The adage "the bigger they are, the harder they fall" flitted through Starsky's head, but he didn't really have enough time to dwell on whether or not it was true. Not when he was busy keeping away from a leg-breaker the size of a small German car. And especially when said leg-breaker apparently had the balance of a high wire aerialist. So far, nothing knocked him down.
Starsky had lost his weapon in the original confrontation with little Volkswagen, just after Hutch charged around the side of the abandoned warehouse in pursuit of Volkswagen's partner. Luckily, although Starsky no longer had his gun, he'd managed to duck under Volksie's arm and slither behind a pile of wooden packing crates. He'd already pushed four crates onto the guy's head without stopping him, and was currently tracking Volksie's ponderous footfalls for another opportunity to topple the giant.
Surely even Volksie could be felled by heavy wooden boxes. They just had to fall at exactly the right moment for maximum efficiency.
The question of where Hutch was, and was he all right, was one best left for later, when Starsky was out of immediate danger.
"I know you're behind there, little cop," Volkswagen bellowed. "Can't hide for long. Mario tol' me I could take you down." He chuckled; a sound not unlike the rumble of an earthquake.
Starsky held his breath. He could see a sliver of his opponent through a gap in the boxes, and he placed both hands against the uppermost one. If he judged things correctly, the crate would bean Volksie, giving Starsky just enough time to dash across the warehouse floor to where he had last seen his pistol.
He certainly didn't expect Volksie to make the first move. Abruptly, the whole column of crates slammed into him, pinning Starsky hard against the thick cement wall. It was like having all the air forcibly extracted from his lungs and, for a moment, he was only aware of the fight to catch his breath.
He grunted, his frozen chest muscles struggling to inhale. Blessed relief in the form of oxygen flooded his brain when he sucked in that first breath. Starsky wiggled to get enough leverage to free himself from his prison. The problem with having to deal with more than one box was that the column was now unbalanced, crates sliding freely against one another. And all of them had a metal bracket on each corner.
He had almost gotten one arm free when Volksie gave a final push, jamming a wicked metal bracket into his breastbone. Starsky felt the back of his shirt catch on the uneven surface of the wall, but he couldn't think past the pressure the edge of the box was exerting on his chest.
His vision graying in the flickering overhead fluorescent light, Starsky never saw Volksie jerk back when the bullet hit. The pop and whine of the bullet leaving Hutch's gun came almost belatedly, like an echo, and weirdly, a line of dialogue from a old episode of M*A*S*H distracted him.
Sometimes you hear the bullet.
Without the support of the packing crates, Starsky slid down the wall into an untidy heap on the floor. Over the top of a broken wooden box, he could see Hutch handcuffing Volkswagen's hands behind him. Volksie was complaining bitterly about his shoulder, which was slicked with blood. Starsky didn't have the energy to listen to his whining, concentrating on sorting himself out took all his strength.
"Starsk?" Hutch's voice had that tight, stiff quality he got when he was trying to control panic. Probably no one else on earth would have recognized that Hutch was scared, but Starsky knew, and it made him smile just a little, even when he was woozy as hell and achy all over.
"'M okay." Starsky batted away his concern and tried to stand up. Major mistake. His head swam, and he ended up hanging onto Hutch's arm fighting the need to throw up.
"Yeah, you look terrific," Hutch said with a tender edge. "GQ all the way."
"It's hard to look this good," Starsky boasted when he'd managed to arrange his vertebrae one atop the other and stand up straight. His chest and side felt like one giant bruise but otherwise, he was serviceable. "What'd you do, roar in like the cavalry, Gen'rl Custer?"
"The rest of the regiment is pulling up behind me to do the clean up, Sergeant." Hutch gave a snappy salute. "Sorry I didn't get here any faster. Seems like Klause's partner is faster than he looks. Led me on a goose chase before I collared him."
"You got here in time-" Starsky coughed. Pain shot through his chest that robbed him of speech and it took great effort to get out the rest of his sentence. "And in one piece."
Hutch did not look appeased. In fact, he looked very worried. "How bad is it?" He placed a gentle hand on Starsky's side, luckily not over the place that hurt the most or Starsky was sure he would have screamed.
"Just bruised, Hutch, honest," he said evasively. He watched a covey of blue uniforms troop in. Two roped off the crime scene with yellow tape while the other pair hauled Volksie away. "How'd you know his name was Klause?" He'd kind of miss thinking of the huge blond haired boulder as Volkswagen.
"Diefenbaker is a weenie. He kept yelling for Klause." Hutch watched him warily, hovering when Starsky tottered toward the exit under his own steam. "I got the stolen bag of gold doubloons, too."
"Yo ho ho and a bottle of..." Starsky meant to side-step one of the uniforms who had bent down to scoop up Starsky's gun into a plastic evidence bag. Instead, they both collided as the redhead straightened abruptly.
"I got--oof!" He whapped Starsky in the chest with an elbow.
This time, it was as if a massive hand plucked Starsky up and began to squeeze the life out of him. He couldn't inhale, he couldn't exhale--he couldn't breathe, period. Bright, sharp pain sliced through the right side of his chest, obliterating everything but the overwhelming, intense drive to pull in enough oxygen to live. Nothing else mattered.
"Hu'ch?" A dry heave that carried no sound beyond the crunch at the end of his partner's name.
"Starsky?" Hutch caught him, easing him to the cement floor.
"What the hell?" the redhead asked. "I'm sorry. What'd I do? What's wrong with him?"
"Call the paramedics, Reilly!" his partner yelled.
Voices lobbed back and forth above Starsky's head but he paid them no heed. Hutch's was the only one that penetrated the agony. He felt a little give in his chest, a whistling squeak as something akin to oxygen entered his lungs. While he was obviously breathing, it wasn't pleasant, or providing any sort of relief. It was a little like smelling a succulent hamburger without the ability to take a bite.
"Starsky," Hutch said urgently. "What hurts?"
Hutch actually expected him to talk?
"Is it here?" Hutch probed along Starsky's left rib cage and then over the sternum to the right.
"Don't!" Starsky gasped, trying to roll away. He panted, trying to capture enough air to think, his pulse roaring loudly in his ears.
"You're turning blue, babe," Hutch said softly, moving his hand back to the left. "Can you sit up? It'll help."
Starsky was rewarded with a huge influx of air just as Hutch eased him upright, stuffing something soft behind his head and shoulders.
"Can't...breathe." Starsky braced himself against the cold floor. It really did help, a little, to spread his arms as widely as possible, like he was forcibly expanding his ribcage. Hurt like hell, but every single extra molecule of oxygen was a precious gift. However, nothing loosened the pressure along his right side. He leaned forward, aware of Hutch's hands supporting him, until he found just that perfect spot where there was some air exchange. "Chest... is locked...up."
"The paramedics just got here!" Reilly pelted into the warehouse. "Looks like they're taking the prisoner first, since he's bleeding."
"Tell them to get in here now!" Hutch shouted. "Starsky needs oxygen!"
Starsky flinched, which did nothing good for his precarious breathing. What the fuck was wrong with him? He wasn't bleeding, and he hadn't broken any ribs. He'd suffered more than one broken rib in his life, and while that made breathing a bitch, this felt totally different. It was almost like his lungs had simply stopped doing their job.
"Hang in there, buddy," Hutch said more softly. "No jokes about how I sound like Dobey, huh?"
Starsky could hear the smile in his voice, even through the concern. "More," he had to pause to hitch in a strangled breath. "Like...a...bull...ele...phant."
"You're been watching too many nature programs, pal."
"Your..." Starsky squeezed his eyes shut to block out the black dots that invaded his sight. Hutch looked terrible with black speckles across his face. "fault. You're the one...watches that stuff."
"Guilty as charged," Hutch agreed. "Where are those paramedics?" he called out, still bearing most of Starsky's weight so that Starsky felt the force of Hutch's deep breath through his very bones. Somehow, his own body mimicked Hutch's, providing him with an inhalation that provided adequate air so he could relax briefly.
Chunks of time passed where he was dimly aware of the bustle of the other cops, and the warmth of Hutch's arm around him. Starsky was lost in a private, semi-airless void, as if he'd passed through one of those air-locks in the Space Odyssey movie.
"Open the pod bay door, Hal!" echoed in his brain, and he would have laughed if he could. Seemed like good advice. Let some damned air into this place.
"Two thousand and One," Starsky muttered, using up necessary oxygen.
"You daydreaming?" Hutch asked affectionately. "Starsk, the paramedics are here and they want you to get up on the gurney. Do you think you can?"
Starsk grinned tightly. Breathing still felt like he was trying to suck air through a straw with a sink strainer on one end, but either he was getting used the sensation, or he really had managed to draw in a couple of decent breaths.
"Piece a'cake," he said.
Hutch did nine-tenths of the work hoisting him up, but Starsky got his legs underneath him. He felt another set of hands guide him onto the gurney and looked up to see a dark haired man wearing a blue uniform. Luckily, the black dots dancing in front of his eyes had receded enough so that he could read the guy's nametag.
"You're Hal?" Starsky laughed, although what came out sounded like a Model-T backfiring. "Open...the...pod...bay..."
"Not like I don't hear that one every other day," Hal said with a good-natured grin. "In my opinion, you could use some oxygen."
"Stitch...in my side," Starsky forced out, every single word on an exhalation. Talking had always been his way to combat fear when he was hurt, to keep away the terror of being vulnerable. This whatever-it-was was robbing him of his one consolation.
"Can you tell me your name?"
"Dave Star-sky." When he couldn't even say his own name, things were getting really bad. His lungs felt like they'd shrunk to the size of tiny, deflated party balloons. Every normal breath was a fight--the sense of being in the vacuum of space was never more real.
"What seems to be the problem, Dave?" Hal asked.
"He's cyanotic," Hutch said worriedly. "Can't get good oxygen exchange. I was thinking a punctured lung, but there's no bleeding, no wet breath sounds."
"You obviously paid attention in first aid training." Hal busied himself with opening a box of supplies.
"Ken Hutchinson. I was interested in medicine. Read Gray's Anatomy from cover to cover when I was eighteen."
Hutch placed his hand on Starsky's chest, well away from the sore area, Grateful, Starsky just concentrated on staying conscious. He liked Hutch's hand there, a small protective barrier of warmth.
That is, until Hal put the freezing metal bell of his stethoscope alongside Hutch's fingers.
"'S cold!" Starsky had no problems with the exclamation, but his lungs locked up after that--everything and everybody graying out as he tried in vain to suck in even one single unimpaired breath.
"Almost no breath sounds," Hal said, quickly grabbing up an oxygen mask to strap around Starsky's nose and mouth. "Heart rate 130, respiration 36, with severe substernal and intercostal retractions," he called to his partner. "We need to get him to County fast, probably a tension pneumo, possibly bilateral. He needs a chest tube."
The oxygen helped clear Starsky's head, like a gust of wind blowing away the clouds that had obscured his brain. He still couldn't breathe, which was the scariest feeling he'd ever had. Far worse than getting shot, or having his body slowly fail him from a poisonous compound. Breathing was as natural as--well, life. Without breathing there was no life. He had to trust in Hal--and more importantly, Hutch, and put his life in their hands.
The ride in the ambulance was noisy and fast. If the gurney hadn't been fastened down, it would have ricocheted from one side of the rig to the other. Under other circumstances, Starsky would have enjoyed the adrenaline spiked race down the main streets of Bay City. However, he could have lived without the added excitement of fighting for every single breath.
The only thing that kept him going was the sight of Hutch's pale, tense face filling his vision. He had absolute faith that Hutch would keep him breathing by sheer strength of will.
The ER doors sliding silently open only accentuated Starsky's sense of arriving onto a space ship. He fully expected to see Keir Dullea jogging around a circular corridor with majestic music playing in the background. Without preamble, Hal yelled out Starsky's vital signs as he transferred his patient to the doctors.
Starsky felt like some parcel being handed off from one courier to another. He wanted to have a say in his own care, but his brain cells were scattered, fuzzy with the effort to suck in air, even with the oxygen mask in place. He only heard one word in ten, and couldn't follow the simplest conversation if he tried.
"Dave, can you hear me?" It was a familiar voice, one that brought back memories of another ER visit and fear.
Just open the pod bay door, and let me breathe! flitted illogically through his thoughts as a strong, warm hand closed around his, and Starsky felt a small movement in his chest.
"Starsk, focus on me," Hutch whispered. "You got Franklin again, so you're in good hands."
He didn't really care who the doctor was as long as Hutch kept him tethered there so that he didn't float away into the dark, cold space.
"I'm going to insert a needle in your chest," Dr. Franklin told him. "To evacuate some of the accumulated air. Your lung has collapsed and the air is pushing it over to the other side of your chest, compromising both your lungs."
Starsky nodded, understanding the procedure. He didn't care what Franklin did, just as long as they got his lungs working again. He opened his eyes, surprised to find that they'd been closed, and saw Hutch again. "You look..."
"Don't you say terrible." Hutch shook a long finger at him. "No talking. Just keep breathing."
"'S what...I...do...best..." Starsky's vision wasn't at maximum capacity. Hutch still sported odd black spots and he looked suspiciously like he was going to cry. That was the oddest thing of all. Hutch never cried. Starsky hitched a jagged breath that failed utterly to bring air. He could feel the oxygen mask on his face, but it was doing bupkis. He wanted desperately to tell the nurse to turn up the flow.
"You'll feel something cold on your side," Franklin said. "I'll numb the area, but you may still feel the needle going in."
He certainly did. A sudden pain stabbed him sharply in between two ribs and then there was blessed, precious relief. Starsky gulped in air, savoring every single breath for the gift that it was. He was still aware of low level pain along his right side, and the medical staff working efficiently around him, but he could breathe. That was a very good thing indeed.
"You're looking pinker," Franklin said with approval, positioning his stethoscope on the right side of Starsky's chest. "Much improved breath sounds--looks like that did the trick."
"So." Starsky dragged in another fantastic breath. Pain flashed with every inhalation and exhalation, although he could tolerate the ache much more easily now that it wasn't accompanied by complete airlessness. "How long am I in for, warden?" He was surprised that his voice came out like a raspy scratch and cleared his throat, which turned out to be a mistake. Weird that one little cough had him fighting to remain conscious.
"Hey," Hutch called. "You're fading out on us, pal."
Starsky was enough of a veteran of hospitals to recognize the sensation of that liquid gold called morphine sliding into his bloodstream. This was followed by another jolt of pain along his side. Conveniently, the morphine dulled out all the hurt, padding it with lots of nice fluffy pillows.
"The chest tube is connected to a drainage system, doctor," a nurse reported. Starsky could hear a muted bubbling like a miniature fountain.
"Yer my pal, Hu'sh," he slurred. "Y'know that rhymes with Hal?" He giggled drunkenly, and winced. Giggling was out for the foreseeable future, as was deep breathing.
"You're high, Starsk," Hutch said fondly.
"Floatin' in space, babe, like an ast'a'snot." That was definitely wrong. Starsky didn't need Hutch to correct his pronunciation to know that. "Astra--? Whadda you call those guys who went to the moon?"
"Buzz," Franklin said without a hint of sarcasm.
Starsky blinked, bringing the room into fuzzy focus. Hutch was grinning at him, and the doctor had a disturbing streak of blood across his scrub top that Starsky suspected was his own.
"You gonna let me out of here today?" Starsky asked, looking straight at Franklin.
"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that," he replied, sounding oddly robotic, possibly because he was busy writing notes and checking whatever was bubbling at the end of the plastic tube in Starsky's side. "Haven't even taken x-rays yet to see if this thing is working."
"What's the problem?"
Franklin's mouth quirked slightly, his version of a smile. "I think you know what the problem as well as I do."
This was all too much like deja-vu, and not just because he'd been in this same ER multiple times. "You ever seen that movie, Space Odyssey?"
"I love Kier Dullea!" the nurse monitoring his vitals piped up. "And that great music, I got the soundtrack just so I can play it while I'm doing the dishes."
"I rarely get out to the cinema much." Franklin shrugged. He peered at the chest tube again. "I suspect that your lung will re-expand over the next few days, and you can be released on Friday."
"Three to five days, warden?" Starsky sighed. The news would have been more demoralizing if he hadn't been drugged to the gills. This morphine was fantastic stuff.
"Starsky, you're not in the slammer," Hutch laughed. The relief in his voice must have been evident to anyone present.
"Might as well be." Still, the hospital was better than being imprisoned in deep space on a huge spaceship.
"Dr. Victor Kaminsky will watch your progress after you get up to the fifth floor." Franklin shoved his hands into the pockets of his white coat. "You know I've prefer not to see you in my ER quite so often." He parted the curtains that surrounded the examination cubicle, followed by the nurse.
"I second the motion," Hutch said, poking a finger at Starsky's nose. "I think I know every nurse here by name. That one was Natalie."
That made Starsky suddenly sad. "Good thing Diana doesn't work here anymore, huh?"
"Don't remind me." Hutch rubbed his left arm unconsciously and then tapped the watch on Starsky's left wrist. "I'd better get going. Dobey'll want reports on this whole mess in triplicate."
"Hey," Starsky started to talk and had to wait a moment for his drifting thoughts and dicey breathing to catch up with his mouth. "You done good. Not every day we break up a gold smuggling ring an' find the pirate's treasure."
"Should have gotten back to you sooner," Hutch muttered darkly, his jaw tightening. "I was so set on getting those damned doubloons back that I..."
"Don't," Starsky said. He tilted his head slightly, woozy, sure that he could hear the crashing opening notes of glorious symphony piece while crazed apes danced around a monolith. Or maybe it was just the morphine doing weird things to his brain. "Hutch, how old'll we be in 2001?"
"At this rate, crippled has-beens on the BC pension." Hutch looked at him oddly. "You feeling all right, pal?"
"Rhymes with Hal." That was funny even the second time around, and Starsky remembered not to giggle. He gingerly splinted his chest with one hand to inhale, feeling the blunted flare of pain gratefully. Still alive. "Fifty-six, right?"
"On the nose," Hutch agreed. "And you said you flunked math. Why do you want to know?"
"The twenny-first cent'ry's just around the corner. We ain't getting any younger. "
"And it's terr'fic up here," Starsky agreed. The whole room seemed to be revolving lazily as if they were circling a distant planet. "Hey, d'you wanna go see Space Odyssey next week at the Bijou?"
"How can you think about movies at a time like this?"
"Been on my mind all morning," Starsky said. Not like he'd been living whole scenes from the film. "You'll like it. A Kubrick retrospective. First Lolita and Dr. Strangelove."
"Now there's an odd pair."
"And then--" Starsky hummed the opening refrain to the tune playing over and over in his head. "2001...Space Odyssey. There's even a book, it's educational."
"I've read it." Hutch nodded affectionately at him. "It's about a computer that goes crazy. Open the p--."
"Don't say it!" Starsky cried. "On second thought--maybe we can just see the first two, okay?"
"Starsky, that morphine's got you more spaced out than usual."
"You don't know the half of it."