The VR, July 19th 2003, 3:14 p.m. CST

So this is it, Brad Adair thought, staring up at the shuddering purple sky of Virtual Reality with a gaze already starting to glaze over: I'm going to die. Here. Now. Without even a chance to say goodbye…

The Shrike virus had hit him like a Mac truck, crashing through his avatar and into the RSI chip that enabled his VR manifestation, and from there into his brain where his body lay on a VR couch in the Knight Foundation's Seattle compound. He couldn't feel his flesh and blood in VR's dreamlike thrall, but he was pretty sure that it had stopped his breathing, and quite possibly his heart as well.

Only seconds left, then. His RSI chip began to count them dispassionately down. He didn't want it to end like this — but he'd chosen this death to save KITT from the same fate, and every piece of him, from balls to bones, was completely fine with that.

Speaking of… a slender arm clad in gleaming red, humming with far more latent power than any human avatar, slipped under his shoulders and half-lifted him from the cold cracked pavement onto which he'd been thrown. Somewhere nearby he could hear Shawn yelling for Joan to pull them the hell out, but he only half-heard what she was saying: all his attention was devoted to the face leaning over him, sculpted as if from flawless snow under its sleek spikes of short ebony hair, its thin lips a proud line of pale emerald whose contours Brad had personally sculpted.

He saw what I did. Brad had to smile ruefully at that. But he doesn't know —

"Why?" KITT demanded. He was down on one knee, his back turned to the incoming second wave of Shrike incursions, completely focussed on Brad's destabilizing format. It was only one word, but they knew each other well enough after almost thirteen months of close professional association and late-night friendly debates that it conveyed a weight of dismay, outrage, and fear far out of proportion to its size. Somewhere in the line of battle his simulation of wrap-around mirrored black glasses had been torn off, and his eyes — sclera of obsidian, irises of backlit ruby, pupils of darkest night — were fixed on Brad's face, demanding answers to the end.

And what, really, did he have now to lose? At least he could be remembered for what was real. At least at the end, he could permit himself the luxury of the truth.

Each word cost a significant portion of his remaining energy. "Listen, KITT… I had to do it…"

Even with only seconds left, the secret he had so carefully hidden for so long refused to yield itself up so easily.

The Knight Foundation Copellia Compound, Seattle, Washington, USA, June 14th 2002, 9:23 a.m.

Russell Maddock, who'd been taking them both deeper into the Compound's inner workings than Brad, R&D programmer though he'd formerly been, had ever gone before, shook his head and grimaced. "You haven't actually met him yet. Believe me, that might be more than enough to change your mind."

Brad grinned. "Mister Maddock, after seeing those programming schematics he'd have to be the Devil incarnate to make me say 'no' to this project. A Gestalt like that comes along once in a lifetime, if ever."

"Be careful what you wish for…" the CEO muttered, and swiped his keycard over the third set of pass-protected doors they'd encountered thus far.

As the doors opened, Brad became aware of sounds from the end of the long hallway they were just entering: beyond a pair of swinging doors voices were clearly being raised, and not in joyful melody either. It sounded like a savage argument was taking place, and as they strode briskly up the hall — Maddock now leading the way with a speed that suggested he felt he really should be intervening in the shouting match — Brad could make out specific words.

First, an English accent, male: "… got to be crazy! That's it— you're completely off your nut! If I had a sonic screwdriver and a big enough sledge hammer, by God I'd —"

Then a German accent, female: "For God's sake, calm down, both of you! Mister Maddock will be here any —"

And then an East Coast accent, unmistakably male, ridiculously Bostonian and over-the-top snide: "Excuse me, but my 'nut' is bigger than all of yours combined — and if you so much as lay a hand on my paint job I'll shut this whole thing down faster than a —"

English, furiously aggrieved: "Just take the damned code, you miserable, jacked-up excuse for a —"

Maddock put on a sprint and burst through the doors, with Brad jogging close behind. The sight that greeted their eyes could have been a painting by Jean Joseph Weerts: three people in lab coats, two men and one woman, grouped around the long and brilliantly scarlet form of the Knight Industries Four Thousand in various attitudes of fury, appeal, and cross-armed skepticism. The man with the English accent, who was pretty in an almost feminine way and looked like he was about to start tearing out his curly blond hair out in clumps, finished his sentence savagely: "— cracked-out scrap-heap bastard!"

"Oh yes," the car retorted sardonically, "if reasoned appeals won't influence me, insults will certainly be much more likely to —"

"What," Maddock cried, "the hell is going on here?"

The Englishman spun on his heel to face Maddock, pointing a shaking forefinger at the car and spitting: "This… thing… is refusing to permit access to its CPU for a regularly scheduled maintenance code installation! Are you in the habit of letting your computers dictate when they can be serviced?"

"He is when that computer is me," the car announced haughtily, which earned him a glare from both the Englishman and from Maddock. "And with all due respect — namely, none whatsoever — you're not one quarter the programmer Jaina was on her worst day. You've missed several holes in the code that she no doubt meant to amend before applying it to my process matrix."

"Well, Ms. Sawarsa is dead," the Englishman ground out between clenched teeth, "and I am now in charge of your —"

Brad held up his hand. "Actually, you're not." He caught the woman's eye and nodded toward a computer station in front of the car's pointed nose where code in the Knight Industries proprietary language was frozen mid-segment. "May I…?"

She nodded, looking relieved at his interruption, and he hastened over to the station, dropping into the ergonomic chair in front of it. "Is this the code you're referring to?"

"Yes," both man and machine responded. As Brad began to scroll rapidly through the field of characters, his chip-enhanced brain processing it at greater than human maximum speed, the Englishman continued: "But it can't be trusted to read the label on a soup can, much less code of that sophistication. I went over those segments last night, and everything looks perfectly —"

"Actually," Brad interjected again, frowning fractionally at the screen, "he's absolutely right."

After a small but significant pause the Englishman asked, too politely: "I beg your pardon?"

Brad pushed his chair back and to one side, to permit an unimpeded view of what he was pointing at on the monitor. "Here, here, here — and here — there are sequence disconnects. They're very subtle, but definitely there. I'm no expert on this robot's systems — yet — but I'd guess that if you tried to install that into his sensor transducer matrix, which is where it looks like it's meant to fit, you'd crash at least 36% of his sensor net and propagate process tachs through every related system. It wouldn't cripple him in the long term, but it would be sheer hell to uninstall and clean up from afterwards."

"Well, Maddock," the car remarked in the silence that followed this pronouncement, "it's nice to see that you've finally managed to find someone competent to oversee my care and maintenance. Would you prefer a bunch of red roses or a box of chocolates to celebrate your unprecedented success?"

Maddock spared only a narrow glance for the vehicle before nodding to the Englishman. "Mister Carlyle, would you join me in the hallway for a moment…?"

They departed, Maddock stiff-shouldered, Carlyle visibly fuming, leaving Brad behind with the two as-yet-unknown programmers and the car they were dedicated to servicing, which complimented him dryly: "Nicely done, Mister…?"

Brad rose from the chair and turned his full attention to the robot, smiling in spite of the tension that lingered in the room because a sense of alignment, of connection, had suddenly clicked into place with that slight change of tone. "Bradley Conner Adair. Mister Maddock has just approved me as your new Senior Programming Technician."

The AI's voice fell to a less confrontational register, and immediately became… not more attractive, because even in defiance it was extremely appealing, but certainly silkier. "Well, I must say it's a genuine pleasure to meet you, Mister Adair —"

"Please, call me Brad." Oh yes, he could definitely get used to that accent: something about it, and the general timbre of that artificial voice, did very pleasant things to his nervous system. "And I may call you…?"

"The Knight Industries Two Thousand. My close associates, however, call me KITT." He sounded overtly pleased now, and Brad was surprised, and a touch alarmed, to feel a lightening in his heart, a banishing of life-long tension that he hadn't realized was there until this machine's gratification had relieved it. "And I do believe this is going to be the start of a long and verysatisfying relationship…"