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

"… I'm sorry…" His voice was rapidly fading in his own ears and the world was constricting around him, his field of vision narrowing to the white mask of KITT's face, the face he had crafted with such care and love to be a fit vessel for the strongest, bravest, most paradoxically beautiful spirit he had ever known. The emotion in those sculpted features was rapidly phasing from horror to… what? He couldn't see anymore. He couldn't think.

So much he hadn't done. So much he hadn't said. If he'd dared — if he'd spoken —

"… so fucking sorry —"

It wouldn't have mattered — there had always been Shawn —

And now it was too late —

The VR, July 19th 2003, 3:10 p.m. CST

Thus far, this day had been one of the biggest clusterfucks Brad had ever had the profound displeasure to witness, much less actively participate in.

From the second he'd opened three uplinks and transferred himself, Shawn and KITT to the VR from the Cloister thirteen minutes minutes and eleven seconds previously, he'd been caught in a swirling vortex of running, shouting, fighting chaos: trying to keep up with the car and his driver's avatars and stay out of the worst of the combat while analyzing the streams of Shrike virus that filled the sky and flowed sinuously through the ruins of the VR's infrastructure, tracking those streams, and coding mirror shields against them on the fly. The three of them had a deceptively simple mandate — to get to one of the VR's Prime Nodes and implant an anti-Shrike propagation protocol, an assignment that was also being undertaken by sixteen other high-level teams from across the globe, including one that involved another Gestalt, the Italian AI known as Bella Sera. Under normal circumstances the Prime Nodes were well protected by firewalls, but Shrike had reportedly decimated those defences, which only left hordes of hijacked necrotized avatars, random electrical storms, and the shattered unstable geography of the VR itself to contend with.

Four of those teams had already disappeared from the mission network, all members crippled or killed by Shrike code incursions. And Brad had every expectation of seeing more get eliminated before this little adventure was done; in fact, he saw no reason to revise his initial estimate that only four teams would survive to reach their Prime Node targets. The statistical probability of the propagation protocol actually eradicating the VR's Shrike infection was impossible to accurately calculate, but if it had cracked 30% he would have been exceedingly surprised.

He was currently hunkered down behind a leaning section of wall while KITT and Shawn fended off another wave of murderous zombie avatars: mapping the local Shrike streams, charting the environmental instabilities that surrounded them in order to plot their next path of advance, and endlessly recalibrating the shields that deceived the Shrike code into believing that there were not, in fact, three uninfected avatars racing through the heart of the occupied territory — or trying to, since they seemed to get ambushed every ten virtual metres. Under normal circumstances KITT could have simply transferred them with a thought, or picked one of them up under each arm and soared into the sky, reshaping the VR's arbitrary reality with the power of his will — but the environment was so destabilized that Brad had advised against a power-bend of that magnitude, and besides, it would have been a huge red flag to the Shrike entity and would have brought much worse manifestations of its displeasure down upon their heads.

So here they were, stopped in their tracks again, and Brad was keeping a quarter of an eye on the high-speed blurs of Shawn and KITT tearing through the enemy avatars while trying not to outright destroy them and thus injure the innocent human beings still bound to them, and the rest of his attention on the high volume of mathematics and semiotics he had to process as quickly as possible. He was, therefore, not at all pleased when a ping in his left ear announced an incoming PM from one of the other teams — but he answered it anyway: "Make it quick!"

A tiny headshot of Doctor Camera, the program analyst from the Italian team, flashed into existence in the left-hand field of his virtual vision. "Mister Adair! We —" A burst of static on the audio and video feeds before she came back, looking more agitated than ever. "— Bella Sera!"

His hands continued to dance across the virtual light-fields in front of him, coding like mad. "You dropped out there, Doctor. Say a—"

"Bella Sera is gone!"

"What?" He couldn't afford to pause, but he scowled mightily. "You mean, she's down? What —"

"No!" Her dark eyes were full of distress. "She is gone! An annihilation event! Shrike code of this configuration —" A stream of new data flowed into Brian's awareness. "— came into contact with her, and destabilized her core matrix! She lasted four point three seconds after initial contact!"

Scanning the data, Brian went cold all over: he was looking at the configuration of Death itself. "Oh, Jesus…"

"You must keep this code away from KITT by any means necessary!"

"Gee, you think so?" It was a preoccupied mutter under his breath, below the mic's programmed threshold. He memorized the viral profile and shunted the data aside to make room for new workflow, saying out loud: "Got it! Thanks, Doctor Camera. Anything else I should know?"

"We are within two hundred virtual metres of Prime Node Six and will advise the network when implantation is complete."

"Understood." She had just stated the obvious, but Brad knew from experience what a comfort following procedure could be in the face of a loss of that magnitude. "We're working on one hundred and forty metres here. Will advise upon implantation. Adair out."

"Good luck," Camera said, and left him to seventeen separate streams of data processing — and a new terror, coiled in his belly like a serpent waiting to strike.

The VR, July 19th 2003, 3:13 p.m. CST

They'd made it another twenty-two virtual metres and were going at a dead run, faster than any unchipped avatar could follow, when a sub-node under the street beneath them erupted in a burst of outrushing static, sending destabilizing waves through the essential substance of the VR and changing the geography on all sides — and tearing apart the equations of Brad's mirror shields like a wave of razors going through paper screens.

"Oh hell!" He skidded to a halt, executing a 360 flash-scan; Shawn and KITT kept going for another 0.47 seconds before stopping and turning, impatient, but knowing that Brad was their eyes and ears under these circumstances. "Shields are down! We've gotta find a —"

From within a broken building forty virtual metres up the road, behind Shawn and KITT's current line of sight, a stream of Shrike code reared up and turned its blind head towards them, seething with corrupting energy. It swayed for a fraction of a second almost too small to be measured — and then launched itself towards them, singing a strangely beautiful song of wind through innumerable rotted scales.

The fear that had lurked in Brad's core for the past three minutes surged up to clench his heart with the agony of recognition, a fist of unbreakable ice. Death had come, and neither he nor Shawn were its target. This viral incursion was programmed to seek out AI in preference to human signatures and there was no time to cast a protective shield, but maybe — if he acted fast enough, if he didn't waver —

KITT was still looking at him, stepping forward with a scowl, opening his mouth to speak.

I'll never hear his voice again.

Brad leaped away from him toward the far edge of the road, crossing four metres in a stride — and establishing himself as an even more conspicuous and attractive target. He turned the full power of his overwhelming need on the AI-annihilating Shrike code, doing exactly what he'd ordered KITT not to do, bending this highly unstable reality with a roar of fierce defiance:

"Take me, you bastards!"

And because strong emotion could sometimes affect the very substance of the VR, especially when the wielder was a chipped programmer of exceptional skill and indomitable will, the Shrike wave swerved toward him — and struck, blasting him off his feet and seven metres down the broken road, his heart already stopped, his brain soon to follow.

Lying on the ground, he knew he was going to die. But seeing KITT leaning over him, picking him up, demanding to know why… he also knew that in the end, when it mattered, true love had finally conquered all.

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

— and then time stopped forever —

Northeast Baptist Hospital, August 3rd 2003, 6:24 a.m. CST

— or so he thought.


[The Knight Rider 2000 AU series of which this is a part can be found here: /series/26086]