In the shining dark, crying out

In the screaming silence, a distant light

In the reckless falling

Endless dying

Relentless pleading

Be still, my love.

- Dassat M'han, 'The Lost Souls of Infinerion'

x

"Morning, partner."

"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.

x

"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.

x

"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.

x

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!"

"...Tsirki?"

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?"

x

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.

x

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."

x

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.

x

"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.

x

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."

x

"Magdelena Korchev?"

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?"

"I don't-"

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."

x

"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.

x

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."

"Duluth, Minnesota."

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.

x

"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?"

x

"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.

x

He was an hour early, 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'?"

x

"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."

x

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."

x

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.

"Gelon..?"

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."

"Milicent Dabradatsky."

"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-"

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."

x

"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.

x

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'