm before moving away.
There was no other option; he would have to see a medic.
The reasons for not communicating this to Starsky were numerous. To start with, Starsky would be concerned, and Hutch wasn't entirely sure that he could take any more received emotion right now; every alien thought seemed to grate across his nerves, leaving him uneasy and exhausted. There was also the fact that some small part of him felt that it would be - advisable - to do something without Starsky's help, to let go of that particular safety-net of familiar thoughts and ever-ready sympathy; otherwise, when Starsky ceased to be nearby on a constant basis, it would be far harder to cope with life on the space station.
Besides, they had a very carefully orchestrated drugs bust to perform in the next two days. He needed to be at his very best.
Hutch turned away, pretended to be busy with his infopad, and then when he was sure Starsky was engaged in an intense conversation with Coles he picked up the comm link. "Los Angeles Medical Facility," the bright, impersonal voice answered, and Hutch was struck by a sudden image of Sweet Alice; was this another AI, programmed for malleability, eternally cheerful as it answered calls until it was replaced by a newer model? "How may I help you today?"
"I, I'd like to make an appointment to see a medic."
"Please state your name, followed by species. If unsure, please state species of no more than three parents."
"I, uh, Kenneth Hutchinson, pur - human."
A pause. "Kenneth Hutchinson, please state planet of origin."
Another pause, and then the voice said smoothly, "As a rare or unknown species to this system, please state any special requirements, genetic incompatibilities with normal atmosphere, temporal space or other surroundings, diplomatic points of urgency..."
Hutch sighed as the list continued, letting his head rest on one hand. This, he suspected, could take some time.
"It is most likely to be stress," the Voltarian said, in the curiously clipped tones that betrayed his system of origin, peering intently into Hutch's eye through a scanner before snapping it closed and nodding decisively. "You are in a high-stress job?"
"Yes, I -"
"We recommend to psychics never to be in a high-stress job. Bad for the heart." The bright green stare was censorious; Hutch felt the disapproval even without the outward signs. "You are an empath."
"I, I am, but -"
"And chest pains? Hm. I get interference on the scanners. Magnetic, plasmic, you have an identichip, it is always tricky. I prescribe sedatives. Your physiology is virtually unknown," and here the green glare narrowed as if Dr Kisset felt the injustice of this omission, "and interference in empathic reception with drugs is ill-advised. Can be deadly." A pause. "Deadly, Mr Hutchinson. Never attempt it if you have the choice."
The stark warning remained with him as he politely thanked the medic and left, picking up a gas syringe and an alarming amount of medicine canisters from the pharmacy on the way out. Apparently Dr Kisset's advice about drugs only referred to ones that he hadn't personally prescribed. Hutch was studying the ingredients list on the back of the box when a familiar emotional vortex veritably smashed into him.
He halted, head jerking up in surprise, and found himself on the receiving end of a glare that even his most sedate infopads would have described as 'livid'. “Uh, hey, Starsky.”
Fury throbbed, striking against his mind with palpable force, straining over-stretched synapses, and Hutch realised the mongrel was making no effort to shield his emotions. “'Hey'? You skip off to the medics without telling me and I get a 'hey'?”
Betrayal, Hutch thought, startled by Starsky's vehemence. He's...hurt that I didn't tell him. Suddenly, his list of perfectly logical and sensible reasons for keeping this from his partner didn't seem quite as substantial.
“Well?” Starsky demanded, still bristling.
“It was nothing life-threatening,” Hutch said, sensing somehow that this was what Starsky needed to know; the furious barrage of emotions faded slightly, fear bleeding off to leave concern, sharp and vivid. “I – I've been having some problems with – psychic stress.”
“Stress?” Starsky eyed him uncertainly. “What'd the doc say?”
“He's prescribed me a course of sedatives -”
"Sedatives? They want you on sedatives? Jeez, Hutch, if you were any calmer, you'd be soup!"
“A course of sedatives,” Hutch repeated. “Might help me to – filter things out a bit.”
Starsky looked stricken. “Aw, Hutch, I didn't mean to -”
“No, I should've told you. You, you're my- my partner, right? Guess you've got more right than most to know when I'm – not working effectively.”
“That's right,” Starsky said, and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “But I ain't got the right to make whatever's goin' on in that head of yours worse.” He gave a half-smile. “You comin' to Huggy's tonight, or what?”
“Who killed your grandma?”
Hutch raised an eyebrow at Huggy, who was wearing a khaki Ventran face, spikes and all. “I beg your pardon?” he asked, suppressing a wince as the threatened headache flared into life. Huggy poured him a drink from a gravitationally impossible bottle and slid it along the bar.
“That'd take the sting out of a Jilfey bite,” the bartender said, motioning for him to drink, then as he obeyed, “Never seen you lookin' so - scrap that, never seen you lookin' glum period. S'there been a death in the family, or did someone run over your cat?”
There was an odd speculative tone to the shapeshifter's question, something edged and meaningful that he couldn't quite identity, and not for the first time, Hutch found himself wishing that Huggy's thoughts were little more transparent. “No, I -”
“Starting the interrogation without me, partner?” came Starsky's voice, seconds before the wild flurry of his emotions, and he settled onto the barstool next to Hutch with friendly nudge. “S'up, Hug?”
Huggy's gaze lingered on Hutch for a heartbeat, all three sets of eyelids lowering just a touch before he turned to Starsky. “What it is,” he said, coolly. “Heard you've been runnin' with some fancy paintwork.”
Starsky's mind pulsed with memory, sudden heat that made Hutch splutter around his drink. “Yeah, Tsirki's, uh... He's sort of fancy, I guess. S'posed to be meeting us here, actually.”
The shapeshifter's two sets of lips curled with distaste. “Fancy. Pity his box of tricks is runnin' on empty,” he said, dismissively, and Hutch's discomfort faded as he shared a bemused look with his partner.
“Seemed pretty full to me,” Starsky replied after a moment, his tail twitching against Hutch's leg.
“Full of smoke, whiskers. Ain't nothin' but some flashing lights and shiny mirrors to a chameleon, you should know better.”
Starsky sat up straighter, his thoughts suddenly bristling. "Hey, come on, Hug, that's kind of out of line."
"So is Blondie's jumpsuit, but that ain't my main point." Huggy looked down his long nose at the two of them. "Don't you go expectin' any of my kind words of wisdom and advice when that boy leaves you standin' in the dirt."
Starsky relaxed again, raising his glass to his lips. "I'll bear it in mind," he said wryly.
"You'd better be bearin' it, m'man, because I hear he's transferrin' out to the Northern Way," Huggy said, also appearing to relax a little at Starsky's apparent disinterest. "And can I interest LA's finest in some home-brewed organic nutritiously designed liqueur inhalations? On the house, my friends; the Bear has need of a taste-and-tell."
Before the shapeshifter could continue, however, Starsky's comm began to squeak. "Well, if it ain't the boy himself," the mongrel said, glancing at the caller I.D.; Hutch tried not to wince as sudden heat erupted from his partner's mind. "Guess I'd better ask him about that transfer, huh? Keep somethin' cold for me, Hug'."
"I'll be keepin' something on ice for you, my man," Huggy said, inscrutable. Starsky grinned, squeezed Hutch's shoulder as he had earlier - the grip was warm, but fleeting - and left at a brisk walk, the bounce in his step not noticeably diminished by Huggy's revelation.
Huggy sighed. "The day that cat takes the advice I give him, that'll be the day I get lucky and beer starts flowin' from the ground."
Hutch watched the shapeshifter's stubby arms blur into motion, hooking several bottles from a shelf above the bar and coaxing haphazard sprays of viscous gas into a cocktail shaker. “Wouldn't that put you out of business?”
“Hey, baby, people don't just come here for the moonshine,” Huggy said easily, gesturing for Hutch to finish his drink. “They come for that little slice of livin' you can't get anywhere else.”
“That must be why your furniture is all wipe-clean.”
Huggy's second mouth chuckled as he shook the cocktail, fast enough for the motion to become a blur. “It's a cruelty, blue, but you ain't wrong. Don't they say that you've got to hit the pits before you find true love? This is The Pits.”
Hutch shifted on his stool. "It's not just that, is it?"
"What ain't what?"
"You. You're very good at - listening, Hug," and Huggy's mouths broke simultaneously into a lazy smile.
"I'll let you into a secret, Blondie, which you've most likely guessed; it ain't only the furniture in this room and my finely-honed physique as shifts around, so to speak. I got ears for any kind of problem."
The purebreed considered for a moment, puzzling over the quiet suggestiveness in Huggy's tone, and looked up into pupil-less, Ventran eyes. Something had been bothering him ever since meeting Starsky outside the medical centre, something about his partner's outraged, possessive propriety. How much of my life is my own? How much of his should be mine?. “How about Starsky's problems?”
“Gotta tell you, Blondie, it takes a better bein' than most to get under Curly's skin," the shapeshifter said, leaning close to push Hutch's drink towards him. "He don't like people knowin' about his hurts, dig?"
"Did you get under his skin?" Hutch asked, curling his fingers around the ice-cold, still-vibrating glass, and Huggy threw his head back and laughed.
"Hey, my brother, depends how far under we're talkin' about."
The purebreed shifted on his stool, watching the scattershot play of light across his vibrating drink, and reached tentatively out to touch Huggy's silent mind. "Deep enough to know when he hurts," he said, softly.
"Ain't that the truth," the shapeshifter said, sobering abruptly, and leaned forward, bracing skinny arms on the shifting surface of the bar. "It ain't no bad thing, me not bein' the only one who knows what's goin' on in that curly head."
"Hey, you Hutchinson?" came a gruff voice from behind them; Hutch turned to see a bulbous Dengan waddling towards the bar, a scrap of paper held between two tendrils. "Some guy outside asked me to give this to a purebreed called Hutchinson."
Hutch nodded, ignoring the usual flourish of intimidated curiosity, and took the note. Scrawled across it in Starsky's untidy hand were exactly six words; 'Something's come up. Call you later?' He sighed. “Better take that drink off ice and give it to me,” he said, resigned. “Starsky's had a better offer for the evening.
Huggy's mind, normally so silent, pulsed with disapproval.
He was an hour early, the next morning, but that probably wouldn't matter. Hutch stepped out of the lift, almost tripped over a Do'on (who snapped 'watch it, walker!' before gliding away on her belly down the corridor) and headed wearily in the direction of Starsky's rooms.
There was something nudging at his mind the nearer he got to the right door, and he sped up a little, almost unconsciously; and then when he reached for the DNA pad it slammed into his thoughts with all the subtlety of the Torino on a bad day and he snatched his fingers back as if burned.
Starsky, it seemed, was otherwise occupied. The sensations were frighteningly clear, pleasurepainohfuckyes and Starsky pinned by strength and driving up into heat and ohfucksogood...
Cheeks flaming with a flush that seemed to be spreading over his whole body, Hutch took a step back, not noticing when a passerby had to dodge around him. He could probably wait an hour after all.
He made sure to occupy himself thoroughly in the gym on the other side of the building; there was no way he could pick up the residual echoes of Starsky's thoughts from that distance, and one very solid hour later, he approached Starsky's rooms a little more cautiously than his earlier attempt. There were no alarming tendrils of base instinct sneaking out to greet him this time, however, only the increasing volume of Starsky singing lustily at the top of his lungs; the door was unsecured, as usual, and he could also hear tiny squeaking noises as Louise darted past the entrance.
"Take the last shuttle out o'this tooown, backwater planet's gettin' me - hey, Hutch, I c'n smell you out there."
Knowing this was true, Hutch gave up on loitering and stepped into Starsky's quarters. The bed, he noted, was neatly made, bright covers smoothed down, and there was a pile of fresh laundry on the chair; Starsky had clearly been busy since Tsirki left. Even Louise's bedding had been freshly washed, which could account for her restless circling of the room. "Morning," Hutch said a little belatedly, obscurely glad not to have to concentrate on any lingering evidence.
"Mornin'," Starsky said, bustling past him in the direction of the corner storage unit. His feelings, as far as Hutch could judge them, were an odd mix of satisfaction and wistfulness, both of which were overshadowed by Starsky's usual Hutch-thoughts as he dumped an assorted collection of clothing into the unit and turned to face his guest. "What, no doughnuts?"
"Starsky, those things'll rot your teeth out."
Starsky ignored this, tail flicking absently at some dust on his desk as he turned to survey his tidying efforts. "D'you sleep well? I did. Man, all those nights on stakeout, huh?" He stretched his arms above his head, shirt riding up as he did so. Louise made an ungainly landing on his shoulder. "Today's the day it's goin' down." His grin was eager; he was, Hutch realised, itching to be in some kind of action. "Lookin' forward to it, Hutch?"
Hutch gave this due consideration. "Not especially," he said cautiously. The idea was a mildly intriguing one, and there was a definite unease in his own mind at the inevitable complexity of the task, a sort of frisson that prickled at the edge of his mind and set a tense ache throbbing in the centre of his chest, difficult to identify; despite that, it would be good to prove his own skill. Good to prove that he could make it as Starsky's partner, he realised, and amended his answer. "It'll be good to have the assignment over with."
Starsky was shaking his head. Irritated by the movement, Louise ascended sharply in a cloud of hair; either she was moulting or Starsky was. "Cool as a cucumber," Starsky said with some amusement. "Sometimes I wonder, buddy -" he cut himself off, thoughts abruptly flickering like a bad signal, hastily shielded. "Better get this show on the road, huh?"
Ranin and Coles met them two blocks away from the warehouse, both grim-faced and tense, though Hutch caught the same whirl of keen excitement that had been buzzing through Starsky for the past hour. "Don't try to take down Vaneen on your own," Coles said, checking his blaster over; the reddish fur over his shoulders was bristling slightly, and his ears twitched every so often when a cruiser passed overhead. "Those poison spines, they ain't just for show." He slanted a glance in Starsky's direction. "That means you too, Starsky, got that? No hair-brained stunts."
"Hey, I got a partner to keep an eye on me now," Starsky protested, though annoyance rolled off him in waves, and Hutch met his eyes in a glance he hoped conveyed sympathy. Miraculously, Starsky relaxed at that, shifting closer so that their arms brushed together, and Hutch realised he was oddly glad of the contact. "I got your back, partner," Starsky said quietly as Coles turned away.
"I know," Hutch said. "And - I -" he ground to a halt, but Starsky knew; Starsky was getting better at knowing, Hutch thought, and felt an odd sense of what could only be called pride.
“Right, we all know how this is going to go down,” Ranin said, tapping at a schematic of the warehouse. “We're leadin' the charge, uniform's followin', we've got to take the ringleaders down first. We've got warrants for anybein' found within twenty clicks, so don't fret the rough treatment – strike first. They ain't gonna outnumber us, but they are gonna out-dirty us. Even you, Starsk.”
Amusement pulsed, neon-bright with tension, and Starsky grinned. “No one fights dirtier than me, fishbreath.”
Ranin's grin was as fierce as Starsky's. “Y'never know, bud, we ain't seen Hutch's moves yet. Could be you've got competition.”
“I'll believe it when I see it. So, are we chattin' or are we bustin'?”
"You ever shoot someone before?" Starsky asked abruptly, as they crouched there under the overhang waiting for the signal. "You ever kill anyone?"
Hutch had his blaster out and ready, gripped in one large, capable hand. "No," he said tersely, avoiding Starsky's eyes, and Starsky couldn't suppress his dismay; Hutch's lips compressed in a faintly irritated line. "I'm sure I will master any difficulties involved."
Starsky had killed before. He'd shot other beings out of the sky, out of their neatly-compressed fragile ships in deep space and left nothing to show for it but the pattern an explosion makes in a vacuum; he'd shot a murderer - his first murder case - right between the eyes at point-blank range and learned that death smelt of charred flesh and bitter slowing blood on dirt. "You'll do okay," he said, trying to reassure even though he thought it might be vaguely useless, and Hutch nodded seriously, almost as if he believed him.
Soon it wouldn't matter if Hutch believed him or not. The shipment to the Fifth Arcane Triumph of the Liallic Circumference was due to depart, its stylised pilot ship already whirring into the air; intricate whorls of coloured metal wove across the entire surface of the little cruiser, every curve and corner of its design meticulously placed to maximise its aesthetic appeal. Starsky found Liallic tastes a bit trashy, even for him, but it wasn't the flashy cruiser that caught his eye. In the shadows of the enormous Liallic freighter, dwarfed by its magnificence, lurked a cargo shuttle. The ugly, blunt-nosed vehicle was one of thousands used to ferry cargoes to and from the big transports, but here it hovered alone.
Starsky raised his binoculars to his face, setting the little spectacles on his nose and narrowing his eyes to zoom in on the shuttle's viewscreens; in reality, they had no need of viewscreens, being fully automated from production line to scrap incinerator, but companies had never taken them out of the original designs and so...
“Shadows,” he whispered, gesturing to Hutch; the purebreed followed his example, peering through his own binoculars. “Can you get a fix on them from here?”
“Not without an hour's meditation,” Hutch said, ruefully, sitting up a little on his heels. Starsky tried to ignore the stretch of lean muscle beside him, instead studying the seemingly-innocuous shuttle. “If that's the main party, where are the rest of them?”
“Good question.” Starsky tapped his comm. “Zebra Five, you in position? Over.”
Ranin's reply was hushed. “Cosier 'n a Dracorn in a nest. You got something? Over.”
“Cargo shuttle, but it's only half the party. Over.”
There was a loaded pause, then, “Settle yourself in for a wait. There's nothing on this side. Let us know if it moves. Out.”
Minutes stretched past: five, ten, twenty. Starsky fidgeted first with his gun, then with his jacket hem, and then started worrying at a hole forming in the leg of his jeans; Hutch occasionally huffed a sigh at these activities, but didn't offer much in the way of comment.
Then he saw it; a faint shadow against the ground that a non-combat-trained eye would have missed. A ship, flying at head height, heavily cloaked, the kind of visibility scramblers that cost more money than whole planets made in a month. Alongside the freighter? "Hutch," he said softly. "Cloaked ship, right above us."
Hutch nodded, evidently sensing Starsky's conviction. "Zebra Five, Zebra Five, this is Zebra Three; report a cloaked ship in position above us, over."
"Copy that, Three," came Coles' voice immediately, almost inaudible. "We've got ground movement; I'll blip you to move and we'll proceed as planned. Over."
"Copy that, Five. Listening out." Hutch looked at Starsky, and Starsky was struck incongruously with the thought that imminent action became his partner very well; the usual pale blankness was faded like a bad signal, something brighter in blue eyes than mere polite interest. It was a look he had seen more and more, of late, and he was growing to treasure it.
Unfortunately, the sudden explosion of gunfire from Zebra Five's position put a bit of a dampener on his musings. Starsky was up and running in a heartbeat, firing wildly at the cloaked ship; Hutch's Magnum bellowed behind him as he ran, the piercing white beams of laserfire almost perfectly parallel with Starsky's shots. The ricochet was unmistakeable, their energy-blasts screaming against the cloaked ship's shields, then a door opened in empty air to reveal their quarry; Starsky snarled a challenge, taking aim, and the Valtan raised a volt cannon that could have shot the Liallic ship from the sky. There was no time to warn Hutch, no time to do anything other than move, but something of his intentions must have reached the mind-reader, for Hutch dived as he leapt and the great blast from the cannon ripped between them to ravage the ground.
Starsky grunted as he hit the wall of the warehouse, used the momentum to spring, and yelled as he collided with the Valtan in mid-air; the other being had launched herself from the ship just in time to meet Starsky's pounce and they rolled to the ground in a furious, spitting tangle, her spines jabbing at Starsky's face. He batted them aside with his blaster and drove his fist into her jaw, knocking her sideways and rolling up with a rapid volly of fire that left her an insensible heap on the ruined duranium.
The air was filled with blasterfire now, uniformed rangers swooping in from on high, their own cloaking deactivating itself as their cruisers dived; on the ground, other rangers were crouched behind cover, returning fire from the shuttle, the cloaked ship and hidden vantage points scattered about the docks. Starsky ducked, rolled for the nearest cover (an abandoned pilot ship) and miraculously found himself back to back with his partner. Hutch was up, firing at the now-tiny gap where the cloaked ship's door had been gaping open, and Starsky saw a distinctive, tentacled form drop lifeless to the ground. He got an Alterian?
There was no time to be impressed, however – the danger Hutch posed had clearly been spotted, fire from several of the scattered vantage points instantly drawn. Starsky bobbed up, covering his partner with shots that were not so much carefully as chaotically aimed, bellowing into his comm link for whoever was listening to follow suit.
The links were buzzing with panic, every neatly-planned inch of the operation dissolving into madness as the cargo shuttle, overwhelmed by fire, began to descend, beings spilling from its smoking, ruined sides to tangle with the rangers who rose to meet them. The cloaked ship was still airborn, accurate fire at its vital components impossible, but the intensity of the firing aimed at it burned fierce, laser blast after laser blast spinning clear until, with a deafening screech, the shields gave under the pressure.
Starsky whooped. Beside him, head slightly tilted, Hutch showed no sign of hearing; he kept firing, his arm jerking with each bark of the Magnum, utterly, terrifyingly focused. Starsky continued to cover him, ducking and darting blasterfire with every ounce of muscle and skill, until, with abrupt suddenness, a lucky shot caught the magnetic dock that held their cover and the pilot ship, no longer tethered, span wildly out of place.
Cursing, Starsky grabbed for Hutch's arm, intent on dragging him to a nearby crate that currently sheltered a couple of swarthy mongrel, but the purebreed was already running in the opposite direction, sprinting with hitherto-impossible grace towards the downed shuttle. An energy-blast tore past Starsky on the left side, its force tumbling him backwards, and he was growling as he hauled himself up and made for the crate, leaping further fire that followed his every move.
The crate's current occupiers didn't notice him until he too close, and he rendered the first one unconscious with a judicious blast from his Smith and Wesson, pouncing the second before he could swing his own gun round. They tussled for a moment, the other mongrel landing blows that knocked the wind from his lungs, but Starsky managed to get hold of the feathered mane and slammed his face into the side of the crate so hard that it left a deep indentation.
Pausing a moment to catch his breath, Starsky peered out to assess the situation; the cloaked ship's shields had dropped completely, revealing it to be a sleek, inter-planetary cruiser, all boosters and deflectors, upon which the heavy firing had taken a decided toll. The still forms of rangers and drug-dealers alike dotted the area, bright flashes of blood staining the ground, but uniformed officers were now sweeping forwards in ragged starts, cuffing the prone forms of stunned criminals and dragging their comrades to safety. Of Hutch, there was no sign.
One being that did catch his attention, however, firing madly from a second floor warehouse window, was the spined, vicious face of their main suspect. Starsky studied the distance, gauged the strength left in his adrenaline-charged body and, with a brief bunching of muscles, flung himself out into the open, accelerating rapidly for the warehouse. Vaneen was too busy picking off the unwary to notice his approach, an ugly snarl twisting her swarthy features, but when he was mere feet away her eyes alighted on him and, with a hiss of alarm, she trained her blaster on him.
He dodged the shot. For days afterwards, he would jerk awake to the scent of burning flesh, his own skin scorched by the heat glowing from the energy-blast that roared past his ear, sudden sharp agony that wrenched a cry from his throat as he stumbled, caught himself, and threw himself forwards into a desperate leap. He slammed into the wall at full speed, jarring every bone in his body, and climbed as fast as he could for the window.
He launched himself up and over the sill, ears still ringing from the blasterfire outside, and was immediately on the receiving end of a punch that nearly knock him straight back out again. Vaneen was snarling and spitting as she attacked in a frenzy, Valtan poison freezing his skin wherever it made impact, and he growled a challenge as he clawed at her, scrabbling for purchase on her smooth, flat-scaled body. She lunged, jaws snapping as she tried to get a bite in, and he rammed his gun into the side of her head, dropping her back a pace.
“You won't fucking-” was all she had time to say before Starsky clobbered her a second time, air hissing between her teeth as she fell, unconscious.
Starsky hurried to cuff her, snapping the bindings into place with a deep, warming sense of satisfaction, then ran to the window; the noise of combat had all but died away, only ragtag groups of one or two of the dealers still fighting, and the mongrel jumped casually down from the second storey. He bounced to his feet, the last stuttering surge of adrenaline still lighting his veins, and scanned the chaotic scene for his partner; Hutch was a motionless pillar in the midst of everything, staring at the ground. As the mongrel trotted over, the reason immediately became clear. Lying prone before the purebreed, its face lax with an energy-blast death, was a Prifuu, the expanse of its frill, now limp against the bloodied ground, showing its age. Starsky barely spared it a glance, focusing instead on his partner. Hutch's face was customarily blank, only a slight furrow between his brows showing any hint of emotion, there was no whisper of tension in his posture or the set of his shoulders.
That should spell trouble. Should, but...
"Hey," Starsky said, careful to stop a couple of feet away from his partner, mental shields firm. "Guess you can aim that freighter cannon after all."
Hutch nodded his acknowledgement, but his gaze didn't waver. "It was curious," he said, softly, moving to holster the Magnum with steady hands. "His mind... His thoughts, they - they screamed, just for a moment, then there was nothing. In the middle of - of chaos, of everything, a tiny patch of nothing, like an empty space in a choir..."
Mikos' voice, then, from the depths of Starsky's memories, the veteran's words rough with age; "The worst thing about flying Deep? The silence. Gets inside your head, kid, makes you crazy. Makes us all crazy." Starsky suppressed a shiver, brushing the memory aside and stepping forwards to pat Hutch's arm. "Good shot," he said, a little feebly. "You ready to go?"
"Yeah," Hutch said, still staring at the body on the ground, and then he knelt down - jerky, but that was Hutchinson-normal - and picked up his comm link, somewhat battered for having been dropped in the heat of the fight. "Empty space," he repeated softly, and then visibly started at the sight of blood on his hands, deep rich purple that wouldn't even stain.
Starsky dug in his pocket and produced his medi-wipe; Hutch accepted it with a nod and wiped off his hands, carefully, methodically. "Y'want the speech?" Starsky asked, and was surprised to hear his own voice was rough. "The one about what we gotta make ourselves do?"
"No," Hutch said with what might, with a little artistic licence, have been called a smile. "I - think I know what'd be in it."
"Good, 'cause I ain't good at givin' it," Starsky said, accepting the cleansed medi-wipe back again. Movement caught his eye; Ranin was turning over a packet, a look of puzzlement in her eyes. "Hey, Ranin, 's everything good?"
"Sure," she replied after a split-second hesitation where she glanced at Hutch as if expecting him to fall apart any second (Hutch, Starsky could have told her, was about as likely to fall apart as the spaceport itself). "It's just - this ain't just Dust. Hope like hell they ain't found somethin' new to make our lives hell."
Starsky made his way over to her, wincing as various parts of him made their hurts known; apparently, now that it had confirmed Hutch's safety and the chemical excitement was winding down, his body had every right to call in its favours. He scooped a handful of packages from the crate Ranin and Coles had forced open, examining their contents. Unlike Dust, which was too fine to be transported in anything other than medical gas canisters, this substance was a coarse powder, almost transparent and faintly glittering as it caught the light. “Glass,” he said, grimly, not daring to bring it up to his nose even unopened. “What's the betting we'll find Ta'uk and Valt in the other cases?”
Ranin's face had darkened as he spoke, her grip on the packet becoming wary, and she dropped it into the crate with a hiss; Coles slid a furred hand over her wrist, soothingly. “The Valtani System-”
“The Valtani System lost everything after 'Cade,” Starsky reminded her, aware that Hutch had joined them and was studying the seemingly innocuous packages with interest. “Four planets lost, only three left in the sky. They ain't odds that promote lawful behaviour, y'know?”
Coles grunted, his ears flattening to his head. “But Glass alone-”
“I know.” Starsky glanced at Hutch, caught the confusion before the purebreed could hide it, and resolved to buy him a damn history book. “So, do you me to break the news to Dobey, or do you want a broken neck?”
The vulpine mongrel managed to muster a weak grin. “Better us than you, pussycat. His mama told him never to hit a lady.”
Ranin straightened up in mock-outrage, her tail twitching. “Gonna hide behind me again, Reynard?”
“Pfft. I like my pelt where it is, thanks. As pretty as Edith would look with a new fur coat, I'm not ready to donate.”
That, Starsky was relieved to see, drew Ranin's lips into a more genuine smile. He put the Glass back in its box, careful not to rupture the seal and nudged Hutch with his hip. “C'mon, we got reports to write. Vice can handle clean-up.” And you've got questions to ask, he added, silently, wondering if Hutch would catch the thought.
Hutch nodded, one hand now rubbing fretfully at his chest as if something there pained him; Starsky watched him furtively as they made their way through the crime scene back to the Torino, but Hutch wasn't moving like he was injured. Good job too, or I'd make Glass-running the least of their worries.
"Glass," the purebreed said, as soon as the doors hissed shut behind them. Starsky flicked the stick forward and the Torino slid smoothly past the cleanup team, past the droids already repairing the walkways, and then pulled out into the traffic flow. "Is it -"
"Glass," Starsky echoed him. "It's what the Drimerii call assak. Grows in the rock; they c'n eat it, but if you or me or anyone who ain't basically made of rock tried they'd find themselves with a fried brain in about three seconds. Valtans figured out a way to refine it, make it so's it only takes a year or so 'til you're a vegetable. Then they signed an agreement, said they wouldn't sell the stuff outside of factory use." He flipped the Torino out of the main stream of traffic, down two levels for the shortcut that would take them back to Metro. "Makes Dust look like penicillin."
Hutch was silent, digesting this. "What - happened to the Valtani System? You said -"
The shiver that ran down Starsky's spine was involuntary, and annoying. "Y'said you don't have crime," he said, feeling his tail twitch, "so I guess that means you - your people - don't go to war." A headshake from beside him. "The Alcadian Territories War, that was our last attempt. Bringin' civilization to the nonconformists, they said - fightin' over three systems and a damn lot of words that meant nothin' to those that died. Turned out the Alcadians weren't above firin' novas at anythin' in their way, and that included inhabited planets; Valtani was right in the middle, they didn't stand a chance."
"I suppose -" Hutch started, and then stopped mid-sentence, a thoughtful pause, and Starsky knew damn well that he was being read like an infopad. "You were there," he said.
“Me and twenty billion others,” Starsky said, abruptly. “Turns out there's a reason they fight wars in deep space. Twenty billion dead, and most of 'em never even saw a blaster, let alone a Frigate. All for a stretch of sky no bigger than a galaxy.”
“The Infinerion Cascade.”
Starsky's hands tightened on the joystick. “You heard of it?”
“Not - only rumours,” Hutch replied, unnervingly still in his seat, not a sound to give him away. “Our scientists called it the last great anomaly.”
The mongrel snorted. “Pretty damn arrogant, thinkin' the 'verse only has one surprise left.”
Hutch didn't rise to the jibe (would he ever?) and Starsky felt his shoulders drop; they'd somehow tensed without him noticing. No one talked about 'Cade if they didn't have to. Aware of the expectant note to Hutch's silence, he said, “All right, time to brush up on your history. Alcar was the last galaxy to open its borders. Didn't like what they saw, I guess, 'cause it didn't take 'em long to start scrapping. First time round, they ate through four systems before the rest of us took any notice. Kind of set up a pattern for the next few Universal Wars.”
“We have records of the Universal Wars,” Hutch said, unexpectedly. Starsky glanced across, surprised, and watched sensual lips purse in contemplation. “Only the Diplomats are allowed access to them, we weren't - it wasn't, er, taught.”
And you never thought to ask. “Ever wonder why there's so many beings here that aren't humankind? Centuries of refugee traffic carried on what the Founders started, right up until Alcadian scientists decided a big enough explosion might be enough to end their troubles – want to guess what happens when you try to make a point by ripping apart deep space?”
“A black hole.”
Starsky shook his head. “Try ten thousand. They broke open the black and tried to look inside. And when they'd murdered enough people by tryin' to study the damn thing, they stuck a name on it, declared it the greatest achievement of living science and took themselves right back to the fight.” The mongrel paused, laserfire burning for a split second behind his eyes, and listened to the Torino comforting, familiar hum. “Stupid, really. There's battles bein' fought all over the 'verse, no one's got the strength for a Great War any more. When the Alcar made moves on Taler and Thayjast, everyone else decided enough was enough.”
“The war to end all wars,” Hutch said, the words oddly stilted, as if he was quoting from memory. Starsky suppressed the jolt of derision that threatened to curl his lip, hoping it didn't reach the empath.
“More like one last skirmish – once the armistice was agreed, they withdrew back into Alcar and sealed off the borders. No surrender. No peace treaty. Just the Cascade and a whole lot of ashes.” Starsky sighed, dropping the Torino into a crawl as they neared Metro. “And now we've got Glass dealers in the city. Not exactly how I imagined our first bust goin', pal.”
One thing the VIGE training didn't cover was the pad work. Starsky watched his partner tapping industriously through his report on the arrest, hesitating every few words. There was an art to write-ups, one that took at least five investigations' worth to master, but Hutch had enough smarts behind his purebreed naivety to catch on quickly enough. Starsky, having finished his own padwork over an hour ago, busied himself with his backlog, occasionally hopping up to fetch caffeine shots and reco-fruit to aid his partner's efforts. Hutch deserved it; he'd stepped right up to the plate, as Starsky had suspected he would, tackling his first serious investigation with quiet efficiency that most rookies took years to achieve. Not that Hutch was a typical rookie detective.
It wasn't just the psychic capacities, or the way he'd handled himself when it came to both witnesses and suspects; no, it was like he'd slid into Starsky's footsteps, walking with the same rhythm, bouncing off his lead to forge ahead with inquiries. The back-and-forth of questioning had become a to-and-fro, like they were a Founders-damned ventriloquist act. It was freaky.
As if sensing his thoughts (hell, he probably was), Hutch chose this moment to glance up and offer the slightest hint of a smile. "Have I changed colour?"
Starsky grinned. Even joking around was becoming more natural to him. "Nah, y'still a big blond beauty," he replied, reaching out his tailtip to snag Hutch's pad. "You nearly done with this?"
Hutch relinquished the report with reluctance, sitting up straighter in his chair like a student handing in a botched assignment. "It's as accurate as I can get it," he said, sounding unsure of himself. "I wasn't sure how detailed it should be."
Flipping through, Starsky let out a low whistle. Detail certainly wasn't something Hutch had to worry about. The average letter count for each word looked to be near double-figures. "Looks, er, fine to me," he said, carefully inching a shield up around his thoughts. "You could even try for less detail next time. I'll go file these."
Before Hutch could reply, indeed, before he could even get to his feet, the door to Dobey's office hissed open and the captain poked his head round. "Starsky! Hutchinson! Your next assignment's come through."
Starsky whined. "C'mon, cap', it's nearly seven! Can't we pick it up in the morning, we've got to celebrate Hutch's first bust!"
The cyborg's mechanical eye whirred as Dobey glared at him. "Now, Starsky. You don't take taxpayers' money to sit in Huggy's dive and fill your useless gut with oxygen shots, so get in here before I take next month's expenses out of your pay packet!"
Unaffected by the captain's tirade (though it made Hutch wince), Starsky pulled a face in his partner's direction and did as he was told, bringing the completed reports with him, Hutch following close behind. Dobey was settling at his desk, the ominous shape of two magenta files glowing before him. Starsky raised an eyebrow. "A murder? For our second case?"
"Wouldn't put you on it if I thought you couldn't cope," Dobey said, the extra gruffness in his tone making it quite clear that this was no choice of his. "Hutchinson has shown himself to be a thoroughly capable detective, the higher-ups want to see his particular talents assigned to more challenging work. You know how short-staffed we are at the moment."
Hutch, who had dropped with less than his usual grace into a chair opposite the captain, startled almost imperceptibly at the compliment; Starsky hid a smile. Better get used to it, boy, this team's all dream. Ignoring the other perfectly-good chair, he opted to lean against Dobey's vendor instead, calculating his chances of securing a reco-coffee before leaving. "Well, I guess I've got a few stiffs under my belt," he said, airily, feeling his tail twitch as anticipation of a new chase began to creep through his veins. "What's the sitch?"
"Body of a well-known Dust-hustler discovered by her girlfriend, who reported it and subsequently disappeared. Victim was an Elywian, Vice suspected connections to the operation you just terminated. They were going to bring her in for questioning, but someone else got there first. It's all the files, I want you to get a preliminary look at the crime scene before you sign off tonight. Any questions?"
Questions? Starsky glanced sideways at his partner, who had a look on his face that might mean he had no word of a clue what an Elywian was. Lucky you. "Any prior for the girlfriend?"
"System would've flagged it up. She's a second-rate taxi-flyer over on Nightside." Dobey held out the files in an impatient motion. "I ain't here to be your personal reader, Starsky. I want you two out on the streets on this."
"Sure, Captain," Hutch said, flicking through his copy as he stood up. Starsky held open the door for him, restrained himself from swatting the lean behind with his file, and then paused as he heard his name.
"Starsky," Dobey said, and coughed. "No surprises. Try not to ruffle anyone's, er, feathers."
"Oh, c'mon, Cap'n, I'm past the trouble-makin' stage."
Hutch was waiting for him by the anti-gravity jump; Starsky, who had paused to snag a caffeine shot - no sense in letting opportunity slide - waved him down first. Hutch raised an eyebrow, that almost-smile playing around his mouth again (goin' to make it all the way, one day, Blondie). "This mean I get to drive?"
"Ask the Torino," Starsky said, leaning close until Hutch's eyes widened - at least Hutch didn't flinch any more, "and then reconsider that question."
The crime scene was up in the heights near Nightside, forty-five stories up where the air was thinner and where the Elywian colony had nests and walkways strung out like haphazard lines drawn against the haze of the sky. Starsky had never liked being this high up; the breath caught at his throat and every step seemed to take twice as much effort as usual.
Hutch seemed to take it in his stride, right up until the point where Rogers flicked on the holo-imager and the dead girl appeared, spreadeagled on the ground with her wings stretched out beneath her as if in mid-flight. Her eyes stared glassily up at the sky, pale fingers open wide; she was naked, and the pale golden feathers down her torso were streaked with blood. Hutch didn't say a word, but he went pale very rapidly and Starsky glanced sharply towards him, all his attention unerringly homing in on his partner; Hutch had killed for the first time only this morning, and perhaps -
But the colour was returning, and Hutch's hand unclenched from his pad. "I'd never seen death before today," he said, almost conversationally, and knelt down beside Starsky. "And whoever killed her was so....so angry. N-never thought there'd be - residual emotion, in a case like this."
Starsky wrapped his tail briefly around Hutch's ankle, out of Rogers' sight - there was too much bull and too little cow in the big bovine mongrel and Hutch's reputation needed all the help it could get. "The higher up you go, the longer the ghosts stick around," he said, leaning in to examine the wounds; for all the trademark gauntness of Dust use, she'd been a pretty girl. Not so much now; there were several tears, concurrent with the grab-twist-rip action of Elywian claws, but lacking the jagged edges that characterised a naturally-inflicted wound. "Reckon we got ourselves a regular Gelon Trix," he added, feeling Hutch lean in alongside.
Rogers, hovering far too close (no doubt to get a feel for the new purebreed detective) snorted. "Man, where've you been? Gelon Trix! London's New Ripper? You must have-"
"Can it, steak-brain," Starsky hissed, irritably, showing his teeth. Starting on a murder case when he should have been at home trying to get Hutch drunk did nothing to aid his patience with people bombarding his partner. Hutch's face remained unmoving, but Starsky was fairly certain he could read gratitude in pale blue eyes. "Long story short, he was an artist from one of the British clusters who specialised in laser sculpture and rearranging the internal organs of the high society ladies he got to model for him. Sick son of a bitch was never caught, so you can imagine what the headlines are whenever someone finds a body with any sort of gash wounds."
Hutch nodded, a minute, shivering tension in his top lip the only outward sign that he might find the story less-than-wholesome. "You think the claw marks are faked to throw suspicion onto another Elywian?"
"Could be." And yet... "Not sure I buy that, though. Those marks are far too neat to be natural, but someone with that level of skill and knowledge would know better than to fake it too well. There's somethin' else..." He drew in a deep breath, ignoring the scent-trace analysis flashing from the file in Hutch's hand. "Nothing but Elywian. Isn't the girlfriend-"
"- a mongrel," Hutch finished, dawning realisation in his voice. "You think she could've done this? Disguised her scent?"
"Costs a lot of money to cloak a scent that well. Money people around here don't have," Starsky said grimly, looking up. Something fluttered in the corner of his vision; he knew damn well they were being watched, probably by the whole damn clan, never mind that no one should be able to see the virtual murder scene but the three of them within range. "Think it's about time we talked to what'sername."
"Whoever it was," Starsky added, waving to Rogers to flip off the image - the dead girl disappeared, leaving behind only a few faint marks where the ground had been hosed clean, "whoever they were, they made a mistake." He grinned up at his partner. "Didn't bank on the best nose in the department."
Rogers muttered something about egos and maniacs. Hutch actually pulled a half-smile from somewhere. "You have your uses," he said, seriously.
"Tomorrow," Starsky said, now on his feet, "we'll go walkin' on the Nightside, talk to this Mildred Nebraska."
“Milicent Dabradatsky," Hutch repeated, and up close he looked tired and wrung-out; Starsky wondered if he was hearing screaming Elywians inside his head, perhaps some lady heartbroken over her lover lying dead in the dirt with her guts all rearranged, perhaps some murdering bastard's delight in the act of killing.
"Come on, Blondie," he said, and slung an arm around Hutch's shoulders, the high atmosphere making him glad he could do so without a puzzled stare. "Pizza time. You promised."
Hutch stiffened. “I did no such thing.”
“Your memory's playing tricks on you, buddy. I distinctly remember you promising to buy me pizza when we signed off on all those damn stakeouts.”
Starsky nuzzled Hutch's neck with his nose, grinning when his parter prodded him away with a fingertip. “Pizza,” he repeated, firmly, and Hutch gave one of his weary sighs.
“Fine. Pizza. But we're taking it to your place, I just had my sheets laundered.”
"What is that?" Starsky asked abruptly, some time later when the pizza was all gone but for one slice; there was nothing on the media links, and Hutch could tell that Starsky had been getting sleepier from the warm weight against his right arm. "That thing. Y'keep rubbin' at your chest. Somethin' to do with your trip to the medic?"
Hutch looked down. He'd barely noticed it, but the ID chip buried just under the skin was burning slightly, and he'd made a red mark over the area above. "It's for identification," he said. Starsky reached out without asking and stroked his chest, hot fingers circling the faint blemish; the chip felt abruptly even more uncomfortable. "I, uh. Guess maybe it's allergic to tails."
"Ha ha," Starsky said, but he didn't sound amused. "Bit last-century, huh? ID chips. Don't you have DNA recognition and all that?" The warm fingers traced over the sore skin. "Ought t'get you to back to Dr Kisset, if it doesn't give over."
"Please, Starsk, I'm thirty-three years old, I think I know when I need to see a medic."
Undeterred, Starsky leaned in to sniff at the red patch, continuing to stroke gentle, investigative fingertips over the tiny dimple that marked the chip's entry. "Doesn't smell right," he said, decisively, and glanced up. Something about blue eyes with crinkled corners, something about the concerned twist of that clever, smiling mouth so close to him, the heat of Starsky's breath... Hutch winced as the burning sensation sharpened, his eyes flinching shut, and felt a hot, rough wetness glide over the sore patch.
Without looking, he said, "Are you - licking me?"
Starsky's shields softened, allowed the smug humour to leak through. "It worked, didn't it?"
"Mm-hmm," Hutch said, slightly dazed; focus. Focus on the obvious. "H-hope that's not any kind of anaesthetic saliva, for the sake of all those people you like to kiss."
"Nah, it's just magic," Starsky said. The burning, momentarily lessened by the shock of that unexpectedly intimate touch, returned, and Hutch resisted the urge to scratch at it. Starsky looked a bit distracted, like he was figuring something out; his surface thoughts felt like they did when he was on a case. "Hey, you sure that's just - storage? Just containin' - information, and such?"
"Yeah," Hutch said, puzzled. Starsky shrugged.
"Okay," he said, but in that tone that meant agree now, investigate later. Then he grinned. "You taste nice, Blondie, anyone ever tell you that?"
“Surprisingly enough, we don't make a habit of licking each other. It's unhygienic.”
“Mm, so I'm your first, huh?”
There was a wealth of meaning behind the phrase, heavy amusement tangled with heated intent that tasted a little bit too much like Starsky's Tsirki-thoughts, and Hutch was too tired and too damn sore to puzzle out mongrel oddities. Instead, he picked up the last slice of pizza, made a show of considering it, then shoved it firmly into Starsky's face. As a distraction method, it was incredibly effective.
It was almost enough to let him forget the last thoughts of the dead Elywian, screaming her heart out to an uncaring sky.
The Artificially Intelligent have no place in truly civilised society; evolution has not allowed for their existence. Therefore, a place must be created for them, and care must be taken to ensure that the Artificially Intelligent are engineered to thoroughly understand and appreciate the level of freedom that we, their creators, allow them to enjoy.
- Daniel Trescoth, 'Emergency Policies following the Artificial Intelligence Uprising'