CARS NEED LOVE, TOO

Author: Rebelcat

Gen or Slash: Gen

Warning: Masonry is destroyed.  Corpses litter the streets.  The bill for cleanup is going to be massive.

Rating: PG-13

Category: Deathfic LJ Challenge (Starsky and Hutch do NOT die), Alternate Reality (almost canon-verse, but not quite), Horror, Humor
 
Disclaimer: "Starsky and Hutch" was a TV show, and "Maximum Overdrive" was a movie, based on a short story by Stephen King.  I own nothing!

Feedback/Critique: Yes, please!

Beta: Thanks to Nik Ditty, and Izzie for their wise betaing!  This story was originally printed in "Seasoned Timber 4".

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Cars Need Love, Too

A city that outdistances a man's walking power
is a trap for man. ~ Arnold Toynbee

Chapter One

 

 

The monotonous red flash of the clock radio wormed its way into Starsky’s consciousness, niggling at him until he blearily opened his eyes.

 

DIE

 

That can’t be right, thought Starsky.  He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them again.

 

DIE, flashed the clock radio.

 

He rubbed his face, wondering if he was still dreaming.

 

DIE

 

DIE

 

DIE

 

Perplexed, Starsky sat up and stared at the machine.  It was brand new.  Made in Japan, with the latest digital technology.

 

"Hey, Hutch," he yelled toward his living room. 

 

There was no answer.  Hutch was still sleeping off last night’s Comet Party on the couch.

 

Starsky supposed the clock had to be malfunctioning, but DIE seemed like an odd way to announce this fact.  Then again, its Japanese designer might have thought DIE was just a friendly way of saying "I’m broken" in English.

 

Starsky nodded.  Yep, that was it.  It was a simple—and hilarious—error in translation.

 

"Hutch, you’ve got to see this!"

 

This time he heard a distinctly annoyed growl from the living room.

 

The previous evening Hutch had dragged his telescope over to Starsky’s house.  He’d wanted to watch as the Earth passed into the tail of the biggest comet in recorded history.  The scientific data gleaned from the comet could change human history, he’d said.

 

Starsky had been unimpressed by the view through Hutch’s telescope.  The fuzzy little blob in the sky bore no relation to the artists’ renditions of fiery comets he’d seen published in the paper.

 

Starsky had thus spent a long boring evening on the couch listening to comet coverage on the news while Hutch waxed eloquent on the historical significance of the moment.  Eventually he’d dragged himself off to bed, making his response to the question of “where were you when the comet flew by” likely to be very disappointing to future generations.

 

“Hutch?”

 

No response.  Starsky reached for the lamp beside his bed.

 

A bright blue spark jumped from the switch to his finger.

 

"Ow!"  Aggrieved, Starsky stuck his forefinger in his mouth and glared at the lamp.  That had been one heck of a static shock.  After a moment, he tried again.

 

"Ow!  Damn!"

 

"Starsk, what the hell are you doing?" asked Hutch sleepily from the couch.

 

Ignoring him, Starsky jumped out of bed and yanked the plug from the wall.  It came out crackling and snapping and he dropped it quickly.

 

Stupid thing must have shorted out and taken the clock radio with it, thought Starsky.  He groped blindly along the wall for the switch by the door.

 

This time when he swore he said a great deal more than ‘damn’.  He also spent several minutes jumping up and down in one spot and shaking his hand.

 

"If you’re not being attacked by invisible ninjas," said Hutch from the door of the bedroom, "I swear I’ll murder you.  And after I stuff your body in the freezer, I’m going back to sleep."

 

"My house is trying to kill me!"

 

"Your house is not trying to kill you," said Hutch.

 

"Yes it is trying to kill me!  My clock radio—" Starsky stopped.

 

"Your clock radio what?"

 

Starsky was stuck.  ‘My clock radio told me to die’ sounded like the last thing a person said before the men in white coats carted him off to Cabrillo.  And to be honest, now that he was fully awake, he wasn’t completely sure it hadn’t been a dream after all.  Clocks didn’t tell their owners to die, not even fancy new ones from Japan.

 

Hutch sighed irritably, and reached for the wall switch.  Starsky heard a crack that sounded like lightning, and for a split second he saw the bones of Hutch’s hand right through his skin.

 

"Ow!"  Hutch stumbled back, bumping into the wall.

 

"Hah!" shouted Starsky.  "I’m not crazy!"  He rubbed his eyes, trying to erase the reverse image of Hutch’s hand imprinted on his corneas.

 

Hutch shook his hand, hissing.  "You’ve got some kind of short in the switch.  Christ, Starsky.  You’re lucky this whole place hasn’t burned down around your ears."

 

"Same thing happened with my lamp," said Starsky.

 

Hutch made a thoughtful noise, and then Starsky heard him move back out into the living room.  A moment later he heard paper rustle.

 

"What are you doing?"

 

"Where do you keep your pens?" asked Hutch.  There was a metallic thump, which Starsky had to assume was the sound of his waste paper basket getting kicked over.

 

"There’s a cup on the desk."  A rattling, rolling clatter told Starsky that Hutch had found it, spilling the pens in the process.  "What?  Are you writing to the electric company to complain?"

 

"No, dummy.  I want something plastic so I can try turning on the lights without getting my fingers burnt to a crisp."  More rattling sounds.  "Ah, this should do it."

 

"I’m not sure this is a good idea," said Starsky doubtfully.

 

Yellow light abruptly flooded the room, making Starsky’s eyes water in protest.  Squinting, he saw Hutch holding up a disposable Bic pen in triumph, a wide grin on his face.

 

"See?"  Hutch gave the lamp on the desk a little pat.  "Human beings are tool-using animals.  All it takes is a little ingenuity and—"

 

The light bulb exploded.

 

"Christ!" shouted Hutch, jumping back.

 

"The switch!"  Grabbing a blanket off the couch, Starsky wrapped it around his arm and over his hand.  Slapping the wall, he cut the power to the lamp.

 

A pungent smell of burnt wiring filled the room.

 

"I think I stepped in some of the glass," said Starsky, after a moment.  Dropping the blanket, he sat down and tried to peer at his foot in the dark.

 

"Cry me a river.  I got more of it stuck in my hand," said Hutch.  "Where do you keep your flashlight?"

 

"Um," Starsky ran his fingers over his sole and winced as he found the shard embedded in the pad just beneath his little toe.  "Try the top of the fridge."

 

The splinter of glass was too small to pull out.  He tried digging at it with his fingernail.

 

"Your freezer is defrosting," Hutch called from the kitchen.  "There’s a big puddle of water on the floor."

 

"Well for God’s sake, don’t turn anything on," Starsky shouted back.  "You’ll end up electrocuted."

 

"Are you sure it’s on top of the fridge?" asked Hutch.  "Oh, wait.  Never mind.  Found it!"

 

Starsky saw a brief flash of light, which was immediately followed by the crack of a bulb exploding.

 

"Oh, for crying out loud!" said Hutch.  "Do you have any candles?"

 

"Maybe."  Starsky finally got a grip on the glass in his foot and pulled it out.  The tiny cut stung as he climbed to his feet.  "You could try the drawer beside the sink."

 

He heard the wet slap of Hutch’s feet on the linoleum, and then a metallic clatter as he yanked open the junk drawer.  "There’s better not be anything electric in here," said Hutch.  "I don’t want to lose a finger."

 

Starsky suddenly remembered where he’d left the candles.  "Wait, don’t go anywhere!"  He headed back toward his bedroom.

 

"I’m not going anywhere," said Hutch.  "Why would I go anywhere?  Everything in your house is trying to attack me.  If I weren’t a rational man, I might take it personally."

 

Starsky knelt down beside his bed and felt underneath.  His fingers encountered a box and he pulled it out.  "Found them!"

 

"Of course," said Hutch from the door.  "Your candles are under your bed.  Why are they under your bed?"

 

Starsky dropped the box of candles on his bed, and turned to his bedside table.  "Well," he said, as he searched the top drawer for a lighter, "I had a date with a stewardess last Wednesday."

 

"Okay, so you were going for a romantic atmosphere in the bedroom?  Any success?"

 

Starsky felt around the inside corners of the drawer.  The damned disposable lighter was hiding from him.  "That’s not what they were for."  His fingers encountered a piece of smooth plastic, unmistakably in the shape of a lighter.  "Got it!"

 

Starsky lit one of the candles and yellow flickering light illuminated the room.  The candle was long and narrow and he wondered if it was the same one Bobbi had played with on their last date.  "She likes experimenting with different, uh...  sensations.  We didn’t light them."

           

Hutch froze in the middle of reaching for a candle of his own.  "That’s disgusting!"

 

"Yeah well, you already touched the flashlight," said Starsky.  Some of the wax dripped on his hand, and he winced and tilted his candle forward.

 

Hutch grabbed a candle with a growl, and lit it from Starsky’s.  "C’mon, let’s take a look outside."

 

 

*

 

Hutch stepped outside and stopped short.   Brilliant stars crowded the sky, blending into the glowing arc of the Milky Way.

 

"Wow," said Starsky, behind him.

 

Hutch dragged his eyes away from the sky and looked around.  For a moment he had the unsettling impression that Bay City had disappeared.  Then he realized it was simply that the lights were out.  Everywhere.

 

Somewhere in the distance he could hear a car engine revving, over and over, but that was it.  The omnipresent mechanical hum, the breath of a living city, had stopped.

 

Starsky shivered, as if feeling a chill.  "We’d better get to the precinct," he said.  "There’s gonna be looting."

 

"I’ll call Dobey," said Hutch.

 

"You can’t!"  Starsky flung his arm across the open door, blocking Hutch.

 

"Why not?" asked Hutch.  "As long as there’s a generator running at the station, the phone won’t be out.  It’s not on the same electrical grid."

 

Starsky turned and poked him in the chest.  "What do you think is happening here?"

 

"I don’t know," said Hutch.  "Some sort of power problem.  Maybe the generating station is pushing out too much electricity."

 

"My flashlight wasn’t plugged into the wall," said Starsky.  "Something’s gone wrong with electricity, period."

 

"Electricity doesn’t just go bad!" protested Hutch.

 

"You’ve already burned your fingers on the light switch.  Now you want to hold a phone up to your ear.  Do you really want a perm that badly?"

 

Hutch pushed him aside.  "Let’s just get dressed, okay?  We’re going to work early today."  He was not rattled by anything Starsky had said.  It was just that now that he thought about it, there was no good reason to call into work right away.

 

Finding his clothes was a frustrating task.  Hutch couldn’t remember where he’d left his shoes and crawling around on a glass littered carpet was not something he relished.  He eventually discovered them under the couch.  He could hear Starsky in the bedroom cursing the buttons on his shirt as he repeatedly redid them, trying to get his collar to line up straight.

 

In the bathroom, Hutch emptied Starsky’s toothbrushes—why did one man need so many anyway? —out onto the counter and put his candle inside the mug.  He turned on the cold water tap.  Water gushed forth in a reassuringly ordinary way, and he splashed it over his face, slicking his hair back.  Then his eye landed on Starsky’s hair dryer, sitting on the back of the toilet.

 

Hutch considered the hair dryer.  It was a travel model, battery operated.  If he turned it on, would it blow up in his hands?  Frowning, he examined his image in the mirror.  He couldn’t see much in the flickering candle light, but he could see enough to know that he had acquired his standard bed head sleeping on Starsky’s couch.  His hair, even after having been dampened, was flat on one side and fluffy on the other.

 

Cautiously, using just one finger, Hutch slid the switch down to "low".

 

The hair dryer began to hum.

 

He stuck his hand in front of it and felt warm air.

 

"Hey, Starsk!" shouted Hutch.  "Your hair dryer works!"  He felt his universe settle into a more sensible configuration.  The flashlight had just been a fluke.  All of this morning’s craziness was due to nothing more than a simple power outage.

 

"Terrific," growled Starsky, sounding frustrated.  "Are you going to be in there much longer?"

 

Unreasonably heartened to find at least one mechanical appliance still working, Hutch turned the hair dryer off.  There were a few things he wanted to take care of first.  He used the toilet.  He shaved and brushed his teeth—with his own toothbrush, which he’d left behind a few months earlier. 

 

He ignored the sound of Starsky pacing back and forth in front of the bathroom door.

 

Mulling over possible explanations for the electricity going out, Hutch soaked his hair under the tap and combed it out using Starsky’s wide-toothed comb.  Then he restarted the hair dryer.

 

For a moment, everything seemed to be going fine.

 

Then the hair dryer’s fan reversed and instead of blowing air out, it abruptly sucked it in, along with a large chunk of Hutch’s hair.

 

Hutch yelped and tried to yank the hair dryer away from his head.  It refused to let go, and for a panicked moment he was certain it was hungrily chewing its way up the strands of his hair to his scalp.

 

Starsky kicked open the bathroom door, his gun in his hand.  "Hutch!"

 

"Get this thing off me!"  Hutch smelled burning hair.

 

Starsky stuffed his pistol into the front of his jeans and grabbed the hair dryer.

 

"Ow, ow!" protested Hutch, tears springing to his eyes.  "Don’t pull so hard!"

 

"There’s scissors around here somewhere," said Starsky.

 

"You’re not cutting my hair!"  Hutch fumbled with the switch.  "Why won’t this thing turn off?"

 

Starsky peered at it.  "It’s already off."

 

"It can’t be.  It’s still trying to—  Jesus Christ!"

 

"Well," said Starsky, now holding the still-humming hair dryer.  "It’s off."

 

Hutch tried to feel for the missing patch of hair.  "What the hell’s wrong with that thing?  Shut it off!"  He felt as if he’d just been scalped.

 

"I told you," said Starsky.  "It is off.  See?"  He held the hair dryer above the candle, so that neither the air sucking in the front end or blowing out the back end would affect the flame.  The switch was in the middle of the slide, in the off position.  "For that matter, I don’t know how it got turned around like this.  The only settings are ‘warm’ and ‘hot’.  There’s nothing here that says ‘suck’ instead of ‘blow’."

 

There was a good chunk of Hutch’s hair sticking out the front end of the dryer.  He snatched the device back from Starsky and turned it over.

 

"Hey, hey, watch the candle," said Starsky as the flame guttered.

 

"I’m taking the batteries out of this little beast," said Hutch, vindictively.  He found the tab on the bottom of the handle and dug his fingernail into it.

 

But just as he did, the motor inside the hair dryer went into overdrive.  There was an earsplitting whine and the machine began to smoke.  Startled, Hutch dropped it.  It hit the floor and the smoke increased.  A small yellow flame licked from inside the nozzle as the tuft of hair caught inside turned black and shriveled.

 

"Whoa," said Starsky.  "That thing’s vicious."  Drawing his gun, he aimed carefully at the hair dryer, which was now turning circles on the floor.

 

"You can’t be serious—"

 

The deafening crack of Starsky’s pistol cut Hutch off.

 

Ears ringing, he could hardly hear himself holler, "Starsky!"  The smell of gunpowder in the small room made his eyes water.

 

"It worked, didn’t it?" shouted Starsky back at him.

 

"What?"

 

"I said it worked!"

 

Hutch looked down.  The hair dryer was most indisputably dead.  But so was a large portion of Starsky’s linoleum.

 

"You could have shot right through the floor!"

 

"Better than burning down the house."  Starsky placed the gun down next to the sink with an emphatic thump.  "Now are you done in here, or is your beauty routine more important than a national emergency?"

 

"You’re a real comedian."  Hutch retrieved the mug with his candle in it.  "And who says the situation is national?  This is probably a local problem.  Bay City area, only."

 

"Wait," said Starsky.  "What time is it?"  Squinting, he tried to hold the face of his watch up to the candle.  Finally he said, "Oh, man, that’s weird."

 

"What’s weird?" asked Hutch.

 

"Look at my watch!"  Starsky held out his wrist.

 

Hutch grabbed Starsky’s hand and moved it closer to the candle.   Then he saw that the hands were spinning rapidly around the face, as if time was galloping forward.  "This is battery operated, isn’t it?"

 

Starsky shook his wrist, and peered at it again.  "So everything electrical has gone nuts, from tiny batteries to stuff that plugs into the wall.  That doesn’t leave much, does it?"

 

With due ceremony, Hutch reached into his corduroys and pulled out his pocket watch.  Flipping it open, he held it up to his candle.  "It is precisely four seventeen a.m."  Smirking, he added, "No battery."

 

"Yeah, says the guy who lost half his hair because he had to blow dry it!" Starsky shot back.  "You’re not exactly Amish."

 

"But I am the guy who knows what time it is."  Hutch picked his way across the darkened living room and into the kitchen.  He carefully fingered the sore patch behind his ear.  No, he hadn’t lost half his hair.  Just a few strands at most.  No one would even notice.

 

Groping along the counter, Hutch found an unopened beer can beside the sink.  Putting it down, he kept searching until he located a glass.   He turned on the tap to fill it.  His glass was half full when the water suddenly cut out with a loud cough and a rattle of pipes.

 

In the bathroom, Starsky howled.  "Hey!  You used up all the water!"

 

Hutch winced.

 

The bathroom door slammed, and a moment later Starsky stomped into the kitchen.

 

"Water," said Hutch, reaching out and wrapping Starsky’s hand around his glass.

 

Grumbling, Starsky dampened the towel around his neck in the glass and wiped shaving cream off his face.

 

"Do you know what this means?" said Hutch.

 

"Yeah.  I got more of that damn light bulb stuck between my toes."

 

Hutch rescued the glass and set it back down on the counter.  "No, it means the electric pumps that bring water from the reservoir into town have quit working."

 

Silence.

 

Then, in a small voice, Starsky said, "I’m thirsty."

 

Hutch found the can of beer and handed it to Starsky.  "Here’s your breakfast.  Make it last."

 

 

Chapter Two

           

Once upon a time, Starsky had believed he was prepared for any catastrophe that could strike Bay City.  Hurricane, tornado, earthquake...  All he had to do was report in at the precinct.  He might end up on the riot squad, or maybe he’d be handing out food rations, or loading refugees onto a bus.

 

But no electricity meant no television, no radio, and no phone.  The mayor couldn’t talk to the chief of police.  The chief of police couldn’t talk to any of the captains.  And the captains couldn’t reach their men.  Starsky had no idea where he should be, or what he was supposed to do.

 

This time when Starsky opened his front door, he saw a red glow on the horizon, dimming the stars.

 

He shifted his melting tub of chocolate ice cream to his other arm.  "What time is it?" he asked Hutch.

 

"That’s not the sun," said Hutch.  "Something downtown is burning."  He was carrying the rest of their beer, and chewing on the last slice of pizza.

 

As soon as Hutch spoke, Starsky realized he could smell smoke.  A sick feeling settled into the pit of his stomach, and he regretted the beer he’d had for breakfast.

 

"I want to know what the hell’s going on," he said.  "I want to know who did this to us.  Was it the comet?  Or is it communists?  Do they have some kind of secret weapon that makes electricity go nuts?  Or, or aliens!  It could be aliens, right?  Maybe that wasn’t a comet at all last night.  Maybe it was an alien spaceship.  A communist alien spaceship."

 

"Maybe we brought it on ourselves," said Hutch, following him down the stairs to the street.  "We became too industrialized, too dependant on machines.  We tried to make everyone into numbers and now we’re getting our just desserts."

 

"I like the communist aliens better."  Starsky patted his jacket, feeling the reassuring weight of his gun.  "We can fight—"  He cut himself off.  "Hey, someone’s trying to steal my car!"

 

The Torino was rolling slowly down the street in front of the house.  At Starsky’s shout, it sped up.  Starsky dropped his ice cream and broke into a run, trying to head off his car.

 

Behind him, Hutch was shouting, but Starsky couldn’t spare the time to stop and listen.  His entire focus was on his car and the suicidal moron who was trying to drive off with it.

 

He must be a very short moron, thought Starsky as he skidded to a stop in the middle of the road.  He was looking straight into the front windshield—and right out the back windshield at the glowing horizon.  He couldn’t see the driver at all.

 

The Torino slowed.

 

"Damn right, you’re giving me my car back!"

 

The Torino stopped.

 

Starsky took a step forward.

 

The Torino backed up.

 

"Hey!"

 

The Torino accelerated rapidly backward.  It reversed into a turn and bounced up onto the sidewalk, circling Starsky.  He waved his arms, frantically.  "Careful!  You’ll wreck her suspension!"

 

"Starsk, get out of the way!" shouted Hutch.

 

Starsky turned to see Hutch holding his Magnum, trying to get a bead on the car.  The beer was on the ground at his feet.

 

"No!  No, no, no!"  Starsky jumped between Hutch and the car.  "You are not shooting my car!"

 

The Torino’s engine revved, and to Starsky’s ears it sounded suspiciously as if it was blowing a raspberry at Hutch.  He turned and pointed at the car.  "Stop that!"

 

Starsky knew he had to put an end to this lunacy before Hutch began blowing giant holes in his baby.  Spreading his hands and trying to look as non-threatening as possible, he approached the Torino.  "Look, buddy," he said loudly.  "I don’t know who you are, or what game you’re playing, but I need my car back.  Now!"

 

The car wobbled uncertainly, as if the unseen driver was alternately stepping on the gas and the brake, silently debating whether to make a break for it.

 

"I promise," said Starsky, still moving closer, "I won’t arrest you.  We’ve got bigger problems than some joy rider."  He gestured down the street.  "Can’t you tell the city’s burning?  There are people down there who need help!"

 

The Torino’s engine slowed to an idle.  Light flooded the interior, though the doors remained closed.  Starsky waited tensely for the midget to emerge.

 

And then he waited some more.

 

"Well," he asked finally.  "Are you coming out?"

 

There was no movement in the car.

 

Hutch walked up beside him, gun still in hand.  "There’s no one in there."

 

Starsky leaned over the warm hood and peered into the interior.  Seeing nothing, he moved around to the side and stuck his head in the window.  "Where did he go?  I was watching the whole time!"  He straightened, a new thought occurring to him.  "Uh, Hutch?  You don’t think she was, uh, ...driving herself?"

 

Hutch’s bark of laughter made him jump.

 

Starsky crossed his arms defensively.  "You don’t have to be like that."

 

"Aw, c’mon!  Be reasonable, Starsk.  Exploding light bulbs are one thing, but cars don’t drive themselves.  Next you’ll be telling me she’s alive!"

 

The Torino abruptly shifted gear and shot forward three feet.

 

Hutch yelped.  "Ow, dammit!  She just drove over my foot!"

 

"Hah!" said Starsky, victoriously.  "Not only does my car drive herself, but you called her ‘she’.  I heard you!"

 

Hutch hopped on one leg, trying to hold his left foot in both hands.  "Someone’s playing a trick on us.  They’ve got your car hooked up to a radio remote control and they’re making it do things."

 

Starsky patted the Torino’s trunk.  "You’re a good car, you know that?  You’re a very good car."

 

The Torino purred.

 

"That car could have broken my foot," snarled Hutch.  "I mean, whoever’s controlling that car could have broken my foot."  He gingerly set it down on the ground, making ‘owwie’ noises under his breath.

 

"But it didn’t, did it?"

 

"Maybe it did!"  Hutch gingerly took a step forward, as if expecting his foot to shatter at any moment.

 

Starsky patted the Torino again.  "Good car!"  He looked around, taking in the dark silent streets.  "That’s weird."

 

"What?"

 

"Where is everybody?" asked Starsky.  "I mean, all the yelling we’ve been doing, why hasn’t anyone gotten up to see what’s going on?"

 

Hutch stared suspiciously at the Torino.  "I don’t know.  They’re probably still asleep."

 

"I hope so," said Starsky.  He hesitated a moment, uncertain what to do next.  He wanted to knock on his landlady’s door and make sure she was safe.

 

On the other hand, if he knocked on old Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s door, her first action would be to sit up in bed and reach for the light switch.   Starsky didn’t want to be responsible for electrocuting an old lady.  Better to let her sleep.

 

"C’mon, let’s go," said Starsky.

 

*

 

Hutch was quite sure he didn’t want to climb inside the car, but then Starsky made chicken noises at him.

 

"When the guy with the remote control takes over this car and drives us off a cliff, I’m blaming you."  Hutch put the case of beer in the back and then eased himself into the passenger seat.  He pulled the door shut and pushed the lock down.  It immediately popped up again.

 

Starsky smacked the dash.  "Hutch is our friend.  Behave!"

 

The lock clicked down in a way that Hutch could only describe as sullen.

 

"And that’s not even logical," protested Hutch.  "Your doors aren’t connected to the electrical system of your car at all.  How can it control its own locks?"

 

"Who’s a good car?  Whooo’s a good car?" cooed Starsky, speaking into the radio.

 

Hutch closed his eyes for a moment.  Then, very calmly, he said, "I know this may seem like a dream come true, but your car is not alive."

 

"Define alive," said Starsky, as the Torino picked up speed.  "She definitely knows how to move."

 

The stoplight at the bottom of the hill was dark until they approached the intersection.  Then it glowed green for a moment before switching directly to red, skipping amber entirely.  The bulb popped as they passed through the intersection.  Starsky ignored the faint tinkle of glass hitting the car roof.  "Well?"

 

Hutch reached back to his premed biology classes.  "Living things breathe."

 

"My car has an air intake valve," said Starsky, his fingers lightly caressing the steering wheel.  "The air mixes with the gas to create combustion.  If that’s not breathing, I don’t know what is."

 

"Stop the car," ordered Hutch.

 

Starsky immediately hit the brake.

 

Hutch climbed out and crossed the street to a telephone booth, where he’d seen a figure slumped on the ground inside.  The man looked as if he was simply sitting, but up close Hutch could see that his face was purple and his eyes were staring blankly.  Hutch touched his neck, but the chilly skin made it obvious that he wouldn’t find a pulse.

 

"Is he alive?" called Starsky from the car.

 

Hutch shook his head.

 

"What killed him?"

 

Hutch looked at the phone dangling at the end of its cord.  He could hear a dial tone.  "Feel like making a call?" he shouted back to Starsky.

 

"Hell no!"

 

Hutch walked back to the car and slumped down in the passenger seat, massaging the bridge of his nose.

 

Starsky picked up the radio handset and pressed transmit.  "This is Zebra Three."

 

A burst of static answered him.  Starsky frowned and replaced the handset.

 

The Torino continued down the street.

 

After a moment Hutch said, "Living things eat."

 

"My car consumes gasoline."  Starsky stopped the car again, barely a block further down.  There was a body lying over the threshold of a restaurant door.  Neither of them got out of the car for this one.  From the amount of blood pooling blackly beneath her, it looked as though the woman had bled to death.  There was an electric egg beater in her hand.

 

Starsky stomped down on the gas, and took the next corner at speed.

 

"Living thing grow," said Hutch.

 

That gave Starsky a moment’s pause.  "My car’s already full grown."  But he sounded less certain.

 

They didn’t stop for any more bodies.  They didn’t even slow down for the man in the bright yellow vest of a city worker, dangling limply from a stoplight.  A cherry picker lay on its side nearby, tangled in broken power lines.

 

Other than the sparks of electricity snapping brightly at the ends of the downed lines, the street was dark.  Shattered neon signs hung above the sidewalks, and colored glass glittered on the concrete.

 

Hutch stared grimly ahead.  "And living things procreate.  So there you go, the day this car lays an egg, that’s the day I’ll accept that she’s...  I mean it’s alive."

 

"Hah, you said—"

 

"I know what I said!"

 

As the night faded, orange light crept over the buildings.  And though they searched, Starsky and Hutch did not see a single living soul out on the streets. 

 

Starsky fussed with the radio as he drove, trying to raise something other than static.  "All units, this is Zebra Thee.  Someone, anyone, talk to me!"

 

As they passed an alley, something caught Hutch’s eye.  "Stop the car!"

 

The Torino jolted to a halt.  "What?  What?"

 

"I just saw another body."  Hutch reached for the handle of the door.  It was locked.  “And I think I saw something alive, too.”

 

"Where?" asked Starsky, reaching for his own door.

 

"The body was in the alley.  Someone was dragging it.  I can see blood on the sidewalk."  Hutch tried to pull up the lock.  The button slipped from his fingers, apparently stuck in the door.  "What the hell’s wrong with this car?"

 

"C’mon, baby," said Starsky.  "Open your doors.  This is our job, remember?"

 

Hutch was not at all surprised when the lock on Starsky’s door popped up first.

 

*

 

Starsky was beginning to worry about his partner.  Hutch drew his gun and climbed out of the car, muttering under his breath.  When Starsky got close enough to hear, he realized that it was a repeated litany of, "There’s an explanation for everything.  There’s an explanation for everything.  There’s an—"

 

"There’s no place like home," interrupted Starsky.  The way Hutch was talking he wouldn’t have been particularly shocked to see him pull on ruby slippers and click his heels together three times.

 

Hutch’s eyes were showing entirely too much white around the irises, but all he said was, "That works, too."

 

Starsky heard the sound of a motor and glanced back to see the Torino rolling slowly up behind them.  He decided not to tell Hutch.  Whether or not she ever laid an egg, or had babies by any other means, his car was indisputably alive.

 

And she liked him, which meant a lot.  He couldn’t imagine what he’d had done if the Torino had shared his clock radio’s opinion of him.

 

Hutch stopped just short of the alley.  "It’s definitely blood," he said quietly.

 

Starsky moved up next to the wall, and peered into the alley.  Deep in the shadows, he could hear a car engine rumbling.  As Hutch moved out of the line of fire, Starsky shouted, "Police!  Come out with your hands up!"

 

The engine revved once, and then resumed idling.

 

Starsky looked across the mouth of the alley at Hutch.  "Did you see who was dragging our victim?"

 

Hutch shook his head.

 

"Right," said Starsky, feeling the small hairs on the back of his neck begin to stand up.  "Cover me."  He stepped out from behind the corner, his gun trained on the sound of the engine.  "This is the police!"

 

Behind him, the Torino roared.  It charged into the mouth of the alley, forcing Starsky to leap to the side.  The shadows were blasted away by twin beams of headlights, and a vision of horror was revealed.

 

A garbage truck crouched malevolently, half turned across the width of the alley.  Starsky guessed that the broken body under its wheels had to be the one Hutch had seen.  But that wasn’t the only one.  A pair of bloodied legs in green trousers were stuck in the jaws of the garbage compactor, while the corpse of a second garbage man hung halfway out of the door of the cab.  He’d been decapitated.

 

"Oh, shit," said Hutch quietly.

 

The Torino revved aggressively and backed up.  Starsky didn’t need a second invitation, and he was relieved to see that Hutch didn’t either.  They scrambled inside the car.

 

The garbage truck turned ponderously in their direction, the body of its latest victim dragging under its chassis.  Starsky hit the gas, and the Torino reversed out of the mouth of the alley into the street.

 

And then almost immediately Starsky hit the brake again.

 

Other cars and trucks were slowly emerging from the alleys and side streets along the road.  In the growing light of the day, it was obvious that they had no drivers.  Or at least, thought Starsky noting dark stains on the grill of a Cadillac, none that were still living.

 

Hutch rolled down the window and drew his gun.

 

"Aim for the engine block," advised Starsky.  "If you go for a wheel, you might miss and that’d just make them madder."

 

The strange cars were blocking both ends of the road.  Starsky pointed at a yellow cab at the edge of the sidewalk, and raised his eyebrows.  There was a gap between the cab and the building which looked just big enough for the Torino.

 

Hutch nodded.  He took careful aim, and squeezed off a round.  As the gun kicked back in his hand, Starsky gunned the Torino toward the cab.

 

Hutch fired again as the Torino jumped up onto the sidewalk.  A second bullet hole appeared in front of the first and the cab’s hood popped open with a squeal and a burst of steam.

 

“Got him,” shouted Hutch, triumphantly.

 

Around them, engines revved in a furious chorus.

 

Starsky gritted his teeth at the sound of brickwork digging gouges into his door as the Torino scraped between the wall and the cab.  "Oh, baby, I’m sorry," he told his car.

 

"Why?" asked Hutch, firing a round at the cars behind them.  "It’s not like you made any of this happen."

 

Starsky glanced in the rearview mirror.  They were being pursued by at least four cars, and one flatbed truck.

 

"Oh, you were talking to your car," said Hutch, sounding disgusted.

 

"Not one word," said Starsky sharply.  "I don’t want to hear one bad word about this car.  She saved our lives!"

 

Hutch cracked his Magnum and looked into the chamber.  "I’ve got four shots left.  What have you got?"

 

"One clip, eight rounds," said Starsky.  He glanced at Hutch.  "Want to try running for it?"

 

"Yeah."  Hutch’s grin was shark-like, all teeth and bloodlust.  "Let’s show these bastards what a real car can do."

 

*

 

The Torino took the next corner on two wheels, and behind them Hutch saw the flatbed truck roll.  The bed of the truck landed on a Gremlin which had been following too closely, and crushed it flat.  Leaning out the window and looking back, Hutch saw the truck jackknifed across the road, its cab buried in the remains of the Sex-o-Rama’s front window.  Its wheels spun in angry futility.

 

Three smaller cars swerved around it, still in pursuit.  Hutch pulled his head back into the Torino and braced himself against the dash.  His stomach lurched miserably with each turn, and he desperately wished he hadn’t had pizza and beer for breakfast.  He could hear the remaining cans rattling in the back.

 

Hutch swallowed hard and then yelled, "You know what?"

 

Starsky’s attention was riveted on the road ahead of him.  He didn’t answer immediately, instead taking a sharp turn onto the plaza and heading straight for the wide steps up to the street above.

 

As the Torino bounced up the stone steps, he said, "What?" 

 

"I—th—th—think!"  Hutch’s teeth were clattering together as the top of his head repeatedly hit the roof of the car.  "You sh—sh—sh—should!"  The Torino finally reached the top and spun out onto the street.  "Have left the seatbelts in!"  He swallowed again, feeling distinctly green.

 

"But we never use them!"

 

Hutch closed his eyes as Starsky took the next corner on two wheels, swerving into a narrow alley.  He opened them again only to see what appeared to be a solid wall of cardboard boxes bearing down on them.

 

Oh God, thought Hutch.  He had only a fraction of a second to brace for the impact.  He could feel Starsky fighting to keep the Torino under control as boxes bounced up onto the hood or were crushed under its wheels.

 

A brief squeal of tortured metal and then the Torino popped out of the alley onto the street.  Hutch looked back, his stomach in his throat.

 

"How many now?" asked Starsky.

 

"Two," said Hutch.  "A Ford station wagon and a Chevy Malibu."

 

Starsky swung around the next corner and immediately hit the brakes.  Still looking back, Hutch lost his grip and his ribs hit the dashboard with bruising impact.  "Ow!"

 

"Oh, man," said Starsky, sounding awed.

 

"What?"  Hutch twisted, trying to untangle himself.  Behind them, their pursuers had also stopped.

 

He instantly forgot about them.  In the road before him were two big red fire trucks.  And they didn’t look pleased.

 

*

Chapter Three

           

Starsky heard Hutch say, "Oh, shit," very quietly.  The Torino vibrated under his hands, and entirely by herself she shifted into reverse.

 

Then something caught Starsky’s eye.  He blinked, and leaned forward, peering through the windshield.  "Look!  They’ve got people with them!"  There was a man on the sidewalk, behind the trucks, and more clustered in the door of a grocery store.

 

"Prisoners," said Hutch.  "Snacks.  For later."

 

"I don’t think so."  Starsky shifted the Torino back into drive and pulled her over next to the sidewalk.  One of the fire trucks rolled slowly toward them, menace in every rivet.

 

Hutch held his breath.

 

The truck rolled right past the Torino.

 

The threat wasn’t aimed at the Torino or her occupants.  It was focused on the two cars behind them.  They backed up.  The truck advanced further.  They backed into the intersection.  The Ford was the first to turn and flee, followed a moment later by the Chevy.

 

Starsky rubbed the Torino’s steering wheel.  "I love you," he said.

 

Hutch made a choking sound and quickly opened the door on his side.  Starsky glanced over to see Hutch with his elbows on his knees and his hands cradling his head.  He patted Hutch’s back.  "Would some beer settle your stomach?"

 

Hutch groaned quietly.

 

"You got a good one, huh?" said a voice beside Starsky’s window.  He looked up to see a man in a fireman’s uniform standing beside his car.  Behind him was a small crowd of people—a couple of women, a kid in a baseball cap, and an older guy in his bathrobe, his uncombed gray hair sticking out in every direction.

 

Starsky opened the door, and climbed out.  "You guys okay?"

 

"Depends what you mean by okay," said the old man.  He nodded at the pair of fire trucks which had now reversed and were blocking off both ends of the road.  "The world’s gone crazy, and we’re holed up in a grocery store.  But the trucks are looking after us pretty well."

 

"Couldn’t help Tong La," said an Asian girl.  "The electric knife got him."  There was blood on the front of her shirt and the dried tracks of tears on her cheeks.

 

Starsky suddenly recognized the neighborhood.  This was Bucovetsky’s Grocery, and there was Tong La’s, across the street.  "Oh, man, I really liked eating there."

 

"Have you heard anything?" asked a middle aged woman, urgently.  She had an arm wrapped around the boy in the baseball cap.  "Where are the police?  Is the government sending any help?"

 

The fireman looked irritated.  "I keep telling you, the government can’t do a blamed thing without communications.  We have to dig in.  Fortify ourselves."  He looked first at Starsky and then at Hutch, who was now leaning on the roof of the Torino.  "You two staying, or going?"

 

"Going," said Starsky.  He turned to Hutch.  "We’re close to The Pits."

 

Hutch nodded.  "Look, just sit tight," he told the crowd.  "I’m sure the authorities are working on a solution right now."

 

The fireman snorted rudely.  But no one made a move to stop Starsky and Hutch as they climbed back into the Torino.

 

Starsky suspected they were just as happy not to have to share their supplies with two more people.  He glanced back and saw that the fireman and the old guy were working together to bring down the shutters on the grocery store’s windows.

 

"I knew fire trucks would be good," Starsky said.  He waved at the trucks as they drove past.

 

"It’s in their nature to protect people," said Hutch, leaning back in his seat with his eyes closed.  He looked pale.

 

Starsky grinned.

 

"Or it would be," clarified Hutch, quickly.  "If they were alive.  Which they’re not!"

 

"Give it up, buddy," said Starsky.  "There’s no master controller with a remote.  Machines are alive.  Just accept it."

 

"Never," said Hutch.

 

The Pits was dark, but then so was every other building in Bay City.  Starsky stopped the Torino next to the curb outside and tried to peer down the steps.

 

"What do you think?" he asked, finally.

 

Hutch scratched his chin, the corners of his mouth drawn down.  "I think Huggy’s a survivor."

 

"Lots of machines in the kitchen.  Stoves.  Grills.  Big freezers.  That new dishwasher that sanitizes as well as cleans."  Starsky thought of poor Tong La, killed by an electric knife.

 

"No point sitting here speculating," said Hutch, opening his door.  "Let’s go find out."

 

*

 

As Hutch climbed out of the Torino, he discovered that Bay City’s empty streets were somehow even more unsettling to experience in the light of early morning than they had been at night.  By now there should have been cars and pedestrians packing the road, the sounds of motors and people, the lively chaos of a living city.  Instead, the blinds were drawn and shop fronts were dark.

 

It seemed to Hutch that the very architecture of Bay City was leaning over him threateningly.  The world had moved on and people were no longer welcome.

 

"Oh, will you look at my car!"  Starsky’s voice brought him back, reassuringly normal in its outrage.

 

Hutch shook himself.  "What’s wrong with it?"

 

Starsky threw up his hands.  "What’s wrong with it?"  He dropped into a squat and ran his hand over the fresh gouges in the Torino’s side.  "You poor baby, does that hurt?"

 

"Of course it doesn’t hurt," said Hutch.  "Cars can’t feel anything!"

 

"Don’t listen to him," said Starsky to his car.  "First chance I get, you’re getting a brand new paint job."  He looked over his shoulder at Hutch.  "You know, you’re really lucky we left your car at home.  For all I know, it’s prowling the streets right now, looking to exact vengeance on you for the way you’ve been treating it all these years."

 

"My car wouldn’t—"  Hutch paused and glanced nervously up and down the street.  "Would it?"

 

"You should have repaired the dents, like I told you to."

 

"But I love my car," protested Hutch.  "It has inner flash."

 

"It’s fast and sturdy," agreed Starsky.  "But you keep stepping on the hood and throwing garbage in the back seat.  I doubt that builds respect."

 

"I don’t know why I’m even having this conversation," said Hutch.  Turning, he hurried down the stairs into The Pits.  Trying the door, he found it locked.  He banged on it with the side of his fist, and shouted, "Huggy!  Are you in there?"

 

There was no answer.  He pounded again.  "Huggy!"

 

The door opened a crack, and a shotgun muzzle pointed at them.  "Be you man or machine?"

 

Starsky reached past Hutch and pushed the shotgun up so that it was no longer pointing directly at his partner’s face.  "Huggy, it’s us!"

 

Huggy peered suspiciously around the edge of the door.  "Don’t you know it’s dangerous out there?  Get inside!"

 

The door opened, but only enough to allow them to squeeze in.  As soon as they were inside, Huggy slammed the door shut and bolted it.  "What’s with all the bellowing on my doorstep?  Are you trying to attract unfriendly eyes?  Next time, come round by the back and ring the delivery bell like civilized people."

 

Hutch blinked for a moment as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior.  It looked almost like business as usual for the Pits.  Patrons were huddled over tables lit by candles in red glass jars, nursing mugs of beers.  It was cold in the room, and he realized that the heat must be off.

 

Huggy led the way back to the bar with his shotgun over his shoulder.  "Hutchinson, have you been actively pulling your hair out over all the chaos on these city streets, or were you in fact attacked by your own hair dryer?"

 

Hutch clapped a hand over the sore patch behind his ear.  It felt as if it was scabbing over.  "The second," said Hutch, grimly.  He’d really hoped it wasn’t that noticeable.  With his luck, the follicles had been permanently damaged and would never grow back in.

 

"Huggy, I’ve never seen you with a gun," said Starsky.  He sounded shocked.  "Don’t you have some sort of philosophical objection to them, or something?"

 

"I philosophically object to being attacked by my blender," said Huggy.  "Though if that were all, I still might not have exercised my constitutional right to take up arms.  But right after the blender, there was the angry freezer, the killer coffee maker, the homicidal toaster, and then the big ass range stove got in on the action."

 

Hutch stared at Huggy.  He appeared nonchalant, but from the sound of things, he’d had a far more harrowing night than either himself or Starsky.

 

Huggy continued.  "One of my patrons kindly went out to his car to get his shotgun.  Sadly, his car had other opinions on the matter, but before he died he managed to bequeath his weapon to me.  One good shot to the breaker board deprived every machine in this building of electricity."  He leaned over the counter.  "The dearly departed is currently on ice in my freezer, which is freezing no more.  Will you be arranging for someone to pick him up?"

 

“We’ll try," said Starsky.

 

"We haven’t been able to get through on the radio," said Hutch.

 

"So long as you try.  I have a suspicion the health inspector frowns on corpses in the kitchen."  Huggy set the shotgun down behind the bar and wiped his hands on a towel.  "Now, what can I get for the two of you?"

 

"Information," said Hutch.  "And a hat."

 

"Food," said Starsky.

 

Huggy reached below the counter and came up with a basket of pretzels.  He slid it across the bar to Starsky.  "Food," he said.  Turning to Hutch, he added, "I regret to inform you that I am not a haberdasher.  And if you’re looking to me for an explanation regarding this craziness, you’ve come to the wrong man."

 

Hutch snagged a handful of pretzels, ignoring Starsky’s growl.  "No, we’re just wondering if you’ve heard anything on the grapevine about how widespread this might be.  Whether the military’s mobilizing.  Anything from the mayor?"

 

Huggy rubbed his hand over his lower face.  "Well, the mayor’s dead.  Rumor has it he and his girlfriend were done in by an electric sex toy."

 

"Are you sure that’s a real rumor?" asked Hutch, chewing on a pretzel.  He hadn’t realized until that moment just how hungry he was.

 

Huggy shrugged.  "Well, I haven’t seen the cat with my own eyes, but that’s one of his personal aides over there."  He nodded toward a dark corner, where a man in a three piece suit appeared to be drinking himself comatose.  "Claims to have found the mayor in flagrante, in mortis."

 

"What about the Donner, uh, I mean the chief of Police?" asked Starsky, his mouth full.

 

"I know who you mean," said Huggy.  "Donner and Blitzen and all the rest of our reindeer in blue are said to be holed up in Parker Center."

 

"Great!" said Starsky.  "We should head over there."

 

"I wouldn’t recommend it," said Huggy.  "The black and whites have that whole section of the city pretty much sealed off."  He shuddered dramatically.  "You ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a pack of them chasing some poor soul with their sirens blaring and lights flashing.  Like seeing the hounds of hell come to life."

 

"Oh, no," said Starsky, sounding anguished.  "That’s not right!"

 

Hutch stole the rest of his pretzels.  "Starsky, just because they’re cop cars, doesn’t mean they’ll be good."

 

A man at the end of the bar spoke up.  "Goddamn Donner doomed us all!"

 

Hutch squinted, trying to see the speaker.  "Richardson, is that you?"

 

Richardson turned around on his stool.  In the flickering light Hutch could see that he had one arm splinted and tied to his chest with torn strips of plaid patterned sheet.  "Donner saw the machines were going crazy, so he ordered a bunch of us to go down and take the distributer caps out of all the cars.  They were quiet until we took out the first one, and then they all went mad."

 

"Aw," said Starsky.  "Why’d he have to do that?"

 

"Doesn’t sound like such a bad idea," said Hutch.  "The chief’s mistake was thinking they’d sit still for it, that’s all."

 

"It’s a terrible idea!"  Starsky jumped off his bar stool.  "If we had those cars working with us, we could round up the rogue ones.  We could get this city back in order!"

 

"The ambulances are still on our side," said a woman at a table nearby.  She was holding a baby wrapped in a pink blanket.  "That’s how her and me..."  She nodded at her sleeping child.  "That’s how we got out of the hospital."

 

Starsky walked over to look at the baby.  "She’s cute," he said.  "What’s her name?"

 

"I don’t know," said the woman, who Starsky could now see had streaks of gray in her short, rumpled hair.  "She’s not mine.  I was just going in to get my tubes tied, because my husband said we had too many kids.  Guess we got one more now, hey?"  She laughed, the sound harsh and startling in the quiet room.

 

"Is there food for the baby?" asked Hutch.  He could see a bottle on the table, but it was empty.

 

"I sent a couple of the young guys out to gather supplies," said Huggy.  He nodded towards a group of tables pushed together near the door.  The men there held up their mugs in a salute.  They wore vests marked with a wide assortment of biker gang insignias, several of which Hutch would previously have assumed were completely antithetical to the others.  "They raided a grocery store."

 

"Are your bikes loyal?" asked Starsky.

 

"Mine is!" said one young man.  Two others concurred.  The rest of the men at the table scowled or looked away.

 

Starsky rejoined Hutch at the bar.  "So there’s ambulances, fire trucks, a few bikes, and a couple of cars."  He counted off on his fingers.  "If we could get the squad cars to calm down, we might be able to start bringing supplies in to people.  Or we could move people out.  I mean, we don’t know if this is happening everywhere.  Maybe it’s just us."

 

"Or we could just stay right here until it’s all over," said Hutch.  Huggy handed him a beer, and placed a second mug in front of Starsky.  "Thanks."

 

"I want to get a good look at those black and whites," said Starsky.  "They’re going to be running out of gas soon, and we might be able to use that to bargain with them."

 

Hutch drank his beer.  It felt good to be sitting down enjoying a drink without anything trying to kill him.  The small electrical burns and glass nicks on his fingers were stinging, and his back felt bruised, not to mention the spot on his scalp where his hair had been yanked out.  He deserved a break.

 

"The thing is," continued Starsky, drumming his fingers on the counter, "we can’t assume that anyone’s coming to rescue us.  We have to be prepared to look after ourselves."

 

Hutch couldn’t cope with Starsky’s enthusiasm for making post-Apocalyptic plans.  He turned to Huggy instead.  "What about Dobey," asked Hutch.  "Have you heard anything from him?"

 

Huggy shook his head.  "Sorry, my man.  Not a word."

 

Starsky drained his mug of beer and then set it down firmly.  "Well, I’m done!  C’mon, Hutch, let’s do some scouting."

 

With a sigh, Hutch stood up.  Starsky was right.  They couldn’t just hide in The Pits while the world fell apart around them.  "I think your plan stinks," he told Starsky.

 

Starsky’s face fell.

 

"But it’s the only plan we’ve got," said Hutch.  "So let’s go check out some cars."

 

Starsky brightened.  "The black and whites weren’t always bad," he said.  "I’m sure I can figure out a way to bring them around."

 

*

 

The light of day was blinding after the dim, smoky interior of The Pits.  Starsky blinked for several minutes before he realized that the Torino was not where he’d left it.

 

"Great, it’s wandered off," said Hutch.  "You’re going to have to start chaining that car to a telephone pole."

 

Starsky grimaced.  "I wish she wouldn’t run around like that.  Her gas tank is half empty already, and I doubt the pumps are working."  He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly.

 

An engine revved in response  Starsky whistled again, and the Torino zoomed around the corner and up the street, stopping before them with an air of obvious good humor.

 

"Hey, baby," said Starsky.  "What have you been up to?"

 

The Torino purred.

 

"I hope you weren’t talking to any strange cars," said Starsky, walking around to the driver’s side.  "You know they only want one thing."  He sat down behind the wheel.

 

"And what would that be?  Sex?" asked Hutch, irritably.  He yanked on the door and found it locked.

 

"C’mon, let him in," said Starsky, grinning.  "I know he’s a pain in the butt sometimes, but I really like him."

 

There was a moment’s pause and then the lock popped up.

 

"Starsky," said Hutch, climbing inside the car.  "You keep talking to this car as if it understands English."

 

Starsky paused, his hands on the wheel.  "Well, she’s acting like she does."

 

Hutch shivered, uncomfortable with the idea of the car listening in on everything he said.  "Dogs behave like that too, but they’re really just reacting to body language and tone of voice."

 

"I’m sure she’s smarter than a dog," said Starsky.

 

"If we’re going to do anything with the cars in this town, we’ve got to know," insisted Hutch.  He leaned in close to the dash.  "Hey, jackass," he said sweetly.  "Who’s daddy’s homicidal little jackass?"

 

The car’s engine purred contentedly.

 

"Okay," said Hutch, straightening in his seat.  "I think that establishes that she does not understand English."

 

"Or maybe she just doesn’t know any bad words," said Starsky, scowling.  "Because she’s a lady, and ladies don’t use words like that.  And by the way, you’re an asshole, Hutch."  He wrapped his arm protectively around the steering wheel.

 

Hutch opened the car door.  "Let’s do some more tests."  He walked around the car and stood by Starsky’s door, waiting expectantly.

 

Starsky reluctantly climbed out.  "You’d better not do anything bad to this car."

 

"Trust me."  Hutch grabbed him and maneuvered him in front of the Torino.  "Okay now, tell her to come around to your right."

 

Starsky gave him a puzzled look and then shrugged.  "Come on, baby," he said, swinging his right arm out.  "Come on over here."

 

The Torino obediently drove around him and stopped on his right.  Starsky beamed.  "There you go.  She understands everything I say."

 

"Now tell her to back up to where she was, without waving your arms around."

 

Starsky stuck his hands in his pockets.  "Okay, baby, go back to where you were."

 

The Torino purred, but didn’t move.

 

"Come on, baby," said Starsky, encouragingly.  "Go on back.  Right where you were before."

 

The tone of the engine changed slightly, hiccupping uncertainly.  The Torino rolled a few feet forward and then stopped behind them.

 

"Now tell her again," said Hutch.  "But this time use gestures."

 

Starsky turned to face the car.  "Come on, let’s go around this way."  He swung his arm widely, and the car followed his gesture, rolling all the way around until it was in front of them once more.

 

"Good girl!" said Starsky.

 

The nose of the Torino bounced once in happy agreement.

 

"Starsk," said Hutch.  "That’s nothing but a big, dumb dog on wheels."

 

"No," said Starsky, firmly.  "That’s a big, smart dog on wheels."

 

"What it means is, we’re not going to be negotiating with the cars in this city.  We can’t just stroll up to them and say ‘we’ll give you gas in exchange for your co-operation’."  Hutch reached for the door of the Torino.

 

The Torino rolled backward, moving the handle out of his reach.

 

Hutch closed his eyes and counted to ten.  "Starsky, please tell your car to let me in."

 

Starsky strolled over to the Torino and gave the roof an affectionate thump.  "C’mon, baby, let Uncle Hutch in."

 

Both doors unlocked, smugly.

 

Once they were inside, however, Starsky didn’t immediately hit the gas.  He sat with both hands on the wheel, frowning to himself.

 

"What?" asked Hutch, finally.

 

"It doesn’t make sense," said Starsky.  "My car doesn’t understand English, but my clock radio does?"

 

"What’s your clock radio got to do with anything?"

 

"When I woke up last night, it was telling me to die."

 

"What?" said Hutch, again.

 

"It was telling me to die," repeated Starsky.  "In big red letters.  D-I-E.  Die.  Which means my clock radio speaks English, right?  How can my clock radio be smarter than my car?"

 

"Is that the new one you bought?  The one made in Japan?"

 

"Yeah."

 

Hutch shrugged.  "Maybe they make machines smarter in Japan."

 

"I don’t buy it," said Starsky, scowling.   "Maybe it’s not that my car doesn’t understand me, maybe it’s just that she has her ears on the inside.  She couldn’t hear me when I was standing out there."

 

Hutch leaned forward, toward the radio.  "Who’s a freakish violation of all the laws of nature?" he asked, pleasantly.

 

Starsky smacked the back of Hutch’s head.  Hard.

 

*

Chapter Four

           

"We need gas," said Starsky.  "And the one place I can think of that’s got gas is Merle’s Garage."  He palmed the steering wheel, taking the corner smoothly.

 

Hutch was less certain.  "It’s an auto repair shop.  That means it’s packed full of big machines."

 

"Merle’s cars won’t have turned on him.  He loves his cars!"

 

"Maybe his cars wouldn’t have, but what about the acetylene torch?   The hydraulic jack?"

 

"Merle’s a survivor like Huggy," said Starsky, but he sounded doubtful and the Torino slowed.

 

 "And what about the cars he’s using for scrap parts?"  They turned a corner, and Hutch could see the garage’s fence down at the end of the road.  "Junkyard dogs are mean enough.  I don’t want to meet a junkyard car!"

 

"Not alone in a dark alley, anyway," said Starsky, distractedly.  He pulled up in front of Merle’s Garage.

 

Just inside the fence, cars were circling.  Several seemed to spot the Torino and pulled up close as if to get a good look at her.  Behind them, the main garage had been reduced to a blackened shell, and thick black smoke still billowed up from the ruins.  A single corrugated storage shed was the only survivor of the fire.

 

Starsky got out and walked slowly along the fence.  A tricked out Chevy with a leopard skin interior followed him.  "I can see some gas cans."  He pointed to the shed.  "There’s two over there, beside the door."

 

Hutch opened the door of the Torino and looked where Starsky was pointing.  "I see them."  Climbing out of the vehicle, he swallowed nervously.  The cars were staring blankly at himself and Starsky, their headlights glaring.  "It’s impossible, Starsky.  Let’s get the hell out of here."

 

Starsky cupped both hands around his mouth.  "Merle!  Hey, Merle!  Are you here?"

 

A chorus of honks and beeps answered from the yard.

 

"Merle!"

 

More noise from the cars, but no human response.

 

Hutch saw Starsky’s face tighten in grief.  The lump in his own throat made it impossible to speak, even if he could have thought of anything comforting to say.  Wordlessly, he patted Starsky’s shoulder.

 

Starsky took a deep, shuddering breath.  "Okay, let’s get that gas," he said.

 

"How?" asked Hutch.

 

Starsky turned to look at him.  "I was hoping you had some idea.  They’re like dogs, right?  I don’t like dogs much, but I like her."  He tilted his head at the Torino.  "So tell me about dogs and maybe I’ll understand what makes them tick."

 

"They’re pack animals," said Hutch.  He thought back to the dogs which had lived on his grandfather’s farm.  "You have to establish yourself as a leader, or they’ll think they can push you around."

 

"A leader is what?" asked Starsky.  "Bigger?  Stronger?  Meaner?"

 

"No."  Hutch shook his head.  "A leader is just a leader.  When I was five, I could boss any of the dogs on the farm around, and they were all bigger than me.  My grandfather made sure they knew I was higher in the pack order than they were."

 

"How did he do that?"

 

Hutch tried unsuccessfully to remember.  "I don’t know.  I don’t think he did anything.  He was the boss and no one questioned it."

 

Starsky took a deep breath and stared at the cars on the other side of the fence.  He blew the air out slowly, puffing his cheeks out.  "So they’re like dogs, but they’re not dogs.  Which is good because I don’t like dogs.  Dogs bite.  Cars on the other hand..."

 

"Will run right over you and crush you into the pavement," said Hutch.  "Starsky, you can’t seriously be thinking about going in there!  Remember those cars we met earlier?  The ones that tried to kill us?"

 

"That’s because we ran," said Starsky.  "If you run from a pack of dogs, they’ll just chase you down and kill you.  But as soon as those cars saw the fire truck, they backed right off.  They respected that truck."

 

"So let’s go back and get one of the fire trucks."

 

Starsky shook his head.  "No, those trucks are busy putting out fires and keeping people safe." 

 

The car with the leopard interior was right up against the side of the fence now.  Starsky reached through and stroked the hood of the car.  It rumbled pleasantly.

 

"Your hair dryer suckered me in just like that," said Hutch.  "It acted all sweet and then it tried to eat my hair."

 

"Yeah," said Starsky, still staring at the car inside the fence.  "I didn’t want to mention it earlier, but that thing really scalped you.  You’ve got a big bald spot just behind your left ear."

 

Hutch immediately felt the side of his head.  "Where?"

 

Instead of answering, Starsky yanked open the gate and stepped inside.

 

Hutch choked back a shout.  He didn’t want to distract his partner.  Starsky looked very small inside the compound, in just his blue windbreaker and jeans, facing down the pack of cars.

 

Eight of them closed in on him.  There were more in the back, but they weren’t moving.  Either they were too damaged, out of gas, or they simply weren’t interested.

 

The cars formed a semi-circle around Starsky.  He regarded them steadily, a look of fierce concentration on his face.

 

A lemon yellow Pinto was the first to try approaching him.  The moment it nosed forward, Starsky pointed at it and said, "Hey!"

 

It stopped.

 

Starsky walked toward it.  "You’re going to respect me," he told the Pinto.

 

The Pinto backed up.

 

"Hey!" said Starsky again.

 

The Pinto stopped.

 

"Yeah," said Starsky as he approached the Pinto’s door.  "You’re a good car."  He tried the door and found it unlocked.

 

Starsky turned and gave Hutch a jubilant thumbs-up.

 

"Behind you!" shouted Hutch.

 

Starsky whipped around and found a black Volvo bearing down on him at speed.  He scrambled up onto the Pinto’s hood and the Volvo turned at the last moment, dinging the Pinto’s bumper.

 

Starsky slid with the impact, rolling off the Pinto onto the ground.  He immediately bounced to his feet again.  "Hey!" he shouted at the Volvo.  "Back off!"

 

The rumble that issued from the engine sounded more like a snarl to Hutch than a purr.  Evidently it sounded the same to Starsky, too, because his back became very stiff and he growled right back at the machine.  "Don’t you give me that!"

 

Amazingly, the Volvo backed up a couple of feet.

 

"You," said Starsky to the car, "belong to me!"

 

Hutch, almost without realizing it, had drawn his gun and moved right up to the fence.  He now had it pressed sideways against the chain links.  He waited tensely.

 

"Matter of fact," said Starsky, propping his hands on his hips and looking around challengingly at the other cars, "this whole damn yard belongs to me!"

 

The space around him widened, the Volvo pulling back with the others.

 

Starsky nodded.  "That’s right."  He marched over to the gas cans and lifted one.  After a moment’s thought, he put it back down.  Opening the shed door, he looked inside.  Then he waved at the Volvo.  "Get over here!"

 

It hesitated.

 

Starsky snorted and walked up to the Volvo.  He smacked the hood and said, "Come on!"

 

Hutch tasted blood and realized he’d chewed through his bottom lip.

 

The Volvo followed Starsky over to the gas cans.  When he pounded on the trunk, it popped open.  With a grunt, he lifted both cans and slung them in.  Then he went into the shed and brought out two more, one in each hand.

 

One more trip and there were six cans in the trunk of the Volvo.  "Let’s go!" said Starsky, and the Volvo followed him back to the gate.  The other cars backed up to make room.

 

Holstering his gun, Hutch opened the gate and helped Starsky unload the cans onto the sidewalk.  "I don’t believe it," he said.  "I just don’t believe it.  You’re like some kind of Mystical Car Guru."

 

"Well," said Starsky, "I think you’re probably right about the junkyard cars.  But Merl wouldn’t have left any of those with full gas tanks."  He waved his hand back at the cars gathered inside the fence.  "These are all cars he’s worked on.  They’re good vehicles."

 

"But when that Volvo almost clipped you," began Hutch.

 

It was as if Starsky had forgotten all about his close call, until that very moment.  His complexion took on a greenish tinge and he sat down abruptly on the sidewalk.  "Oh, man, Hutch.  For a moment there I really thought I was dead.  I kept seeing that garbage truck chewing up those people."  The Torino nosed over and he patted her hood.

 

Hutch sat down next to him.  "They’re not all going to be good cars, Starsk.  Some of them are going to be just born evil."

 

"Interesting phrase you chose there," said Starsky, glancing at him.  "Born evil.  These cars..."  He waved a hand over his shoulder and was rewarded with a few scattered beeps.  "Something happened last night and a whole new species got born in this city."

 

"The comet," said Hutch.

 

"Yeah."  Starsky stood up and grabbed a gas can.  Taking it over to the Torino, he began to refill the car’s gas tank.  "What’s next in our plan?"

 

"It’s too bad," said Hutch, "that we can’t just stuff everyone into the Pits and throw beer and pretzels at them until the Apocalypse is over."  He stood as well, and retrieved a can of beer from the back seat.  It fizzed as he opened it, spilling over his hand.

 

Starsky took it away from him and drank deeply.  "I wish you hadn’t reminded me about the pretzels.  I’m starving."  He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and handed Hutch the half-empty can.  He returned to gassing up his car.

 

Hutch looked around, and spotted several small shops across the street.  The hand lettered sign in the window of one promised fireworks and cigarettes.  Next door to it was another advertising fine liquor and snacks.

 

"Do you think you can survive on MoonPies and Mescal?"  Hutch shook his head.  "What am I saying?  That’s your fantasy breakfast."

 

As he walked away, he could hear Starsky saying, "You just wait, Hutch.  Someday you’ll be telling your grandkids stories about the magical chemical foods we ate before civilization ended.  And they won’t believe you!"

 

Grinning, Hutch headed straight for the more likely looking of the two stores.  He was halfway across the street when a shotgun blast cracked the silence, reverberating through the empty street.  Buckshot burned past his cheek.

 

"Jesus Christ!"  Hutch hit the pavement hard.

 

"Huuutch!" yelled Starsky.  Behind him, motors revved angrily.  Something hit the fence hard, making the chain links rattle.

 

Hutch lifted one hand, cautiously.  "I’m okay!"  Chin scraping the asphalt, he tried to see where the shot had come from.  The shop door was cracked open a few inches.  "Hey, you!"

 

"Traitors!" shouted a voice from the store.  "Commie bastards!"

 

Hutch started to push himself up.  "Look, we just want—"

 

"You’re in cahoots with the machines.  Don’t tell me you’re not.  I saw you talking to them!"  The shop door swung open and a man with thinning dark hair stepped out into the light.  His shotgun was aimed at Hutch.  "You—face down!"

 

Hutch flattened immediately.

 

"Drop the gun!" shouted Starsky, from behind the Torino.

 

The man shook his hair.  "No, I don’t think so, son.  If you don’t want to see your friend properly perforated, you’re going to put that weapon down and kick it over to me."

 

Silence.  Hutch couldn’t see Starsky, but he could feel him thinking, weighing their options.

 

The shop owner raised his shotgun.  "So be it.  One less traitor in the world...."

 

"Okay, okay!" shouted Starsky.  "I’m putting down my gun.  See?"

 

Hutch heard the sound of metal on concrete, as Starsky kicked his gun to the side.

 

"Well, well," said the man, conversationally.  "What’s the going rate for selling out the human race?  Did the machines offer you riches, or was it just your life?  You two don’t look smart enough to be in league with their communist puppet-masters."  He walked up and stopped a few feet from Hutch.

 

"We’re not traitors," protested Hutch.  "We’re cops!"

 

"I know what I saw.  You two boys were in that yard there, getting your orders from the vehicles."  The shotgun swung between the two of them.  "By rights, I ought to blow you both to kingdom come."

 

The Torino growled.

 

"Stop that!" said Starsky to the car.

 

Hutch saw the shotgun come up.  "Mister," he said, quickly, "the cars aren’t that smart.  They’re like dogs.  Starsky gives them their orders, not the other way around."

 

The man frowned.  "If you think you can talk me around—"

 

"Someone’s coming," interrupted Starsky.

 

Hutch braced his toes against the cement, waiting.

 

The shop owner scowled.  "Don’t think I’m falling for that old chestnut.  I wasn’t born yesterday!"

 

"No, really," insisted Starsky.  "Someone’s coming.  Can’t you hear them?"

 

Hutch was impressed.  Starsky really sounded convincing.  He was almost tempted to look for the approaching vehicle himself.

 

The gun wavered slightly, and started to turn.  "More of your mechanical pals, coming to rescue you?"

 

For a split second, the shotgun wasn’t pointed at either of them.  Hutch launched himself forward into the man’s knees.  He heard another deafening explosion as the shotgun discharged again and then he was on top of the shop owner with his hand wrapped around the hot barrel.  He wrenched the weapon out of the man’s hands and flung it away.

 

Straddling the shop owner’s chest, Hutch grabbed his collar and pulled him up.  "You’re damn lucky we’re too busy to haul you in, or I’d have you arrested for pointing a gun at a police officer!"

 

"Hutch, Hutch!" interrupted Starsky, sounding panicked.  "I wasn’t kidding!  Someone’s coming!"

 

"What?"  Hutch looked up, just as a large fleet of cars, headed by a tow truck, turned the corner.

 

"Oh, boy," said Starsky.

 

*

 

Starsky could feel his heart pounding as he faced down the pack.  Determined not to show fear, he almost fainted when a familiar face leaned out of the window of the tow truck.

 

"Starsky, my man!" called Merle.  "It’s good to see you.  Why is Hutch beating up on my neighbors?"

 

"It’s a misunderstanding," shouted Hutch.  He leaned down to look into the shop keeper’s face.  "Isn’t that right?"

 

The man nodded reluctantly.

 

Grinning, Starsky ran over to the side of Merle’s truck.  He jumped onto the runner and hooked his elbow over the edge of the door.  "I thought you were dead.  Your whole place burned down."

 

Merle lost his grin.  Seeming to notice the smoldering ruins of his garage for the first time, he slumped down into his seat.  "Man, that just ain’t right."  Straightening, he leaned forward.  "What about my cars?"

 

"They’re fine," Starsky reassured him.  "Where were you?"

 

"Out on a call," said Merle.  He patted the steering wheel of his tow truck.  "Betsy here suddenly developed ideas of her own, and it took us a good long while to get back to the Cadillac shack.  Picked up some new friends on the way."

 

Starsky looked at the vehicles clustered around the tow truck.  There had to be fifteen cars in the pack, all makes and styles, from gleaming sports cars to a battered brown...

 

"Hutch, look!"

 

Hutch was back on his feet, with the shop owner’s collar in one fist, and his shotgun in the other.  "What?"

 

Starsky pointed.  "It’s your car!"

 

Hutch let go of the shop owner and backed up a step.  "Oh, crap."

 

Starsky jumped off the runner of the tow truck.  "But Hutch, it’s your car.  Isn’t that great?"  He stopped in front of Hutch and gestured back toward the assembled cars.  The brown car nosed forward through the pack.

 

Hutch’s face was white.  His mouth moved silently for a moment before he spoke.  "You told me it’d be out for my blood, because I never got the suspension fixed."

 

"No, I said he’d be mad because you never repaired his dents and you always threw garbage in his back seat—"  Starsky paused.  "What do you mean you didn’t fix the suspension?  You were supposed to do that last week!"

 

Hutch looked as if he was searching for a defense, but he was interrupted by a squeal of tires as the Torino shot past them both.

 

The Brown Bomb pulled out from the pack, rear suspension sagging.  The Torino skidded to a stop beside it, with an attitude of what Starsky could only describe as pure joy.

 

"Aw, will you look at that," said Starsky, happily.  "They’re in love!"

 

Hutch wilted, the butt of the shotgun hitting the cement with a thump.

 

Starsky grinned.  "Want to take bets on whether there’s gonna be baby cars come spring?"

 

*

Chapter Five

           

Hutch sat on the front step of Mr. Robinson’s shop with a loaf of brown bread on one side and a tub of cream cheese on the other.  He was using a plastic knife to spread the cheese.

 

Beside him, Starsky had a root beer and a bag of Cheetos.  His fingers were orange with processed cheese powder, the color standing out in stark contrast to the snack’s red and blue packaging.

 

Empty cans of beer were lined up neatly on the curb.  Hutch had a feeling they might be overindulging a bit, but it seemed appropriate somehow, considering that the end of civilization appeared imminent.

 

He watched the Torino and the Bomb turning happy circles around each other in the middle of the street.  The other cars had been secured in Merle’s compound, and he was busy trying to salvage what he could of his garage.

 

"Cheetos," said Starsky, reflectively.  "When the last bag is eaten, there won’t ever be any more.  We need factories to make this stuff."

 

"I’m not sure that’s much of a loss," said Hutch.

 

Starsky turned the bag around so that the Cheetos Mouse was facing Hutch.  "I’m going to miss this little guy.  Just think—no more Pop Tarts, no more Twinkies, no more Dr. Pepper—"

 

Starsky was usually a happy drunk, but occasionally he could get morose.  Hutch hoped this wasn’t one of those times.  "You’re just trying to cheer me up, aren’t you?"

 

Starsky stuffed another cheese puff into his mouth.  "No more vitamin supplements, no more weird food imported from weirder countries, and no more dried kelp krunchies sprinkled on your high fiber breakfast cereal."

 

Hutch searched for something positive to say, since Starsky seemed determined to focus on the negatives.  The smell of smoke was dissipating and the cloudless sky was a startlingly brilliant blue.  "There’s almost no smog today," he offered.

 

"That’s because the manufacturing plants on the East Side have all shut down," said Starsky.  "You should be nice to your car.  He’s probably the last of his kind.  Unless he somehow makes baby cars with mine."

 

Hutch didn’t want to debate the existence of baby cars.  "How do you know my car’s a boy?" he asked instead.  "For all you know, it could be a girl."

 

"He can’t be a girl," said Starsky.  "My car’s a girl, which means your car’s a boy."

 

"Maybe they’re lesbians."

 

"My car is not a lesbian!"

 

"Why not?" asked Hutch.  "Is there anything wrong with your car being a lesbian?"  This was an entertaining new twist on an old argument, and much better than watching Starsky become increasingly depressed over the demise of junk food.

 

"It’s not natural," said Starsky, predictably.

 

"Nothing about this is natural," said Hutch.  "Right now there are machines roaming around acting like they’re alive.  Why should our ideas about sex and gender have any relevance to what they do?"

 

"All I know," said Starsky, "is that my car is a girl and that means your car is a boy.  End of discussion."

 

"I think that’s a very narrow-minded point of view," said Hutch, as he licked cream cheese off his knife.  "It’s not like they have genitalia.  You can’t check under the hood and tell what sex they are."

 

"My car likes men!"

 

Hutch checked his watch.  "It’s past noon.  What do you suppose they’re doing down at the precinct?"

 

Starsky turned the Cheetos bag over and dumped the crumbs into his palm.  Tipping them into his mouth, he munched for a moment before saying, "Probably executing a plan to save the city."

 

"Then we should get over there and give them a hand."  Hutch stood up and waved at the window of the shop.  "Goodbye, Mr. Robinson!"

 

There was no answer from inside.  Hutch suspected Mr. Robinson was hunkered back down behind the counter with his shotgun, muttering to himself about traitors.

 

Hutch dismissed him from his mind and focused on the Bomb instead.  It had stopped playing with the Torino and was now facing him.  Hutch looked at the car and wondered what it was thinking.  Nothing about its metal and glass countenance gave away any clue to what might be going on inside.

 

He took a step toward the Bomb.

 

The car rolled backward, away from him.

 

"Geez, Hutch.  You’re scaring him!" said Starsky.

 

"I am not scaring my car," said Hutch.  He waved a hand at the Bomb.  "Does he look scared?"

 

"Yes, you are," insisted Starsky.  "And yes, he does!"

 

Hutch looked again.  All he saw was a battered brown car, idling in place.  "You know, there was a time when anthropomorphizing inanimate objects was wrong!"

 

"I’m not anthro-whatever," said Starsky.  "That car is scared of you, and it’s your fault."

 

Hutch threw his hands up in frustration, and the Bomb backed up a few more feet.  "Oh, for crying out loud!"

 

"You could start by putting your hands down," said Starsky.

 

Hutch propped his hands on his hips.  "My car’s a goddamn sissy."

 

"Not like that!"  Starsky walked over, grabbed Hutch’s arms and pulled them away from his sides.  "You’ve got to be relaxed.  Non-threatening.  Shake it out."

 

Hutch tried, but evidently it wasn’t good enough, because Starsky stepped back and looked at him frowning.  After a moment he shook his head and said, "You know what?  I think you should turn around so you’re not looking at your car."

 

"You want me to turn my back to that thing?"  Hutch was appalled.  "What if it runs me over?"

 

"See, that’s your problem!" said Starsky.  "You’re expecting the worst.  You’ve got to have a positive picture in your head.  Think of what you want to happen, and then make yourself believe it."

 

Hutch pointed at the Bomb, which promptly beeped at him.  "I am not taking my eye off it!"

 

Starsky paused.  "Are you going to trust me, or not?"

 

Shit, thought Hutch.  He had to say ‘trust’.  With a sigh, he turned around.  It felt wrong.  He could feel the car’s headlights boring into his back, and his skin was crawling.  "I don’t know why I’m trusting you," he said, shakily.  "You’re terrible with dogs."

 

"These aren’t dogs, they’re cars," said Starsky.  "No teeth."

 

"No teeth," repeated Hutch.  Just bigger and heavier and stronger...  He shook his head.  No, he wasn’t going to think about that.

 

"Okay, now call him over to you."

 

"Here...  car," said Hutch, tentatively.

 

"You got to make it sound like you really want him," said Starsky, encouragingly.

 

Starsky’s got a handle on things, thought Hutch.  He won’t let anything happen to me.  "Here, car.  C’mere, car."

 

"That’s better!" said Starsky.  "Keep it up!"

 

"Here, car."  Hutch’s terror was rapidly becoming embarrassment.  He closed his eyes, and continued determinedly.  "Heeere car, car, car.  Hee-yipe!"

 

The Bomb’s bumper touched the back of his knees.  Hutch jumped forward, his heart pounding.

 

"Keep it together," said Starsky, urgently.  "You’ve almost got him!"

 

Hutch turned slowly, his legs feeling like Jello.

 

"Tell him he’s a good car," instructed Starsky.

 

"You’re a good car," said Hutch, awkwardly.

 

"You’ve got to believe it!"

 

"Good car."  Hutch tried patting the hood.  "Good car."

 

The engine revved briefly.

 

Maybe, thought Hutch, it really was a good car.  Hadn’t he always said his car had inner flash?  "Yeah," he said.  "I like you.  We were a pretty good team, huh?"

 

The engine revved a little longer.  Keeping his hand on the hood, Hutch tried walking around to the driver’s side door.  "What do you think about working together?"

 

The lock popped up on the door.  And when Hutch reached for the handle, his car didn’t back away out of reach.

 

He opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat, feeling utterly drained.

 

Starsky, however, was doing a jig in the middle of the street.  "You did it, Hutch!  You got your car back!"

 

"Yeah," began Hutch.  "I—holy hell!"  The Bomb’s gas pedal had suddenly depressed by itself and the car was now driving itself over to the Torino.  Hutch grabbed the steering wheel and stamped down hard on the brakes.  They screeched loudly as the Bomb struggled to pick up speed.

 

Hutch jammed his toe under the gas pedal and tried to pry it up off the floor.  It was stuck.  The steering wheel jerked angrily under his hands.  "STARSKY!"

 

"Take your foot off the brake!" shouted Starsky.  "You’re stripping his gears!"

 

Hutch could see Starsky in the rearview mirror, running after him.  "Make it stop!"

 

Suddenly the Torino swerved into the road ahead of him, turned sideways and stopped.  A collision seemed inevitable and Hutch closed his eyes in horror, bracing for the impact.

 

The sudden stop threw him into the steering wheel with bruising force, but the anticipated crunch of bent metal and broken glass never came.  Hutch cautiously opened his eyes to see the Torino only a foot from his front bumper.  The Bomb felt like it was shaking, but that might just have been his own nervous system in meltdown.

 

Hutch fumbled for the door and fell out onto the road.

 

Starsky ran up to him.  "Aw, no, Hutch!  Don’t get out of the car.  You’ve almost got it!"

 

"No," said Hutch, picking himself up.  "No, I do not have it.  This is not working!"

 

Starsky’s face fell.  "But it was going so well!"

 

"That car tried to drive away with me!"

 

"He just wanted to visit his girlfriend," said Starsky, sadly.

 

Hutch took a deep breath and laid a hand on the Bomb’s roof.  "Look, Starsk, it’s not the car, okay?  I like this car, as much as I think I can like any car these days.  But I don’t think I can handle a car that drives itself."

 

"You just need more practice," said Starsky.

 

"No."  Hutch shook his head.  "Until things go back the way they were, you’re going to be doing all the driving."

 

"What if things never go back to the way they were?"

 

"Then I’m turning in my license and buying a horse."

 

*

 

"Merle’s alive, Huggy’s alive, next thing you know, we’ll find Dobey and everything will be great!"  Starsky drummed happily on the Torino’s steering wheel as she steered herself down the road toward Parker Center.  The Bomb followed her faithfully.

 

"Everything will not be great," said Hutch, slumped in the other seat.  "The electricity has gone haywire, nothing works the way it should, and there’s no water!"

 

Hutch’s earlier optimism had vanished, something which Starsky suspected might be his fault.  When he was down, Hutch was up.  Now that he’d recovered from the idea that once the Cheetos ran out there’d never be any more, it was Hutch’s turn to feel bad.

 

"Have another beer."  Starsky reached behind himself and handed Hutch a can.

 

Hutch cracked it and took a long drink.  "And that’s the other problem," he said.  "We cannot survive on beer alone."

 

"We’ve also got potato chips, until they run out."  Starsky took a swig from his own can, and felt the soothing warmth of alcohol percolating through his system.  People were smart.  Somehow they’d figure out how to make snack foods, even without machines.

 

"You’re driving drunk," said Hutch.

 

"There’s so much wrong with that statement, I don’t even know where to begin," said Starsky.  He leaned back in his seat and propped a foot up on the edge of the open window.  "First off, I’m not driving this car.  She’s driving herself."

 

Hutch closed his eyes and took another gulp from his can of beer.

 

"Secondly," continued Starsky.  "I am not drunk.  Just a bit...warm."

 

"Oh, yeah," said Hutch.  "That’s really—urp!"

 

They were both jolted forward in their seats as the Torino came to a sudden stop at the top of a small hill.

 

Starsky sat up and looked down the road.  "Oh, shit."

 

*

 

They left the car and climbed a fire escape up to the roof of a brown brick building to get a better view.  Below them, it looked like a parade, except instead of floats and ticker tape, there were just cars and trucks, circling endlessly around Parker Center.

 

"There’s that bastard garbage truck!" exclaimed Hutch.

 

"How do you know it’s the same one?" asked Starsky, craning his head to the side.  "Oh, wait, I see what you mean."

 

The legs of the garbage man were still visible, sticking out of the compactor in the rear of the vehicle.  Its sides were spattered a darker reddish brown than mud.

 

"But why is that the only one?" asked Hutch.  "Where are all the other garbage trucks?"

 

"Maybe the other garbage trucks are good," suggested Starsky, doubtfully.  "Or maybe they all suffer from really low self-esteem, and they’re hiding."

 

"Or maybe just they’re off hassling other people somewhere else," said Hutch.

 

They heard a faint jingle as an ice cream truck split off from the pack of circling vehicles.  It made a break for the open road.  The garbage truck ran up behind it and slammed into its bumper.  Evidently realizing the error of its ways, the ice cream truck obediently fell back in line.

 

Starsky leaned over the low concrete wall at the edge of the roof.  "He’s bullying them!"

 

Hutch grabbed the back of his jeans.  "Careful!"

 

Another car, this one a small green compact, suddenly gunned forward down the street, away from the others.  Immediately three black and whites broke ranks in pursuit.

 

"And he’s got the squad cars doing his dirty business!"  Starsky sounded outraged.  "What gives him the right?"

 

"Um."  Hutch thought that ‘dirty business’ and ‘garbage truck’ sounded like two things that went very well together.

 

Starsky wasn’t done yet.  "Those black and whites ought to helping people, not keeping them trapped inside the station."

 

"How can we tell if there’s anyone left alive in there?" asked Hutch.

 

"We have to get in."

 

"Oh, that’s great."  Hutch sat down on the gravel roof.  "We’ll just walk right in, and inquire at the desk."

 

Starsky sat down next to him.   "Obviously we’ll have to go in undercover.  We’ll have to infiltrate their mob."

 

Hutch considered the idea.  "I suppose we could hide in your car, but what if they smell us?"

 

"They’re cars, Hutch.  They don’t have noses."

 

Hutch threw up his hands.  "I don’t know if they do or not.  Cars don’t have eyes, but somehow they can see.  They don’t have ears either, but they can hear!"

 

Starsky twisted and looked over the edge of the roof.  "I think their headlights are their eyes.  I don’t know where they keep their ears."

 

"Which means they could have a nose.  Or something in their engine could be functioning like a nose."

 

Starsky folded his elbows over the concrete wall.  "Well, even if they can smell, they won’t be smelling much.  Look, you can see the exhaust fumes from here."

 

Hutch looked and found that Starsky was right.  There was a distinct grey haze hovering around the pack of cars, almost as if a small thundercloud had decided to settle down on Parker Center.

 

"Okay," he said.  "Let’s try it."

 

*

 

For once the Torino hadn’t gone wandering.  Starsky found her exactly where he’d left her, at the foot of the fire escape.  The Bomb was pressed up close beside her.

 

Hutch walked around them both, his expression pensive.  "I think we should both try to hide in your car," he said.  "You get as low as you can in the front, and I’ll take the back."

 

"What about the trunk?" asked Starsky.  "She could drive us right up to the front door, and then pop the trunk and tah-dah!"

 

"Did you see how that garbage truck rear-ended the ice cream truck?  Do you want to be in the trunk when that happens to your car?"

 

Starsky experienced a graphically bloody vision of himself folded inside a crumpled trunk.  He grimaced.  "Okay, I get your point."

 

"And if we get found out, we—"

 

"Run like hell," finished Starsky.  "No problem."  He patted the Torino’s trunk.  "This baby’s faster than any of those jokers."

 

"She better be," said Hutch, as he opened the Torino’s back door.

 

*

Chapter Six

           

Hutch folded his six foot frame as tightly as he could into the space between the front and back seat of the Torino.  He didn’t fit, but with an arm and a leg on the back bench he was fairly certain he wasn’t visible from the outside.

 

Or so he fervently hoped.

 

Up front he could hear Starsky talking to the Torino.  He would be peeking over the dash, guiding the car mostly by voice and hoping no one noticed him.

 

"C’mon, baby," muttered Starsky.  "We’re just going to work, like usual.  You remember where we always park, don’t you?  Right in front of the building, that’s our spot."

 

The sound of engines grew louder, and Hutch imagined he could feel a certain hesitancy radiating up through the floorboards of the Torino.  Starsky’s encouraging words continued.  "You can do it, baby, I know you can.  Just slide right in there with the others."

 

Hutch tried not to think about the fact that the Torino in no way understood Starsky’s words.  It was blindly moving ahead, trying its best to guess what he wanted.

 

The noise around them grew to a roar and the smell of exhaust was suffocating.  They inched forward, and Hutch had the strangest impression he was caught in a NASCAR traffic jam.

 

Then suddenly the car swerved and jolted to a stop.  Starsky yelled, "Out, out, out!"

 

Hutch kicked the door open and tumbled out, scrambling up onto his feet.  He found himself at the foot of the stairs to Parker Center, a cacophony of beeps and honks erupting behind him.

 

Then Starsky was at his side and together they ran for the door, taking the steps two and three at a time.  Hutch was gasping for breath by the time they reached the top, but perfectly prepared to keep going.

 

Starsky grabbed his arm, bringing him to a halt and almost yanking him off his feet as well.  "My car!"

 

Hutch turned.  He saw the Torino knock a Pinto sideways, as it tried to follow them up the steps.  Her hood was badly dented and her bumper was hanging off at one end, striking up sparks as she turned to face the other cars.

 

"We can’t help her, Starsk!"

 

"Oh, no, no, no..."  Starsky shook his head, still staring down the steps at the melee below.

 

Hutch could see his own car now, muscling its way through the pack.  And coming up on the other side was the garbage truck.

 

"Run, baby!" shouted Starsky.

 

Hutch seized the back of Starsky’s jeans and tried to pull him toward the door.  "We’ve got to get out of here!"

 

Starsky locked his knees and drew his gun.

 

The garbage truck lowered its prongs and revved its engine.  Most of the cars retreated, pulling back out of the truck’s way.  The Torino did not move.

 

Surrendering to the inevitable, Hutch drew his own weapon, as well.

 

As the garbage truck charged, they fired together.  Starsky’s bullets pinged off its sides without effect.  Hutch tried aiming a shot at the truck’s front wheel, but the angle was wrong and his round ricocheted off the steps instead, shattering the window of a yellow cab.

 

Just as the garbage truck reached the Torino, a brown blur shot between them.  The Bomb took the impact on its side, the garbage truck’s prongs punching through its front door and trunk.

 

There was a squeal of tortured metal, and then the truck lifted the brown car into the air.

 

"Run!" shouted Starsky, waving frantically at the Torino.  "Get out of here!"

 

The Torino seemed to hesitate a moment, and then took off up the road, black and whites in pursuit.

 

The Bomb slipped off the garbage truck’s prongs and crashed to the ground in a heap of bent metal.  Its engine turned over a few times, but then it coughed and died.  Brown fluid bled out onto the ground, in a swiftly widening puddle.

 

The garbage truck backed up and ran into the remains of the Bomb repeatedly, shoving it up onto the sidewalk and into Parker Center's steps.  There was an air of vindictive satisfaction about its actions.

 

Hutch felt sick.

 

Starsky tugged on his arm.  "Let’s go."

 

"I should have been nicer to that car," said Hutch, allowing Starsky to pull him backward through the swinging doors.  "I should have fixed his suspension.  If I ever get another car, if things go back to the way they were, I swear I’m going to treat it better."

 

It was warm and stuffy inside the building, and Hutch wondered briefly if the heater had gone on the fritz, along with every other machine.  "We’ve got to figure out some way to kill that bastard truck," he said.  "I’m not going to let my car sacrifice itself for nothing."

 

"Yeah," said Starsky, sounding distracted.

 

"What is it?" asked Hutch, turning.

 

"That’s Doris," said Starsky, looking at a figure slumped over the reception desk.  There was a phone still clutched in her lifeless hand.

 

Hutch walked over and checked for a pulse, more because he needed something to do than from any doubt over whether she was dead.  "She was taking pills for her heart," he said.  "The electric shock must have been too much."

 

"They didn’t have to just leave her," said Starsky.  "They could have moved her down to the morgue."

 

"Who?" asked Hutch, looking around.  "There doesn’t seem to be anyone here."

 

"There must be people somewhere."  Starsky waved a hand at the cars still circling the building.  "Otherwise why the heck are they out there?"

 

"The chief’s office is up on the fourth floor.  Maybe there’s some people holed up there," suggested Hutch.

 

"Or down in the cafeteria."

 

"No, too many machines," said Hutch, as he started to walk down the hall toward the stairs.  The elevators were obviously off limits, unless he wanted to find himself experiencing freefall all the way down to the basement.  "Come to think of it, that might be a problem in the morgue, too."

 

Starsky swerved off to the side.  "Hang on," he said.  "There’s a water cooler in the Staff Sergeant’s office."  He pulled the door open.  "Bastard!"

 

"Oh, no," said Hutch.  "Is he dead?"

 

"Huh?" asked Starsky.  "No, Barney’s not here.  I mean that bastard water cooler.  It’s gone and flooded the floor."

 

Hutch peered around his shoulder at the soaked rug.  "You won’t be drinking any of that."

 

Starsky slammed the door shut, scowling.  "This is really starting to tick me off."

 

"Come on," Hutch grabbed his arm and steered him toward the stairs.  They were passing a vending machine when it suddenly emitted a loud clunk.  Hutch jumped.  "What the hell was that?"

 

"That was the soda machine," said Starsky.  He stared at it, puzzled.

 

A bottle of Coca Cola rolled down into the dispensing slot.

 

"Oh, hey," said Starsky.  "It’s giving away free drinks!"  He started to move forward and then stopped.  "What do want to bet that it’s some kind of trick?"

 

"Remember my hair dryer," said Hutch.

 

"Yeah."  Starsky chewed on his bottom lip.  "I could really use a cold drink right now, though."

           

"Don’t do it," said Hutch.  "For all you know, that Cola could be booby trapped."

 

"Right," agreed Starsky, still staring at the bottle.  It was collecting condensation in the warm air, a rivulet of water rolling slowly down its side.  "How do you booby trap a glass bottle?"  He took another step.

 

"It’s not worth it," said Hutch.

 

Starsky stopped in front of the machine and turned to face Hutch.  "Most of the cars aren’t bad.  Maybe this is a good coke machine.  Maybe it just wants to share its bounty with—"

 

The machine clunked again, and suddenly the coke bottle shot out of its dispensing slot and slammed into Starsky.  He yelped and dove for this floor, his hands covering his head.  A second bottle rocketed across the space he’d been standing a moment earlier and shattered against the wall.

 

Hutch reacted instinctively, pulling his gun.  "Stay down!" he shouted as he fired his remaining three bullets into the soda machine.

 

It screeched and erupted into steam.  A puddle of Coke and water leaked out onto the floor.

 

Hutch waited a moment, and when no more bottles flew out of the machine, holstered his weapon.  Then he ran over to Starsky, who was still on the floor, writhing in pain.

 

"Ow," said Starsky.  "Ow, ow, ow.  Oh, God that hurts!"  He had both hands behind his back and seemed to be holding onto his rear end.

 

"Are you okay?" asked Hutch, trying to figure out the damage and largely failing.  Starsky was moving around too much to get a good look.

 

"No, I’m not okay!" shouted Starsky, indignantly.  "That thing shot me in the ass!"

 

Hutch couldn’t help himself.  He snickered.

 

"Oh, very funny," growled Starsky.  "I think my tailbone is broken."

 

Hutch grabbed Starsky by the front of his jacket.  With a grunt, he hoisted him up onto his feet.  "Your tailbone is not broken.  Your ass, even bruised, will continue to be a source of much admiration for the women—and some of the men—in this town.  So stop being a baby about it, and let’s find out what’s happened to our fellow cops."

 

"But it really hurts," said Starsky mournfully, rubbing his rear.  "And anyway how do you—wait.  Did you say men admire my ass?"

 

"I said some men," corrected Hutch.

 

"You’ve seen guys checking out my ass?  When?  Where?  Who was it?"

 

"Wait."  Hutch opened a door just in front of the stairs and looked inside.  The Records Department had been in the process of transferring all their files from paper to digital format.  There were tall banks of brand new computers lined up against the wall.

 

There were also multiple bodies scattered around the room and a strong smell of burnt flesh in the air.  As Hutch stared, trying to make sense of the awful sight, a bright blue flicker of electricity danced across the face of a computer console.

 

Hutch closed the door, carefully.

 

"What is it?" asked Starsky.

 

"They’re all dead," said Hutch.

 

"All of them?"  Starsky pushed him aside and peeked through the door himself.  "Aw, geez.  There’s Harry.  And Richardson.  And Veronica.  What happened to them?"

 

"They look like they were electrocuted."

 

"Are you sure they’re all dead?"  Starsky sounded lost.  "What if someone’s alive in there?"

 

"No one’s alive," said Hutch, hoping to God he was right.  "And there’s no way we’re going in there, not with those computers just waiting for us to come into range."

 

Starsky took another look inside, and then shut the door firmly.  "I wish we hadn’t come here," he said.  "I’m starting to think there’s no one left."

 

Something rolled up against Hutch’s foot and stopped.  He bent down and picked up a bottle of Coca Cola.  Holding it out to Starsky, he said, "Want to share?"

 

*                                  

 

The dispatch center was on the second floor.

 

“We don’t have to look,” said Starsky.

 

“I need to know,” said Hutch.

 

Starsky crossed his arms and leaned back against the railing.  “I’ll wait.”

 

Hutch came back far too quickly for the news to be anything but very bad.

 

“I’m sorry, Starsk.”

 

Starsky tipped his head back against the wall and looked at the ceiling for a moment.  He thought about asking Hutch which of the girls had died, then decided against it.  He’d dated many of them, and when it came right down to it, he just didn’t want to know.

 

As long as he didn’t know, maybe he could believe that they were all still alive and safe.

 

“Hey, Hutch?”

 

Hutch was halfway up the stairs to the next floor.  He stopped and glanced back at Starsky.  “Yes?”

 

“What time is it?”

 

This time there was no ceremony in the way Hutch pulled his watch out.  He simply checked it, and then stuffed it back into his pocket.  “It’s a quarter to one.”

 

“Bobbi is flying to Hawaii today.  She should be somewhere over the ocean right now.”  Starsky paused.  “Planes would be good, right?  They’d want to save people, not hurt them, right?”

 

“Absolutely,” said Hutch.  “No doubt about it.”  He paused.  “Except...”

 

“Except, what?”

 

“Well, there’s no telling where she’ll end up, ultimately.  What if her plane is bored with Hawaii?  What if it decides Costa Rica would be a nice change of scenery?   Or Canada?”

 

“I don’t think even a plane would want to fly north in the middle of winter,” said Starsky.

 

“It could have a yearning to see the glaciers.”

 

Reluctantly, Starsky smiled.  “Pining for the fjords.”

 

“That’s Norway, Starsk.  Not Canada.”  Hutch’s voice was firmly reassuring as he said, “I’m sure she’s fine.”  He started up the stairs again, without waiting for an answer.

 

Starsky followed him.  Hutch was right.  Bobbi would be fine.  Her plane wouldn’t be suicidal, it would just be a bit independent, like Bobbi herself.

 

Their own department, Homicide, was on the third floor.  Hutch pushed open the stairwell door and froze.  "Oh, hell."  His voice cracked.

 

"What?" asked Starsky, his heart sinking.

 

Hutch turned around.  "I can’t do it.  I can’t go out there."  All his earlier confidence had vanished.

 

Starsky peered past him.  The hallway on the third floor was empty.  There were no bodies, nothing to explain Hutch’s reaction.

 

Nothing except the simple fact that any bodies they did find on this floor would belong to people they worked with every day.  People whose kids came to the Christmas Party, and the Policeman’s BBQ.  Friends.

 

Captain Dobey might even be among the dead.

 

"Let’s skip this floor," said Starsky, resting his hand on Hutch’s back.  "The chief’s office is up there.  There’s nothing for us here."

 

"You’re right," said Hutch, carefully closing the door.

 

They climbed the last flight in silence.

 

*

 

Hutch held his breath as he slowly pushed the door open.  Tossing aside years of earnest atheism, he silently prayed that there’d be no more bodies on the other side.

 

"Hutchinson!" bellowed a blessedly familiar voice.  "Where have you been?"

 

"Captain?" asked Hutch, uncertainly.

 

Starsky pushed past him into the hall.  "Cap, is that you?"  His voice shot up a full register.

 

Dobey stomped forward to meet them, scowling.  "Of course it’s me.  Who else would it be?"  One eye was swollen shut and his arm was in a sling, but otherwise he looked perfectly normal.

 

Starsky flung himself forward and wrapped his arms around Dobey.  "Cap!"

 

Dobey looked scandalized.  "Starsky!  Get off me!"

 

Starsky released him and stepped back grinning.

 

Hutch knew his own smile was at least as wide.  "We thought you were dead."

 

Dobey harrumphed, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.  "Well, I wasn’t worried about you two.  A couple of bad pennies, that’s what you are."

 

Still grinning widely, Starsky tried to straighten Dobey’s sling.

 

Dobey brushed him off, his eyes narrowing.  "Hutchinson, what did you do to your hair?"

 

"What are you doing here?" asked Hutch.  "Didn’t you have the night off?"

 

"Edith was having a comet party for the kids and their friends," said Dobey, worry creasing his forehead.  "I stopped by to pick up some paperwork."

 

"Hey, Hutchinson," said a new voice.  "Where did you come from?"

 

Looking around, Hutch realized that the hall was rapidly filling with officers and social workers and cleaners, presumably all the surviving staff of Parker Center.  They looked battered and exhausted, and there weren’t nearly as many of them as he’d hoped.

 

"Starsky’s car got us past the blockade," said Hutch to the man who’d spoken.  It was Adams, one of the bylaw control officers.  He’d handed out numerous tickets for parking in the no stopping zone in front of Parker Center, but he never seemed to take Starsky’s refusal to pay personally.

 

"Not much of a favor," said a man in a prisoner’s jumpsuit, grimly.

 

"They’ll run out of gas eventually," said Maggie, a cleaner.  "We just have to sit tight."

 

"But we need those cars," said Starsky.  "There’s people trapped all over this town, and they’re going run out of food and water.  We have to be able to get to them."

 

Silence greeted his words.

 

Adams finally said, "What the hell are you talking about Starsky?  Those things are killers!"

 

The others in the crowd nodded in agreement.

 

"The cars are fine," insisted Starsky.  "It’s just that garbage truck that’s the problem.  If we take it down, we can get our cars back."

 

"He’s right," said Hutch.  "You guys all know Merle, right?  He’s back at his yard, and he’s handling his own cars just fine.  If he can do it, so can we."  Or at least Starsky can, he thought, remembering his own abortive attempt to drive the Bomb.

 

Around the hall, heads shook and people began to drift away by ones and twos, disappearing back into the offices.

 

"Hey!" shouted Starsky.  "Where are you guys going?  You can’t just sit on your asses while the world ends!"

 

Hutch winced.  That last statement seemed to have driven even more away.  The hall was almost empty now and Dobey was rolling his eyes.

 

Adams still remained, however, and he crossed his arms.  "Who says it’s the end of the world?  I heard all we have to do is sit tight until we get out of that comet’s tail, and everything will go back to normal."

 

"Where did you hear that?" asked Hutch, genuinely curious.  He’d figured the comet might have something to do with it, but it would be terrific to have an official explanation.

 

Adams shrugged.  "One of the lab guys from the coroner’s office."

 

"Oh."  Hutch was disappointed.   That didn’t sound very official.

 

Adams turned and looked at the few remaining men and women.  "But I don’t like sitting on my ass at any time, and never mind whether the world’s ending.  If these guys have got a plan, then that puts them one up on the rest of us."

 

"You’d better have a plan," rumbled Dobey under his breath to Hutch.

 

Hutch leaned in close to Starsky.  "Do we have a plan?"

 

"We’ve got a plan!" said Starsky loudly and confidently.

 

Smiles broke out all around.  Even Dobey looked pleased.

 

Only Hutch saw the terrified look in Starsky’s eyes.  He stepped forward.  "But we’ve still got to iron out some of the details.  We’ll, uh...  We’ll be right back."  Hutch took hold of Starsky’s arm and pulled him backward through the stairwell door.

 

He pushed it closed and leaned against it, ensuring that no one would interrupt them.

 

Starsky sagged against the railing.  "Oh, shit."

 

"We’ve got a plan?" whispered Hutch, fiercely.  "Mind letting me in on our plan?"

 

Starsky spread his hands, helplessly.  "I thought...  Oh God, Hutch, I thought there’d be somebody in charge.  I thought we’d walk in here and everyone would be working to make things better and Dobey would give us our assignments and then we’d go and do them."  He blinked rapidly.  "I wanted someone to take control."

 

"And finding a vacuum in the halls of power, you then felt an uncontrollable urge to fill it?" asked Hutch.  "Do you realize you’re making us responsible for all those people out there?"

 

"Why isn’t Dobey giving the orders?" asked Starsky, plaintively.

 

"Because he doesn’t know what to do," said Hutch.  "He’s a career Captain.  He gets his orders from—"  Hutch stopped.  "So what’s happened to the chief?"

 

*

Chapter Seven

           

 

"He’s in his office," said Dobey, when Hutch stuck his head back out into the hall to ask.

 

"Wait here," said Hutch to the others in the hall.  "We’ll go over the plan with everyone after we’ve spoken to the chief."

 

Starsky had a moment of panic.  Plan.  Plan.  Fuck, they had no plan.  Then Hutch was leading the way to Chief Donner’s office and he had no choice but to shove his fear deep down inside and act like he knew what he was doing.  People were counting on him.

 

Hutch knocked on the chief’s door and was rewarded with a relaxed sounding, "Come in."

 

Starsky pushed the door open, and they moved cautiously inside.

 

"Sit down," said the chief, pleasantly.  "What can I do for you?"

 

Starsky blinked.  Donner was smiling, but his gun was lying on the desk in front of him.  As they watched, the chief lightly stroked the barrel, his smile never wavering.

 

"We want to organize some of the men in order to deal with the situation outside," said Hutch, stiffly.

 

"The situation is already being dealt with," said the chief.

 

Starsky thought he should have found that statement more reassuring than he did.

 

"How?" asked Hutch, bluntly.

 

"The President is working on a solution right now," the chief said, benignly.  "He’s in constant contact with the mayor.  Any minute now, our orders will be coming through on the phone."

 

"But the phones aren’t working and the mayor’s de—"  Hutch cut off abruptly as Starsky kicked him in the ankle.

 

"Any minute now, our orders will be coming through on the phone," repeated the chief, still smiling.

 

Starsky exchanged a glance with Hutch.

 

Hutch stepped forward.  "Sir," he said gently.  "Communications are down."

 

"Patience, son," said the chief.  "Impulsive action only leads to grief."  He picked up his gun and pressed it flat against his forehead.  "Now I believe our interview is over.  My secretary can show you the way out."

 

Starsky grabbed the back of Hutch’s shirt and tugged.  After a moment, Hutch allowed himself to be led out of the office.

 

Dobey was waiting for them outside.  As soon as the door closed behind them, Hutch exploded.

 

"He’s mad as a hatter!"

 

Dobey grimaced.  "From the very beginning, he was having trouble coping with just the idea of living machines.  Then he made the mistake of ordering the squad cars disabled.  We almost ended up with a massacre on our hands.  He hasn’t given another order since."

 

"Everyone’s waiting for someone else to tell them what to do," said Starsky.

 

"Waiting isn’t a bad idea," said Dobey.  "If we wait for the cars to run out of gas, no one else has to get hurt."

 

"But those cars belong to us," said Starsky.  "We can’t just give up!"

 

"So what’s the plan?" asked Hutch.

 

There was really only one possible plan, Starsky realized.  The one he’d had from the very beginning, when Hutch had spotted a body being dragged into an alley.  It was so simple he hadn’t realized it was a real plan.

 

"We’re going to kick the living crap out of that garbage truck," said Starsky.  "And we’re going to show those cars who’s boss."

 

*

 

Nobody, it appeared, was impressed with Starsky’s plan.

 

Adams looked at him disbelievingly.  "That’s it?  You guys are supposed to be hot shit, and that’s all you can come up with?"

 

"That’s a terrible plan," said Dobey, grumpily adjusting his sling.  "I was almost killed by a snack machine.  I’m not going out there to take on a pack of homicidal cars.  Especially when all we have to do is sit tight and they’ll die all on their own.

 

"You were almost killed by a snack machine?" asked Starsky.

 

"Sit down," said Dobey.  "Relax.  There’s maybe three, four more hours to wait."

 

"I hate waiting," said Adams.  "But I hate dying more."  He turned to one of the other men.  "Anyone up for a game of poker?"

 

And with that, Starsky and Hutch found themselves alone in the hall.

 

"They’re right," said Hutch.  "As plans go, it’s pretty thin."

 

Starsky looked crushed.  He stared down at the toes of his sneakers.

 

"But," said Hutch.

 

Starsky looked up at him from under his eyebrows.

 

"I’d love to see that garbage truck eat dirt," said Hutch.  "Just letting it run out of gas doesn’t seem like a fitting end for that beast."  He wished he’d been nicer to the Bomb when it had been alive.

 

"Let’s go see what’s in the Armory," said Starsky, happily.

 

*

 

"Oh, boy," said Starsky, staring down the hall.  The door to the Armory was at the far end of the narrow hall, next to the Evidence Room.  Directly on his right was the cafeteria.  And between these two doors was a long bank of snack and cigarette machines.  Starsky rubbed the bruise on his right ass cheek.

 

"If we ran fast," began Hutch, doubtfully.

 

"We could end up with broken bones, a concussion, or worse," said Starsky.  He could hear water dripping.

 

"And look at the floor," said Hutch.

 

Starsky looked down.  There was a rapidly growing puddle around the base of the ice machine.

 

"What do you want to bet anyone who steps in that water gets electrocuted?"

 

Starsky chewed on the side of his lip.  "You know, if those things weren’t plugged into the wall, they’d just be big old hunks of metal."

 

"Do you see any way to get to the plugs?" asked Hutch, as he craned his neck, trying to see behind the machines.

 

"Y’all could always hit the breaker for this floor," said a laconic voice behind them.

 

Starsky turned to see a man in a custodian’s uniform standing behind them, elbow-length black rubber gloves on his hands.

 

He held his hands up, grinning.  "These here gloves work a treat when it comes to flipping switches.  Been turnin’ things off all day.  Heard you two talking."  Nodding at the snack machines, he said, "Don’t think I’d recommend getting close to that lot."

 

"No, I guess not," said Starsky.

 

"Name’s Abe," said the man, pulling off a glove before sticking his hand out.  "You boys trying to get some weapons?"

 

Hutch shook his hand.  "I’m Hutch, and this is my partner, Starsky."

 

"Yeah, I know you two.  S’pect you’re after the shotguns."

 

"Shotguns would be good," said Starsky.  He also wouldn’t mind grenades and rocket launchers, but he doubted he’d find those in a police station.

 

"Have you got a key for the Armory?" asked Hutch.

 

"Got a key for every room in this building," said Abe.  He rattled the heavy ring attached to his belt.  "Can’t get into the weapon lockers, though.  I’ll leave that little problem to you."

 

"Okay," said Starsky.  "Where’s the switch to turn off the electricity on this floor?"

 

"In the basement," said Abe.  "Same room as the furnace."

 

The hallway felt warmer all of a sudden.  "The furnace wouldn’t be on, though.  Would it?" asked Starsky.  It hadn’t felt cold enough outside to justify heat, even taking into account the time of year.

 

Abe shrugged.  "Thought I heard it come on awhile back."

 

This time it was Hutch who said, "Oh, boy."

 

*

 

The air seemed to become increasingly stuffy as they descended the stairs into the basement, but Starsky decided it had to be nerves.  Hutch must have been feeling the tension too, because he kept rubbing his eyes and squinting.  Starsky hoped he wasn’t getting another one of his stress migraines.

 

Abe seemed calm enough, leading the way down the stairs.  His gloves were tucked into the back pocket of his overalls.

 

What was the worst a furnace could do, Starsky wondered.  Would it belch fire at them?  Tear itself up from the floor and waddle across the room to attack at close quarters?  At least he could rest easy with regards to the air conditioning system.  It was broken, as it had been for the majority of the years he’d worked at Parker Center.

 

He thought about sharing that observation with Hutch, but then a dizzy spell hit him and he had to grab the railing to steady himself.

 

The other two didn’t seem to notice.  Hutch’s eyebrows were drawn down and his mouth was tight.  He definitely had a headache, decided Starsky, as they finally reached the bottom of the stairs.

 

Dim light filtered in through the rusted grates on the basement windows.  It smelled damp and moldy, and Starsky swallowed uneasily against a rising tide of nausea.  Wouldn’t that just be my luck, he thought.  The end of the world, and he was coming down with the flu.

 

"Got a bad feeling," said Abe, as he slowly pushed open the door to the furnace room.

 

"What?" asked Hutch, sounding tired.

 

"Oh, goddamn!"  Abe slammed the door shut and turned, staggering.  "We got to get out of here!  Now!"

 

The hallway seemed to be tilting off center.  Starsky yanked Abe’s gloves out of his back pocket and pulled the door open again.  "No, we still have to turn off the power."  He could see the furnace, a squat black shadow in the center of the room, fire glowing through the grate on its front.  On the far side was a large bank of switches.

 

He felt Abe try to grab his arm, his hand slipping off.  "The flue’s shut.  That’s thing’s leaking poison!"

 

"C-carbon monoxide," said Hutch.  But his voice seemed to be coming from far away.

 

All Starsky saw were the switches.

 

Carbon monoxide was bad, but he wasn’t scared.  Not yet.  He could hold his breath for a long time.  He could handle it, no problem.  And if Abe wouldn’t tell him which switch to flip, then he’d just have to kill them all.  The switches that was, not himself and Hutch.  Flipping all the switches would save everyone, not kill them.

 

Somehow by the time Starsky had thought all this through, he discovered that he’d arrived at the breaker panel.  He couldn’t remember walking past the furnace, or pulling on Abe’s gloves, but here he was and his duty was clear.

 

Starsky slapped at the switches with hands that felt numb, like plastic wrapped paws.  Blue lightning flickered across the board, snapping and crackling, but he saw it through a gray haze.  His legs felt as if they were falling asleep, and everything seemed to be getting darker.

 

Starsky thought he heard Hutch call his name, but wasn’t sure.  It was so dark now and he couldn’t feel the switches any more.

 

*

 

The next thing Starsky knew was the feeling of acid burning up through his esophagus.  He gagged and felt his stomach contract brutally, forcing liquid up through his mouth and out his nose.

 

He weakly tried to push himself up, only to set off another bout of heaving.  Helpless, he couldn’t do anything but ride out the misery until his body stopped convulsing.

 

Gradually it occurred to Starsky that he was no longer in the dark.  It was bright and sunny, and he seemed to be lying on concrete.

 

" ’utch?" he said, deeply confused.  The last thing he remembered was trying to hit all the breaker switches at once.  And now, suddenly, he was outside.

 

Starsky gagged again, but all that was left in his stomach was bile.  He could feel pins and needles in his hands as he slapped them down on the ground and pushed himself up.

 

He blinked blearily, and a shoe came into focus.

 

Hutch’s shoe.

 

Starsky grabbed it.  "’ey."  He fell over onto his side, his cheek landing next to Hutch’s leg.

 

Right in the middle of something sticky and cold, and just a bit chunky.

 

"Ew," said Starsky, quietly.  "You barfed."

 

"Yup," said Hutch’s voice, somewhere above him.

 

Starsky let his eyes close, relieved beyond words to hear Hutch speak and to know that he was at least alive, if not completely okay.

 

After a moment he felt Hutch’s hand land heavily on his head, as if the effort of lifting it had taken everything Hutch had and he’d had no choice but to let it drop.  Starsky could definitely sympathize.

 

Another thought percolated slowly into Starsky’s brain.  "Where’s Abe?"

 

"Don’t know," said Hutch.

 

Starsky took a deep breath and used Hutch to pull himself out of the puddle of vomit and up into a sitting position.  He leaned against Hutch’s shoulder and looked around blearily.  They were just outside the back fire exit, at the bottom of the steps that led up to ground level.  There was a chain link fence a few feet away, and beyond it he could see the cars, still circling.

 

None of them seemed to have noticed himself and Hutch.

 

"Did we do it?" asked Starsky.

 

"No idea," said Hutch.  He tipped his head back against the door and squeezed his eyes shut.  "Oh, God, my head hurts."

 

"Is Abe dead?"  Starsky couldn’t think very clearly.  He wanted Hutch to explain everything.

 

"Probably."  One red rimmed eye cracked open to glare at him.  "I grabbed you.  I didn’t grab him.  Sorry."

 

"I’m not complaining," said Starsky.

 

Hutch suddenly jolted, as if hit hard by something.  He pushed himself to his feet.

 

"What?" asked Starsky.

 

"Everyone else," said Hutch.  "They’re all inside, breathing that stuff in.  We’ve got to warn them."  He sagged heavily against the door.  "Come on."  He reached down and took a fistful of Starsky’s hair, trying to pull him to his feet.

 

"Ow!"  The pain cleared some of the fog from Starsky’s brain.  "Wait, wait.  It wasn’t bad before.  Why wasn’t it bad before?"

 

"Uh..."  Hutch let go of Starsky’s hair and bent down to grab the back of his shirt.  He staggered and steadied himself with the doorknob.  "Carbon, um, monoxide.  It’s heaby.  I mean, heavy.  They’re on the top floor."

 

"And everyone had windows open."  Starsky levered himself to his feet before Hutch could pull his hair again.  "They’re okay."

 

"That’s good," said Hutch, his hand still resting on the doorknob.

 

"Why?" asked Starsky.

 

"Because I locked us out."

 

Starsky blinked at the solid metal fire door.  "Oh," he said.

 

*

Chapter Eight

 

Hutch leaned back against the door and looked down the alley.  He could see the chain link fence and the street beyond, packed with what seemed to be an increasing number of cars and trucks.  He rolled his head to the side and looked the other way.  In that direction was a longer stretch of alley, widening into a double lane where delivery trucks would pull into the back.

 

He couldn’t see around the corner of the building, but if he remembered correctly...

 

"Starsk."  Hutch prodded Starsky’s shoulder.

 

Starsky was staring at the passing cars with the kind of expression you might expect to find on a cottontail bunny in the center lane of the highway, facing down a Mac Truck.  Abe’s rubber gloves were tucked into his back pocket.  Several of the fingers were blackened and partially melted.

 

"Starsk," said Hutch, again.

 

Starsky’s head turned toward him.  "Yeah?"

 

"Isn’t there a fire escape over there?"

 

Starsky gaze sharpened.  "Yeah!"  He hoisted himself up over the edge of the stairwell into the lane.  "Let’s get back inside.  Quick!"

 

Hutch followed him.  Just as he left the stairwell, there was a screeching noise on the road behind him.  Hutch froze.

 

Starsky whipped around and stared behind him.  "Oh, shit," he said.  "They’ve spotted us."

 

Panic thickened the air around Hutch, as he turned and looked.  Cars were facing into the entrance of the alley, their headlights gleaming malevolently.

 

The moment stretched out unbearably, and then abruptly snapped.  "Run!" shouted Hutch.

 

They charged down the alley, away from the cars, only to see a tow truck turn off the road ahead and come straight toward them.  Hutch skidded to the side, around the corner of the building.  He looked up and saw the fire escape, hanging over his head.  A ladder was attached to the bottom flight of steps, but it had been folded up, out of reach.

 

As Hutch jumped for the ladder, he heard Starsky shout.

 

"HEY!"

 

His hands closed over the bottom rung, and the ladder swung down, dropping him back onto the ground.  Through rungs of the ladder, Hutch could see Starsky standing in the middle of the lane.

 

"Back off!" shouted Starsky, pointing at the tow truck.

 

It stopped short, tires squealing.

 

Hutch scrambled up the ladder onto the first landing, and then turned on his knees to look back down at Starsky.  "Come on!"

 

The tow truck vibrated, uncertainly.  Its hook swung from side to side.

 

And then, suddenly, Hutch heard the sound of metal bending and tearing.

 

Starsky swung around, his eyes wide.  Hutch couldn’t see around the edge of the building, but from the sound of things, he guessed that a car had smashed through the fence.  And from the sound of something huge scraping down the length of the brick walls, he had to assume the car was dragging the fence with it.

 

"Starsky!" shouted Hutch.  "Grab the ladder!"

 

The tow truck revved its engine, wheels spinning in place.  A cloud of smoke rose around it, and Hutch smelled burning rubber.

 

As Starsky jumped for the ladder, the tow truck charged.

 

Hutch reached for him.  His hand closed over Starsky’s just as the tow truck slammed into the bottom of the ladder, snapping it loose on one side.

 

The ladder twisted and popped up, a broken rung narrowly missing Hutch’s face.  He yanked his head back and felt Starsky’s fingers slip out of his grasp.

 

"Huuutch!"  Starsky swung wildly out over the alley, clinging to the broken ladder.

 

Hutch scrambled forward.  The tow truck reversed down the alley, no doubt intending to take a second run at them.

 

Then a Range Rover bounced into view, turning sharply to hit the bottom of the ladder.  It came loose.

 

Hutch lunged just as the ladder dropped, both of his hands closing over Starsky’s right wrist.  A fraction of a second later, he had Starsky’s full weight in his hands, one hundred and seventy pounds pulling him off the fire escape and into open air.  Hutch kicked frantically, and felt his foot lodge in the grating of the landing.

 

His precipitous slide halted.  Hutch kicked again and managed to jam his other foot into the railing.  His shoulders were burning, but he had a firm grip on Starsky.

 

Their eyes met.  Starsky’s face was white.

 

"I can’t pull you up," said Hutch, breathless.

 

Starsky nodded, barely moving his head.  He reached up and grabbed Hutch’s arm with his left hand.  Hutch closed his eyes, and forced himself to let go of Starsky’s wrist.  Starsky then used that hand to seize the collar of Hutch’s shirt.

 

Hutch felt the tendons in the back of his legs stretch and strain.  His toes were jammed into the fire escape, and that was all that was keeping them both from plummeting to the concrete below.

 

He could see the roof of the tow truck as it and the Range Rover circled beneath.  They looked frustrated.  Like sharks that had been deprived of prey.

 

And, ridiculously, his underwear was riding up into the crack of his ass.

 

Then Starsky grabbed the edge of the stairs, and his weight vanished.  Hutch seized the back of his jacket and pulled.  He heard a seam rip as Starsky squirmed up over the edge and onto the first landing.

 

They collapsed in a heap together.

 

Hutch stared up at the patch of blue sky visible between the buildings.  His head was pounding and he felt sicker than he had after he’d breathed in the carbon monoxide gas.  Starsky’s arm was across his chest.

 

After a few minutes, he felt Starsky shift position.

 

Hutch turned to look at him.  Their faces were only an inch apart.

 

Starsky grinned.  "Bastards can’t kill us.”

 

Hutch nodded.  Then he blinked tears out of his eyes, because moving his head hurt.

 

Starsky’s grin widened and he pushed himself up, clinging to the railing.  "Do you hear that?" he shouted down at the circling cars.  "You can’t touch us!  I’m gonna own you.  Every last one of you!"

 

The Range Rover’s horn blared defiantly.

 

*

 

The window was locked.  Hutch wrapped his jacket around his arm and smashed it, clearing out the glass before they climbed through.

 

"Wouldn’t it be terrific," said Starsky, "if I’ve managed to kill the power to the basement?  Then the furnace would be dead, and everyone upstairs could sit tight, nice and safe."

 

Hutch found one of the exhaust vents.  He stuck his hand up to it and felt warm air.  "Sorry, buddy.  Let’s stay near the windows."

 

Starsky groaned.  "Tell me I at least turned off the power on this floor?"

 

Hutch looked around.  They were on the second floor, behind the cafeteria.  The Armory was around the corner.  "Only one way to find out," he said.  Pushing open an office door, he found the light switch.

 

"You’ve got the gloves," said Hutch, pointing at it.  "Why don’t you do the honors?"

 

Starsky took a deep breath and reached for the switch.

 

Hutch braced himself for the now-familiar crackle of electricity.

 

Nothing happened.

 

Starsky flipped the switch up and down.

 

Nothing.

 

Hutch reached over and tried it with his bare hands.

 

Still nothing.

 

Starsky grinned.  "I did it!"

 

"Hallelujah," said Hutch.  "All we need now are the keys to the weapons lockers."

 

"The chief will have a set of those," said Starsky.  "Assuming we can get them off him."

 

"I’m sure once we explain to everyone that staying in this building is slowly killing them, they’ll see things in a different light."

 

They rested for a moment on the fire escape, both of them breathing heavily.

 

"I feel rotten," said Starsky, after a moment.

 

"You smell rotten, too," said Hutch.  His legs felt heavy and his face felt numb.  He rubbed his cheeks, and hoped there wouldn’t be any long term effects from being exposed to the gas.

 

"Yeah well, you’re no rose yourself."  Starsky tried to comb some of the drying vomit out of his hair with his fingers.  "I want a shower," he said, shaking his fingers out over the alley.

 

"A shower," repeated Hutch dreamily.  "And after that a good hot breakfast.  Pancakes with blueberries and whipped cream, and lots of syrup."  His mouth was watering by the time he finished.

 

"With sausages on the side," said Starsky.  "And bacon.  And fried potatoes.  And biscuits in chicken gravy."

 

Hutch frowned at him.  "On top of your pancakes?" he asked.

 

"Why not?" asked Starsky.  "As long as I’m dreaming, I might as well dream big."

 

"This Apocalypse may be the best thing that ever happened to your arteries," said Hutch.  Wearily, he stood up.  "I think it’s your turn to break a window."

 

On the third floor, the hallway switches were already off.

 

"Abe must have been here," said Starsky.  Without hesitation he reached for the lights.

 

Florescent ceiling lights crackled on, the closest ones first, followed by the ones further down the hall.

 

Starsky had just enough time to say, "Aw, damn," before the lights began to explode.

 

Glass rained down on their heads as they scrambled back out onto the fire escape.

 

"Okay," said Starsky after a moment.  "The power’s still on for that floor."

 

"No kidding," said Hutch.

 

Starsky leaned over the railing and shook his head, trying to dislodge the glass trapped in his hair.  Several shards fell onto the cars below.  Hutch reached over and pulled a particularly long piece out of his collar.  He threw it at the Range Rover, which didn’t seem to notice.

 

"Well, just one more floor," said Starsky.  "Let’s see if we’ve cut the power to it."

 

Starsky broke the last window.  As they climbed through, they were greeted by a woman’s shocked scream.

 

*

 

 

Outraged, Maggie waved her hands at the two of them.  "Climbing around the outsides of buildings!  If you wanted to be let in, you could have knocked.  You almost gave me heart failure!"

 

Starsky let her rant.  The truth was, they probably deserved it.

 

But what other opportunity would he ever have to go smashing windows in Parker Center?  And all for a good cause?

 

Speaking of which...  "Where’s Dobey?" asked Starsky.

 

Hutch moved Maggie to the side and opened a door.  "Captain?"

 

"What’s going on?" demanded Dobey, from the far end of the hall.  "Starsky, Hutchinson, what the hell have you been doing?"  He walked up to them and stopped, wrinkling his nose.  "Have you been rolling in garbage?"

 

"We’ve got to get everyone out of this place," said Hutch, urgently.

 

"In case you haven’t noticed," began Dobey, irritably.

 

"No, you’ve got to listen," interrupted Starsky.  "The furnace is on and it’s pumping carbon monoxide into the building.  We’re all being poisoned!"

 

Dobey rubbed a large hand over his mouth.  "You’re sure?"

 

"Of course we’re sure!" snapped Hutch.  "We were just down there.  That thing almost killed Starsky."

 

"And Hutch," said Starsky.  "It almost killed Hutch, too."

 

"And now we’re standing here, breathing in more of it!"

 

"Right," said Dobey.  Yanking open the nearest door, he bellowed, "Everyone up to the roof.  Now!"

 

*

 

 

Suppressing a desire to hold his breath, even on the top floor with the windows open, Hutch knocked on the chief’s door.

 

"Come in," said the chief, pleasantly.

 

Hutch opened the door.  The chief was sitting at his desk, still holding his gun.

 

"Sir," said Hutch, "there’s carbon monoxide leaking into the building.  We need to move everyone up onto the roof.  That includes you."

 

"Impossible," said the chief, still smiling.

 

"I don’t think you understand."  Hutch moved forward until he was standing in front of the chief’s desk.  "Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas.  If you stay here, you’ll get sick.  Eventually, you’ll die."

 

The chief shook his head, with an air of paternal tolerance.  "I’m waiting for a phone call," he said.  "The mayor will be declaring a State of Emergency."

 

Hutch, his nerves already well frayed by the events of the day, lost his temper.  "The mayor’s dead!  He was using a battery powered dildo on his girlfriend and it killed them both!"

 

The chief’s expression transformed with shocking suddenness.  He lunged to his feet, the sudden movement startling Hutch.  "I will not have such language in my office.  Get out!"

 

"I’m sorry," said Hutch.

 

"Leave," snapped the chief, furiously.  "Now!"

 

"Wait," said Hutch, desperately.  "We need the keys to the weapons lockers."

 

"Out!" bellowed the chief, pointing at the door with his gun.

 

Hutch left.

 

Closing the door he leaned against it and rubbed his face with both hands.

 

"Well?" said Starsky.  "How did it go?"

 

Hutch lowered his hands and looked at Starsky.  "I really—"

 

A single shot went off behind him, on the other side of the door.  Hutch jumped as the sound jolted through him. 

 

"—screwed up," he finished.

 

Starsky’s eyes were wide.  "Boy, I think you sure did."

 

"What was that!" bellowed Dobey, charging back into the hall from the stairwell, where he’d been ushering people up onto the roof.

 

Hutch backed away from the office door.  "It came from the chief’s office."

 

Starsky was staring at the door as if he thought it might jump out and bite him at any moment.

 

Dobey pushed past them both and yanked the door open.  He sagged, his shoulders drooping.

 

Starsky and Hutch peered around him.  The chief’s gun was still in his hand, but he was now slumped forward over his desk and there wasn’t much of his head left.  A spreading pool of blood dripped down over the front of the desk, onto the floor.

 

Hutch swallowed hard.

 

"What in the ever-loving Hell did you say to him, Hutchinson?" growled Dobey.

 

"I asked him to come up to the roof," said Hutch.  "I tried to explain about the gas, and when he said he was waiting for a phone call from the mayor, I reminded him that the mayor was dead."  He reached up and twisted his fingers into his hair.  "I didn’t mean he should kill himself!"

 

Starsky took Hutch’s hand, pulling it away from his head.  "C’mon, babe.  You’ve already lost some hair today.  You don’t need to lose any more."

 

"I didn’t mean for him to kill himself," said Hutch, again.

 

"Well, he’s done it," said Dobey, walking into the room.  Taking the chief’s jacket off the coat stand by the door, he draped it over the chief, hiding the remains of his head.  Then he leaned down and unhooked the ring of keys from the chief’s belt.  "We’ll need these."

 

*

 

There were twenty-five survivors in total.  Hutch was disheartened to see how few they were, even taking into consideration that Parker Center would have been down to a skeleton staff by midnight, with most of the officers out on the road.  The survivors collected in small groups, talking in hushed voices and glancing around nervously.

 

Hutch imagined they were looking at him with judgment in their eyes.  He was, after all, the man who’d driven Chief Donner to suicide.

 

"How long can that furnace keep going?" asked Starsky.

 

"The hydroelectric station down at the reservoir generates most of the electricity for this town," said Hutch.  "Water turns the turbines.  So long as they keep working...  weeks, months, even years."

 

"So this building’s just going to keep filling up with gas."  Starsky kicked the tarpaper on the roof, scowling.

 

"So?" asked Adams.  "The plan’s still the same.  We wait for the cars to run out of gas, and then we take the fire escape down the outside of the building."

 

"But this is Parker Center," protested Starsky.  "How can we let these dumb machines take it away from us?"

 

Adams regarded him suspiciously.  "What were you doing in the basement, anyway?"

 

"While you were playing cards," said Starsky proudly.  "I was turning off the electricity."

 

Several people regarded him with interest.

 

Hutch turned to address them.  "Where are you all going to go, after those cars run out of gas?"

 

"Home," said a young woman with smudged makeup.

 

"Yeah, home," said a patrolman, next to her.  "I want to check on my wife."  Hutch recognized him as Villeneuve, recently married.

 

"I think I’ll pick up some supplies," said Adams.  "It might be awhile before the National Guard shows up, if they ever do."

 

"Get some of those big water cooler refills," said Maggie.  Several of the people around her nodded.

 

"How many of you have central heating?" asked Hutch.

 

"Oh, no," said Dobey, catching on immediately.

 

A man in a suit said, "What?"

 

"The furnace in this building can’t be the only one trying to poison the air.  The others are probably doing it, too," said Hutch.  "By tonight there won’t be very many livable buildings left in this city.  And there’ll be a hell of a lot of dead people."

 

"Edith and the kids," said Dobey quietly.

 

"I’ve got to warn my wife," said Villeneuve, turning as if to leave immediately.

 

Starsky stepped between him and the door.  "Even if you could get past the cars, what are you going to do?  Walk?  It could take days just to get across town."

 

"Starsky, you said you could control the cars," said Dobey.  "Is that true?"

 

"I’ve seen him do it," said Hutch.  "He’s great with them."

 

"We’ve just got to kill that garbage truck," said Starsky.  "Once that thing’s destroyed, they won’t have a leader, and we can step in and take over."

 

"What about that load of dynamite you guys brought in?" asked Adams.  "Isn’t that still in the Evidence Room?"

 

"What?" asked Hutch, shocked.  Adams couldn’t possibly mean the same load of dynamite they’d taken off the elderly couple back in September.

 

"That stuff was so old it was sweating," exclaimed Starsky.  "What do you mean it’s still in the Evidence Room?"

 

"Don’t ask me.  I’m only a bylaw officer," said Adams defensively.  "Ask him!"  He pointed at a thin man with thick glasses.

 

Hutch recognized the man as Rogers, one of the Evidence Room clerks.

 

Rogers pushed his glasses up and looked as if he’d very much like to disappear through the floor, if only the room below wasn’t filling up with poison gas.  "We can’t just toss dynamite into the trash.  There’s procedures.  And forms!"

 

"And meanwhile," said Hutch, "it's been sitting in our Evidence Room, primed to explode at any moment!"

 

"Yeah, well, you shouldn’t talk," said Rogers, scowling.  "Your captain signed a load of cocaine out for demonstration purposes and then forgot it in his unlocked desk drawer for a month!"

 

"Hey!" protested Dobey.

 

"Wait," said Starsky.  "Do you know what this means?"

 

"We’re damned lucky this whole building hasn’t blown sky high?"  Hutch glared at Rogers.

 

"No," said Starsky.  "It means we’ve got dynamite."  He grinned at the assembled crowd.  "We can blow that garbage truck right back to hell!"

 

*

Chapter Nine

           

"Oh, man, this stuff is nasty," said Starsky, looking into the stained cardboard box, with its sagging sides and rusted staples.

 

Hutch leaned over to peer at the dynamite inside the box.  He grimaced.  "We can’t carry it in that box.  You’ll have to put it in something else."

 

"Me!"  Starsky stared at him.

 

"Well, sure," said Hutch.  "You’re the one with the rubber gloves.  I don’t want to get—"  He paused.  "Stuff.  All over my hands."

 

Starsky yanked the gloves out of his back pocket and held them out to Hutch.  "Here you go!"

 

"No, no, that’s okay," said Hutch, backing away.  "I’ll, uh, go find us a bag or something to carry them in."  He turned and his eye landed on a tattered denim duffle bag.  "Like this!"

 

Hutch upended it, and several brick sized bundles of dried grass landed on the floor.

 

"Wow," said Starsky.  "That’s a lot of pot."

 

"Good thing we’re pure of heart and deed," said Hutch.  "Otherwise we might be tempted to throw an End of the World party."

 

"Yeah," said Starsky, still looking at the marijuana on the floor.  "Good thing."  He didn’t sound convinced.

 

Hutch shook the last dusty bits out of the bag, and held it open.  "You can start putting them in, any time."

 

Starsky sighed and pulled on his gloves.  He wiggled a bare index finger and said, "I just want to point out that these things are not half as protective as they were before."

 

"Get on with it," said Hutch.

 

Starsky gingerly picked up one stick of dynamite and placed it in the duffle bag.

 

"Don’t drop it in!" snapped Hutch.

 

"I didn’t!" protested Starsky.  He picked up another and very carefully placed it next to the other.

 

"Don’t jostle them around like that!" exclaimed Hutch.

 

"I’m not!"  A third stick joined the first two in the duffle bag.

 

Hutch winced.  "Are you trying to blow us up?"

 

Starsky stripped off his gloves and threw them on the floor.  "Give me the damn bag!"

 

"Good idea!" said Hutch.  He gave Starsky the duffle bag and retrieved the gloves.

 

Just as Hutch reached for the next stick, Starsky shouted, "Careful!"

 

Hutch jumped, and turned to glare at him.  "I haven’t even touched it yet!"

 

Starsky smirked.  "Which is why I need to tell you to be careful now, instead of after you blow us all up."

 

Hutch sighed.  Then he tried counting to ten.  By eight it occurred to him that Starsky might possibly have a point.  "Okay," he said.  "Why don’t we just agree not to say anything?"

 

"Right," said Starsky.  "Because we wouldn’t want to make anyone nervous."

 

"Right."  Holding his breath, Hutch transferred the next stick to the bag.

 

By the time the thirty-sixth, and final, stick had been placed in the bag, Starsky was holding it out at arms length with his eyes closed and his teeth gritted.

 

"That’s it," said Hutch.

 

Starsky first pried one eye open, and then the other.  He cautiously inspected his cargo.

 

"Hey," he said, sounding pleasantly surprised.  "No boom."  He took another look.  “But weren’t there supposed to be fifty sticks of this stuff?”

 

“There were never fifty sticks,” said Hutch.

 

“But Henny said...”

 

Hutch took the bag from Starsky.  “He miscounted.”

 

“I hope so,” said Starsky.  “Because it’s either that or Sarah’s got the other fourteen sticks stashed in her knitting bag.”

 

*

 

They arrived back on the roof just as Dobey was bringing up a load of shotguns.  Other people were stacking boxes of ammunition near the door.  Adams had kitted himself out in full riot gear.

 

Starsky stared at him.  "The gloves I can see," he said.  "But how can you move in all the rest of that?"

 

"I’ve always wanted to try it," said Adams, removing his helmet.  "Either everything’s going to return to the way it was, which means I’m back to ticketing your car every second Wednesday, or everything is going to stay the way it is now.  Whichever happens, this could be my only chance to pretend I’m a hero."

 

Hutch opened one of the boxes of ammunition.  "You should put some extra rounds in your pocket," he told Starsky.

 

"Clips," corrected Starsky.  "My baby uses clips.  You’re the one walking around with an antique."

 

Hutch cracked the back of his revolver and began reloading.  "You should count yourself lucky your pistol isn’t so advanced it uses batteries."

 

Starsky shuddered at the idea.  He placed the duffle bag carefully out of the way and joined the others in arming himself.

 

When he was done, he walked across the roof to the front of the building.  Placing his shotgun on the concrete barrier, he leaned over it and looked down.

 

The cars still circled the building, like a child’s fantasy of a race track in the middle of the city.  But at the outside edge of the pack, there were cars that had stopped moving.  Out of gas, they’d been shoved up against the buildings and abandoned.

 

In the middle of them all was the garbage truck.

 

Hutch joined Starsky.  "I wonder if we could hit it from here," he said, thoughtfully.

 

Starsky mimed lighting a stick of dynamite and tossing it over the edge.  "I wonder what the odds would be of hitting that truck?"

 

"Not very good," said Hutch.

 

"Probably not," agreed Starsky.  He glanced down at his shotgun.  "On the other hand..."

 

"If we shot out its tires," said Hutch.

 

"Then we could put the dynamite anywhere we like."  Starsky picked up his shotgun and settled it on his shoulder.  "Let’s go!"

 

*

 

Parker Center’s fire escapes weren’t designed to handle large numbers of people at one time.  Also, Starsky didn’t want to take the chance of having the operation turn into an all out war between the survivors and the cars.  "We want them on our side," he said.

 

"We’ll take out the garbage truck ourselves," said Hutch.  "Then the rest of you can come down one at a time, and Starsky will match you up with a car."

 

Some of the survivors looked dubious about that idea, but Adams stepped forward.  "I’m coming with you," he said.  "I’m not afraid of a bunch of machines."

 

The man in the prisoner’s jumpsuit shook his head.  "You’d never get me inside one of those killers."

 

"Wait a minute," said Starsky.  "Did any of the black and whites actually kill anyone?"

 

"One of them broke my foot," said a patrolman.  His ankle was heavily bandaged and he was using his rifle as a crutch.

 

"Yeah," said another.  "I got slammed up against the wall.  I could have been killed easy!"

 

"Sure, you could have been killed," said Starsky.  "But you weren’t!"

 

Blank stares greeted his words.

 

"C’mon guys," said Starsky.  "It would have been easy for those cars to kill you.  But they didn’t.  Which means they probably won’t, unless you provoke them.  Our black and whites are good cars.  They’re just running a bit wild right now."

 

"And that garbage truck’s a bad influence on them," added Hutch.  "Which is why we’re going to take it down.  Let’s go, Starsky."

 

"Yeah."  Starsky glanced back at the assembled crowd.  "Look, anyone who wants their car back can meet me down at street level after we’ve killed the garbage truck."

 

"I’ve always wanted to drive a black and white," said Adams, grinning.

 

*

 

Starsky hung over the railing of the fire escape, trying to see the road.  The broken ladder lay across the alley below him.  "Hey, you bastard!  Where are you?" he bellowed.

 

Hutch sat on the stairs with the duffle bag full of dyn