The Mojave rippled like a silk sail in the August inferno, reflecting the silent overhead torrent of light and heat in dazzling waves off every rock and dune. It was a merciless place in the merciless month. The lizards kept to their shrubs and rocks, and the only signs of life were the perennial scurrying of ants on the ever-present anthills. Even the tough, miserly creosote bushes seemed to droop. It was not a day to make a hike, let alone a hard run. But Hutch, Starsky, and Maggie ran. They had no choice.

The ground they covered was an interminable sequence of dashing across open alluvial slopes, down into steep gullies, across sandy washes, hand-over-hand back up the rocky cliffs on the other side, then on across the next eroded slope. Their pursuers seemed to give up trying to follow them across the arroyos, and occasionally, when crossing one of the open slopes, the Land Rover would be visible down in the valley, paralleling them. When the Rover was in sight, they were in range of the rifles, and then there would be a mad dash across the baked, cracked, and stone-strewn strip to the next gully or outcropping, and cover.

Highballing behind Maggie across a particularly wide, open strip of ground to the next cover, Hutch finally dropped behind a jutting islet of stone in the eroded hillside, and looked back to see Starsky make a slide for the cover like an All-American coming in from third at the bottom of the ninth inning. But the puffs of dust around him were bullets, not baseballs. They were oversized, steel-jacketed things that could smash a rock or take off an arm with equal ease.

"Davey, come ON!" Maggie screamed by Hutch's ear, and then Starsky was down, kicking up dirt, rolling -- and safe, beside them. Hutch caught his out-flung arm and pulled him all the way into the meager shade, then slid his hand up to clasp the curly, overheated head.

Winded, Starsky didn't move, though his gasps shook his whole frame.

"Come on, Starsk," Hutch whispered, his mouth too parched to raise any voice. "Gotta keep movin'."

"I can't run anymore," Maggie groaned.

"Have to," Hutch said wearily. He shook his head. The pinprickles were there again, clustering around the edges of his vision like eager vultures, waiting. Even in the shade, the heat hung around him like a bearskin robe.

"I can't, I just can't," Maggie said, her face contorted with exhaustion. "We have to rest."

"Starsky, come on, buddy, at least sit up," Hutch urged, and after a moment, Starsky managed, but suffering was evident in his half-closed eyes. He was still feeling the effects of the poison. His eyes raised slowly, meeting Hutch's.

"We don't do something, Hutch, we bought it."

"What can we do?" Maggie said. "It's still a mile or two· to the mines. We're out of water, and we're out of steam." Her voice took on an edge of anger. "It must be a hundred and twenty out here. People just can't take this kind of heat. Ken. What are we going to do?!"

"I don't know," Hutch breathed, "let me think a minute." He took a deep drag of the bitter-hot air, then slid part way around the rock to peer down the slope. The Rover was still down there, turned so its two occupants could use the vehicle's roll bar to brace their rifles for a better aim. Their aim had been very good. Only luck and the extreme distance had kept the bullets from finding one of the targets on the scrambles across the open hillsides. It wouldn't be long, though, before the luck ran out.

"You see 'em?" Starsky wheezed.

"Still down there."

"You suppose they're like Terry was, Hutch?"

"Like Terry?" It was hard to think with the afternoon sun blasting into his eyes. "You mean programmed?"

"Uh-huh."

"Probably," Hutch guessed. "They don't seem to give up easily."

"Want to bet they don't think, either?"

Hutch crept back into the shadow of the rock. Starsky was propped against it and something dangerous had kindled in his look, a grim, trapped tiger expression.

"What do you have in mind?"

"You know we gotta fight 'em, Hutch, sooner or later. We can't, they have the rifles, but somehow, we're gonna have to take 'em on, do something to even the odds. Maybe we could get them to leave the jeep, come up on foot."

"How do you propose to get them to -- no, don't answer that. I don't like what you're thinking."

"How do you know what I'm thinking?" Starsky said, glancing up with blue-eyed innocence. "Been takin' lessons from Collandra?"

"No one is going to be bait for them, Starsky. It's suicide."

"It's the only chance we get."

"You're insane. You're completely insane!" Maggie yelled, grabbing at Hutch. "What in God's name am I doing here with you maniacs?! You'll get us all killed, we're going to die here, you and your damned hero complex --"

"Maggie --"

"We'll die here --"

"No!" Hutch seized her hands, which had begun to beat at him, and immobilized her. He felt dizzy and unstrung, himself. It was the heat. The heat. "We're going to make it, Maggie. We're going to stay alive. But we've got to think, Mag. Think, Maggie!"

She stopped struggling and slumped, sobbing, beating the soil angrily. Hutch moved automatically to comfort her, but she shrank from him in the little triangle of shade.

"Hutch, let her go," Starsky's voice shook. "She's got a right to freak out."

Nodding, Hutch straightened, took a few deep breaths, and pulled his mind back to their first problem.

"Whatever we're going to do, we'd better do it soon," he said. "Maggie isn't the only one on the verge of hysteria."

"Yeah, the heat does things to your brain. Look, I figure maybe we don't need to have someone be bait. Maybe if we sit tight here, they'll get impatient and come up after us."

"Sure, Starsky, and we'll just take potshots at them from this little rock until we run out of ammo and they come in for us. What we need to do is to find some way to flank them."

"Just like when we were in Binh Phu, eh?"

Hutch grinned slightly. "Just like in 'Nam."

"Okay. One of us has to get into one of the gullies and wait in ambush, right? And the other one has to make like a wounded partridge and draw their attention. You make a run for the gulley. I'll do the bird bit. With any luck, they'll come on up to 'finish me off,' and you'll get them in range before they know what's goin' down. And with a little extra luck, we'll have a ride back to civilization instead of another nature hike."

"I'll be the bait, Starsk. You're too shaky to go running around anymore."

"That's why I get to be the bait, partner. We're gonna need our steadiest shot, and with me on the sidelines, this'll be your big chance."

He was right, of course. When it came to a fight, Starsky's instincts had proven themselves. A sick man could make very convincing bait, but he couldn't be counted on to hit a moving target using a handgun at its outermost range. And if Starsky were also right about their pursuers being programmed assassins, they wouldn't be likely to be thinking creatively enough to finish off an injured target from long range. They would walk up to the target first. If. If, if, if...

"Hey? Mag?" Starsky leaned over her. "Come on, pull yourself together, kid, we need you. We got work to do."

Maggie had calmed somewhat, though her eyes were still enraged and frightened. She sat up and wrapped her arms around herself, hunching up fetally.

"Better?" Starsky asked. '

Lips pinched white, she nodded curtly.

"You go with Hutch, okay? You're our backup. If anything happens to Hutch, you have to take over. Understand? You do whatever you have to do to protect yourself."

Another tight nod.

Starsky rubbed his knuckles into his eyes. "Wish we had sunglasses," he sighed. "Or a nice cool ocean." He poked his head around the rock. A bullet pinged off it.

"Whoops! Still out there. Ready, Hutch?"

Hutch frowned at his partner. Giddy, frightened fantasies flashed through his head, but all he said was, "Ready."

Pulling his gun from his shoulder holster, Starsky gathered his legs under him.

"I'll start running and draw their fire. While I'm headin' for that rock over there, you and Maggie haul ass into the gully, okay? I'll try to ham it up so they don't even notice you've left cover here."

"Got it. Ah, Starsk?"

Their eyes met.

"Okay, Mom," Starsky said lightly, and gathered himself. "Okay... Go!"

He was on his feet, sprinting at a wild tilt for a low cluster of rocks farther down the slope. The air came alive with gunshots.

"Come on," Hutch said, pulling Maggie behind him and running across the short stretch of slope to the next wash. The lay of the land kept them out of sight of the valley most of the way, and by the rapid fire of the rifles, Starsky's act was riveting their attention. Hutch jumped into the shallow ravine, half-running down it, lost his footing and tumbled. He stopped with a shock, up against the side of a little ditch, and momentum slid him another ten feet across the concrete-rough erosion before he came to a halt.

"Ken!" Maggie picked her way down the ravine. Above them, rifle fire threw echoes off every surface.

Hutch sat up, gasping, and raised his stinging arm to eye level. His right forearm and palm were streaked with scrapes and embedded granules. His gun hand oozed blood. And the rifle cracks stopped. Distantly, an engine roared to life.

"They're coming," he breathed. He pushed up to his knees.

"You can't shoot with that hand," Maggie wailed.

"Got to be ready," Hutch said. He started to stumble back up the ravine, his footing precarious in the loose gravel scattered over the baked erosion. Maggie scrambled after him, dazed.

"You can't! We have to run, they're coming for us!"

Hutch spun and grabbed her arm with his good hand, giving her a violent shaking.

"Don't panic on me! We're going to see this through, Starsky's life depends on it. Now come on."

He lunged back up the hill, hearing her following, but didn't spare any more time for her. At the top of the ridge, he threw himself on the ground just behind the crest. It was a good position. If he craned his neck around the slight bend in the ridge, he could see into the valley, though the Rover was, for the moment, behind the cluster of little dunes at the foot of the slopes. He could hear the growl of its engine as it labored with the impossible terrain. Turning to look upslope, he spotted Starsky hunched behind a little hillock, not completely shielded by it. He really would make an inviting target. He could also get himself killed. But that was the risk all along.

Glancing down at his gun hand, Hutch winced. He picked out some of the larger chunks of gravel with his left hand, and dabbed the oozing blood against his shirt. Then Maggie captured his hand and began to uncurl his fingers. She draped a strip of yellow cotton, torn from her shirt, across the palm.

"I knew we'd be sorry leaving the first aid things behind," she said, tying the strip in place. "This'll be better than nothing. Whose gun has better range, yours or mine?"

"Mine."

"Okay." She reached to his shoulder holster, and drew his Magnum, wrapping his fingers around the butt carefully. "Got it?"

"Yuh. Thanks."

"Ken. I'm sorry I freaked out. Something in me -- I couldn't think straight -- "

"It's okay. Don't worry about it."

She nodded and laid down in the soil beside him, letting Hutch return full attention to the terrain. Below, the engine of the Rover had stopped. Presently, two figures appeared around the skirts of the dunes, keeping low, rifles ready. They paused there, where the dunes were stacked against the eastern slopes, and didn't seem inclined to start up the relatively open alluvial fan. It was time for Starsky to make his play. And he did.

Racing into the open, presumably headed for a shelf of uplifted rock, Starsky made a prime target of himself. And the rifles began to crack, three-fourths of the way to the cover, Starsky tumbled in mid-stride and sprawled. Hutch's heart leapt into his mouth. There was no way to tell whether that fall had been a masterful performance or the real thing. The rifles were still firing.

"Come on, Starsk, get up," Hutch murmured, pleading. "For God's sakes, at least move."

Starsky was utterly still.

"You're not trying for an Oscar, you jerk!" Hutch growled.

The figures in the valley rose carefully, standing still for several breath-held moments while Hutch expected them to take aim and shoot the prone target from their safe vantage. Here would tell whether they were pros, or more of somebody's unthinking killing machines. They were robots. They started up the slope, like rank amateurs, out in the open. Stupid, stupid. Thank God they were stupid.

"They must think you and I kept running," Maggie whispered.

Hutch nodded, and got a better grip on his gun, holding onto it with both hands. He was dizzy, and the sun was frying his fair head now that he'd doffed the hat. He tried to steady himself, find his center, be ready. If he could, he would have to shoot those people down without giving them a chance to raise their rifles again. Murder in self-defense. His stomach turned over. But he would take no chances with Starsky's life. If Starsky was alive. He hadn't moved a muscle from where he'd fallen, and Hutch couldn't tell if he was even breathing.

The silhouettes climbing the slope took on humanness as they approached. It was still too far to make out distinguishing features, but one of them was a tallish woman, the other a powerfully-built black man. People without a real past. Or a real future, Hutch thought, swallowing. He tried to blot that thought out. He couldn't afford doubt. They were killers. Machines. If he didn't stop them, they would cheerfully leave him, Starsky, and Maggie to bleach to bones on this hillside. These killers would stop only at death -- their victims', or their own. And they were not quite as stupid as he had hoped, because they stopped, surveying the situation, just at the edge of the effective range of a hand gun. And the big man lifted his rifle and leveled it right at Starsky.

"Starsky, move!" Hutch yelled, and ran out into the open as the shot was fired, his own gun braced and aimed. He let go with it in a quickly squeezed-off volley, and the killers dove for cover. Running forward to try to close up some of the distance, Hutch took advantage of the others' startlement. Then a bullet plucked at his pants leg, and he dove, rolling, for a handy outcropping. More bullets sent rock chips flying, but Hutch was safe for the moment. Reloading, he glanced back to where Starsky had been, but his partner was nowhere in sight.

"You blew it!" a familiar voice said, carrying softly across the slope. Something moved back to the left, and Starsky flashed a grin from the rock shelf protecting him.

"Yeah, sure did." Hutch smiled in relief. "Okay. let's move up. Cover me."

This was a tactic in which they were well-practiced, moving up, each in his turn. as the other fired and kept their opponents' heads down. With the rifles' advantage eliminated, it wasn't much different now than the gun battles in numerous back alleys and parking lots in L.A. Dangerous, but not impossible. And the assassins seemed to realize it. They began, rock by rock. to retreat.

"We can't let 'em get back to the Rover," Starsky called quietly.

"Right with you," Hutch said, and gathered himself. It took him a minute. The heat had drained his reserves. "Okay. Now!"

He rushed forward, not going for the next cover this time, but running to close the last distance, under Starsky's covering fire, and finish the duel at point-blank range. As long as Starsk kept their heads down...

Suddenly the heads and rifles came up, and Starsky wasn't firing, the cover gone -- and the rifles leveled squarely on Hutch. There was no time for careful aim, and he wasn't close enough anyway, but he sent a round at the heads, and saw one arm fly up, a rifle clatter into the rocks behind. Too late to dive for cover, Hutch flew straight at the other killer, spraying bullets, and something burned past his cheek, but he was running full out, and his luck held, he heard the rifle's hammer fall on an empty chamber. Barreling right up over the rocks, Hutch landed with both feet on the woman, kicking with desperate force. She swung the rifle at him, and he hit her with all his strength in the face. She flopped back against the rocks and lay still.

Wheezing, Hutch sank to his knees, too winded to move. Blood roared in his ears, and for a moment he had to fight to stay conscious. Sun stroke, heat stroke, he knew he was close. He couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs through the envelope of incandescence around him.

"Ken!"

Maggie's voice. Gulping in air, Hutch opened his eyes and blinked away the little stars behind them. They settled and went away. Pulling himself together, he checked the woman he'd hit. No pulse. A splash of blood painted the rock behind her head. The black man was a faceless heap jammed between two rocks. Hutch had no energy left to feel remorse or regret. He'd done what he'd had to do. It was finished.

"Ken!" Maggie shouted practically in his ear. He looked up at her dully, and she snatched at his arm. It was the scraped arm, and the sudden pain jarred him back to awareness. "Ken, Davey's hurt. Hurry!"

Starsky was huddled against the outcropping where Hutch had last seen him, but his hands were pressed tightly to his face, and blood and tears slid in streams down his cheeks and the side of his nose. Hutch knelt beside him, not sure where to touch him first, then reached for the wrists and carefully pried the hands away from the face. Starsky's eyes were pools of blood, and the rest of his face was speckled with tiny punctures. The wrists in Hutch's grasp trembled as though touching a hot wire.

"Hutch -- that you? Hutch, I'm hurt. I can't see it -- see anything --"

"Easy, now, I'm here. I can see it, it's okay. Hang on and let me have a look."

Peeling back an eyelid, Hutch tried to assess the damage. but could see nothing for the welling blood, which oozed up as fast as he tried to blot it away. Rock splinters. From the looks of the chips in Starsky's cheek and forehead, they hadn't hit him with much force.

"I don't think it's too bad," he said, trying to calm himself, and thus calm Starsky. "Probably the eyeball's just scratched up a bit."

" -- Can't see," Starsky grated.

"It's the blood, Starsk, just the blood. You'll be okay, we'll get you to a doc."

"Oh, Christ, Hutch, did you get 'em? You okay? I couldn't see. I couldn't cover you," he said, beginning to shake. Behind the blood and sunburn, his skin was going pasty.

Shock.

"It's over, we're home free. Come on, Starsk, lie down here for a few minutes and get your wind back while I do a little first aid, okay?"

Hutch eased him down, noticing the goosebumps on Starsky's arms.

"Maggie, there must be water in the Rover. We need it. Look for blankets or jackets, too. And see if you can find something to cover Starsky's eyes. We've got to keep the light and dust out until we can get him to a hospital."

She left, and Hutch sat down, pulling Starsky against him, but not raising his head onto his lap. Keep the head low. Shock. They couldn't go anywhere until they got Starsky out of shock.

"It's c-cold. That's crazy. A hunnerd twenty an' I'm cold -- "

Hutch peeled his jacket off and draped it across his partner's chest and shoulders, knowing it wouldn't do much good, but needing to do something. The sunlight blasted his bare arms like a welding torch.

"Try to rest, it'll pass in a few minutes, you're just a little shook," he assured. Starsky only shivered. Hutch tried a diversion. "Anyway, you should be proud of yourself. ·You went out trying to do the Dying Swan act, and almost succeeded in getting killed for real."

"Hey. If I'd l-let you d-do it, you'da got your ass shot off f-for sure."

"Not a chance. I always could run faster than you."

"Not f-fair. Your legs are longer. Anyway, I can outshoot you."

"Only when you're lucky."

"An' outdrive you."

"Who'd want to race that striped tomato?"

"An beat you at chess."

"Beginner's luck."

"An' outdrink you any night of the week."

"Doesn't count. You have ten years' experience on me."

" -- oh Hutch -- I'm scared." Starsky pressed his hands over his eyes again. "I don't want to be blind. I couldn't hack it --"

"Come on, partner, don't rub your eyes, let it be," Hutch soothed. He rested his good hand on Starsky's shoulder, moving around so that his shadow fell across his friend's face. "You'll be all right, we'll take care of you. It'll be okay."

"Jesus, it hurts --"

"When Maggie gets back with the water, I'll wash the blood out and it won't be as bad, all right?"

Starsky swallowed, visibly fighting pain. But the shock left very little with which to fight. He wrapped his arms around himself over Hutch's jacket, while his eyes leaked blood-dyed tears, and Hutch was struck with how stress, which aged most people, brought out a moving, child-like quality in his partner. Or maybe it only happened when he, Hutch, was there. It was trust, and barriers down. A plea for protection from the only person Starsky would probably ask it from. And there was so little to give, out here. No real help, and damned little comfort. Hutch moved his hand up to rest lightly on Starsky's forehead, smoothing the deep frown of suffering.

Scraping and the clunk of canteens knocking together announced Maggie's return. She knelt next to the men, saying nothing, only handing the canteens to Hutch and spreading a dark blue windbreaker over Starsky. Hutch gave his partner a small drink from a canteen, pacing it so he didn't choke or get a cramp. Then he splashed some of the warm liquid onto the torn bit of fabric that Maggie gave him. Hutch recognized it as a piece of the black man's shirt.

"Starsk, put your head back, I'm going to try to wipe some of the blood away, and rinse it out of your eyes. Hang onto something, I don't think I can do it without hurting you some."

"'Kay. Hey -- got a bullet for me to bite on?" he said shakily.

"Are you serious?"

"Naw. I'd chip a tooth."

"Want me to slug you and knock you out?"

"Are you serious? You'd break your hand. Go ahead. Just, Mag, cover your ears in case I yell something rancid."

While Hutch worked to clean the injuries, Starsky dug his fingers into Maggie's arms. Hutch was just about finished, folding a large blue bandana-hankie into a bandage when Starsky's fingers went slack and his head fell forward.

"Ken, I think he's fainted."

Hutch grimaced. "God knows it took him long enough." He remembered the unbelievable agony of getting a cinder behind the contact lenses he'd once worn during an undercover case; he could hardly imagine the pain of actual lacerations. But with most of the blood rinsed away, and the bleeding slowed to an ooze, the injuries didn't seem to go deeply into the eyes. With luck they were only on the surface, and would heal without complications. Hutch would be careful to keep the eyes cleaned and covered until they made it back to civilization. And with the Rover, that would only be a few hours.

Tying the bandana in place, Hutch finally sat up and accepted the canteen to satisfy his own raving thirst. And only then did he see the desolate look on Maggie's face.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"Everything. Hutch, those people were greenhorns. They didn't know what they were doing. They drove the Rover into the dunes. It's stuck, in up to the wheel wells in back, almost as bad in the front. That's why we heard them gunning the engine, earlier. You'd need a skyhook to get it out of there. We'll have to go on foot again. It's still about fifteen miles, yet. He might have made it with all of us healthy..."

She didn't finish. She didn't have to. They were not all healthy. They were none of them healthy, and Starsky was hurt. Hutch blinked upward into the sky, yellow-tinged bleached-out sky. There were no buzzards up there, or clouds, or any other sign, good or bad. Something inside him slumped, then. They'd beaten the human predators, only to find that the desert itself had been patiently waiting on the sidelines, waiting to claim them for its own.    

You must login () to review.