Title: Knights Errant
Rating: Is "cracktastic" a rating? Oh, all right. PG.
Word Count: 5300
Summary: "Technically, the project is code-named the Weir Industries 2000, but unfortunately it shortens to WITT and that just sounds silly."
Notes: Knight Rider fusion. I AM SO SORRY.
Just in case you have better things to do with your brain than remember plot details from 80s TV shows (though I imagine pretty much everyone remembers the car) -- Michael Knight, a.k.a. Michael Long, was shot in the face and presumed dead, but in reality was given plastic surgery, a new identity, and a high-tech experimental car with an AI in it, the Knight Industries 2000 or KITT. Which makes no sense, but, hey! Talking car.
The ceiling was white.
John blinked, and slowly dragged his eyes downwards, across pale blue walls, the color of ocean foam, to a window with fluttering gauzy curtains. Through it, he could glimpse treetops and a robins-egg sky.
His eyes were gritty, his mouth sticky, as if he'd been asleep a long time. His body ached, but didn't hurt, as he somehow felt it should. Propping himself up on his elbows, he got a bit of a head-rush, but no pain. He blinked the spots from his eyes and looked around a small, clean room with a bedside table, lamp and chair. It didn't quite invoke hospitals, but it wasn't a hotel room, either. A private convalescent-care facility, perhaps.
The door whispered softly inward, and John found one hand jerking instinctively towards his leg, reaching for a gun that wasn't there. A woman backed into the room, studying a clipboard and flipping pages in deep contemplation. She turned around and jumped when she saw him.
"Morning," John said with the best false cheer he could put on, offering her a lopsided smile.
To her credit, she smiled back easily. "Good morning, John. I'm Dr. Keller. You're a little ahead of schedule; we weren't expecting to see you awake so soon. Would you like something to eat?"
He hadn't realized he was hungry, but at the mention of food his stomach opened up into a yawning pit of need. "That'd be great, actually," he said, heartfelt, and then, acutely aware of his bare legs under the thin sheet: "I don't suppose I could get some, uh. Clothes?"
Keller smiled and nodded. "You'll find some in the bathroom that should fit you. I'll go notify Weir that you're awake and get some food for you."
"Weir?" he said, blankly, but the door had already clicked shut behind her.
He wobbled a little when he got out of bed. The skin on his arms and legs was soft and fishbelly-white under the curling hair, utterly lacking its usual tan, and for a moment he just stared at his own forearm as if it belonged to a stranger, trying to get a grasp on the chain of events that had led to waking up in this ... hospital? institution? facility? He remembered going out to the drug dealers' warehouse with Lorne and then -- nothing but fragments, fire and blood and someone screaming (god, was he the one screaming?), and a rushing darkness that filled the world.
On a slightly paranoid whim, he tried the door, but it wasn't locked. Not a prisoner, then. At least not the conventional kind. Embarrassingly aware of his undressed state, he peeked out the door at a blank hallway, with a few more doors and a closed window at the far end, showing another snatch of blue sky. No clues to this place's secrets, but at least it didn't look like some kind of prison.
Barefoot, still a little shaky, he padded to the room's other door, which led into a small and disappointingly prosaic bathroom. A cabinet held towels and unfamiliar clothes in his size: jeans, T-shirt, jacket. It felt eerily as if he'd stepped into someone else's life.
He studied himself in the mirror. The features looking back at him were his own, but he ran his finger down from the corner of his eye to his jaw, trying to decide if the skin had always been that smooth.
I wish I knew what was going on here.
He felt a little better after showering and getting dressed. More human, less like a mental patient. While he'd been in the shower, someone had made his bed and left a breakfast tray on the bedside table; the cup of coffee was still steaming, and there was even a folded newspaper. John automatically checked the date, and then did a little mental calculating -- assuming that it was a current paper, he'd been out of commission (one way or another) for just about a week.
Fire. Blood. Pain. Somewhere in his subconscious, alarm bells were ringing. He shouldn't be out of the hospital yet. He shouldn't be able to move yet.
But he was entirely ambulatory, and starving to death; hunger won over confusion for the moment. Whoever these people were, he had to admit they could cook -- he wolfed down the omelet and sausage, then munched on a piece of toast while he gazed out the window, down into a landscaped courtyard partially enclosed by another wing of this place.
A soft tap came at the door, and John looked over his shoulder, tensing. When it came again, he realized that whoever it was seemed to be waiting for a response. "Come in."
The woman who stepped through the door was about John's age, dressed in a crisp business suit of charcoal-gray with a red shirt providing a splash of color. "It's good to see you up and about, John." She held out a hand. "Elizabeth Weir. I'm sure you have questions."
Bemused, John transferred the toast to his other hand, and shook. "That's putting it mildly."
"Then I'll get straight to it, although first, I'd like you to look at something for me if you don't mind." Weir reached into her pocket and brought out a small object nestled in the palm -- about the size of a marble, and silver in color. "Here," she said, and tossed it to him. John caught it automatically.
Instantly, a tiny spark of light flared at the thing's heart. It must be body-heat-activated, or maybe powered by friction or kinetic energy -- John wasn't sure, but it was a pretty little bauble, if not exactly his thing. "Cute, but I'm not a jewelry kind of guy," he said, tossing it back to her.
Weir caught it, with a slightly stunned look on her face. The light in the bauble died immediately. "It's true, then," she said. "Ah, John ... I'm sorry we couldn't meet under better circumstances, and doubly sorry that I couldn't meet your partner."
John sat down slowly on the edge of the bed, uneasy. "Where is Lorne? Is he here?"
Rather than answering, she sat in the chair and folded her hands on her knee. "What's the last thing you remember?" she asked.
Fire. Pain. "Not much," John said cautiously.
"You and your partner were investigating a drug-smuggling operation. You went to meet an informant at a warehouse. It was a trap."
John studied her flatly. "Then why'd you ask?" It's a trap! Lorne's words, coming from the haze of his recent memories. And fire -- "Where's my partner? You haven't answered my question."
"I'm afraid he didn't make it, John." Weir's voice was soft. Regretful. He couldn't tell if the sorrow was feigned, but he didn't think she was lying.
"The warehouse blew up," he said slowly, putting some of the broken pieces back together.
Weir nodded. "We couldn't get there in time to prevent the explosion. Instead, we intercepted the ambulance carrying you. Your partner was too far gone to save, but you weren't."
"We," John repeated, trying to wrap his mind around it. Lorne. Dead.
Weir raised a hand to indicate the building around them. "Welcome to Weir Industries. This is part of -- well, let's just say a network of affiliated interests, opposing a similar network called the Trust. The drug runners that you were trying to arrest were part of the Trust, and it was more than just drugs they were smuggling." She leaned forward with an unnervingly intense stare. "We've been watching you for a while, John, trying to find a way to approach you and your partner. We didn't expect it to be like this."
"Watching me," John said. He was starting to feel like a parrot, echoing everything she said, but -- what the hell?
Weir nodded again, and held up the marble. "On this entire planet, John, maybe one-twentieth of one percent of the population would be able to make this light up. Maybe a whole lot less than that. We still don't know why, though we do have some theories, but over the last few years we've embarked on a project to identify as many of these people as possible. Unfortunately, the Trust are doing likewise. You and your partner were deliberately targeted."
John sucked in a breath, blood pulsing at his temples. "So Lorne was murdered, and you -- you're doing what? You rescued me from the warehouse, and don't get me wrong, I'm all kinds of grateful, but this strikes me as the sort of 'help' that's going to come with a damn big price tag."
"I'm afraid so," Weir said quietly, and reached for the newspaper. She flipped it over and paged through to the local section, folded it back and laid it on John's knee.
The face staring back at him from the obituaries was his own -- albeit small and grainy, a crappy photo that probably came from his files at the station. The name beside it was also his own. Lorne's obit was a few up from his, alphabetically.
"Wait a minute," John said, finally. It wasn't the greatest comeback ever, but he'd gone well beyond what the hell? by this point. "I'm dead?"
"Legally, yes, you are. Given the paramedics' assessment of your condition at the scene, it was simple to have you declared DOA, as Lorne was," Weir said quietly. "There was no way you could have survived your injuries with conventional medical technology. We barely got to you in time."
"Yeah, but ... I'm fine." Except for the too-smooth skin around his eyes, which he was trying very hard not to think about at the moment.
Weir smiled. "It's amazing what unconventional technology can do, isn't it?"
Weir took him on a hike down the hall to show him the machine that had supposedly saved his life.
"Aliens," John said. He appeared to have gone straight through total shock to a point where all of this kind of made sense, in a "the world has gone mad" sort of way.
"We're still unclear on all of the details," Weir said, with an instantly-familiar kind of evasiveness that John immediately translated as ... but we know a hell of a lot more than we're telling YOU, buddy. "But I can assure you that the Earth has not only been visited by aliens, but they have, at certain points, taken an active role in shaping humanity's history. We have reason to believe that the Trust themselves may be at least partially infiltrated by aliens that, let's say, do not have humanity's best interests at heart."
"Good thing we got you guys to fight 'em, then," John said. From the sharp look that Weir directed him, the sarcasm might have been laid on a little too thick.
"I realize that you have only my word to take that we're ..."
"The good guys? Yeah. I'd say I'm taking everything with a giant grain of salt right now." Including the idea that he'd been attacked by aliens and healed from near-death to perfect health by the high-tech-looking machine in front of him.
"John!" Keller descended on him like a perky whirlwind with a clipboard. "You're up and about! How are you feeling? I'd like to do some tests, if you don't mind."
"I also can't help wondering why you're telling me all this," John said over Keller's ponytailed head as she took his blood pressure. "This definitely strikes me as the prelude to an 'offer I can't refuse.'"
"Ooh," Keller tutted, sticking a thermometer in his ear. "Terrible Brando impression. Don't quit your day job."
"From what I hear, that's not a problem, because I'm officially dead." John glared at Weir.
"Think about your situation for a moment," Weir said, unperturbed. "We are not holding you against your will; you're perfectly welcome to leave at any time -- back into a world where a vast conspiracy wants nothing more than to see you dead or working for them ... and believe me, if that were to happen, you'd prefer death. Right now, the Trust thinks you're dead. It's in your best interests to allow them to continue thinking that."
"Breathe in," Keller instructed.
He inhaled, and, on the exhale, snapped, "And you're doing this out of the goodness of your hearts. There's nothing you want in return at all."
"Surprisingly," Weir said, "yes, we did help you with no expectation of reward. However --"
"Oh, here it comes. The catch."
"The substance in your blood is called the ATA Factor, and you have -- well, I'll give Jennifer the floor here. I'm sure she can explain better than I can."
"You were doing fine." Keller probed at the unnaturally soft, pale skin on the back of John's arm with brisk fingers. He shuddered. "ATA stands for Ancient Technology Activation," the doctor continued, "and your tests show the strongest expression of the gene that we've ever seen. Right now, Weir Industries and our sister organizations have very few individuals working for us who have the gene at all, and none --" She hesitated, looking at Weir, who spoke up.
"None with your special talents."
"Talents?" John snorted. His chest twisted with the helpless anger that came from knowing whatever offer they made him, he wasn't in a position to say no. "Surely you've got a few people around who can shoot a gun and put handcuffs on a guy."
"That's not what I meant," Weir said. "You've got a background in stock-car racing."
That was so totally not what he was expecting that for a moment he felt like the road had been jerked out from under him, a sudden hairpin turn into nothing. "Huh? So ... I like fast cars." The anger came rushing back fourfold. "You've been checking up on me. Prying into my past. You had no right."
"Yes, we have a file on you," Weir said, unperturbed. "We have files on a lot of people. But the particular combination of your strong gene, plus your driving skills -- according to our research, you were lauded on the racing circuit; you were fantastically talented. You walked away from that for a career in law enforcement."
Hot rage welled up inside him, filling his chest. They had no right. "It was my decision," he snarled. "It's none of your goddamn business!"
Keller backed off, clipboard held in front of her chest, and Weir raised her hands placatingly. "John, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to raise a sensitive topic. I'm simply saying that we could use a driver with the ATA gene. We could really, really use a person like that. We're willing to set you up with a new identity and protect you from the Trust."
The anger seeped away, leaving him shaky, his stomach knotted. He almost wanted to laugh at the utter absurdity of the situation. "So ...what is it that you want me to do, then? Fight crime by driving fast cars? Lady, that's crazy even for this nuthouse."
"You'd be surprised," Weir said. She nodded to Keller. "If you're done, I'd like to show him what he can do for us."
Weir took him down seemingly endless corridors, from the wing of the building where he'd been housed, into an entirely different part of the complex. They passed a couple of other people, but for the most part, things seemed deserted.
Weir paused on the way at a small office full of files, where she pulled out a folder and produced a set of papers and a driver's license that she passed to John. "If you do accept our offer, or accept a fresh start in a new town where the Trust hopefully won't find you, this is the identity we've established for you."
"John Sheppard?" he read off the card.
Weir shrugged. "Obviously you can't continue to be John Sharpe if you're in hiding, but it's similar enough that we thought you shouldn't have much trouble adjusting. Luckily, you have a relatively common name to begin with; we didn't see any reason not to give you something close to what you're used to."
John rolled the name around on his tongue as he followed her down still more hallways. John Sheppard. He could feel, hovering, the true magnitude of everything that had happened, like a great weight threatening to descend on him; forcibly, he shoved it away. No time to panic or freak out; he had to keep his head together and figure out whether he could trust these people (he was currently leaning towards "no") and whether they could help him (which was currently standing at "yes, with very large strings attached").
"Here we are," Weir said, and swiped a keycard, then pressed her thumb to a small plate in the wall.
The cavernous room on the other side was as different as possible from Keller's tidy, sterile lab. It was obviously a working mechanic's shop -- under bright fluorescent lights, long tables were covered with the guts of a dozen different kinds of engines, while in the middle of the room, a half-dismantled F-350 truck sat on top of a mechanic's lift. The centerpiece of the room, though, was a gleaming black, vintage 3rd-generation Trans Am. John couldn't help a twitch of his fingers -- he wanted to look under the hood, see what they had in there. Ruthlessly, he squashed the impulse. That's what they WANT you to feel. They're still using you, John.
From somewhere out of view, the crackle of an electric welding rig could be heard. "Jeannie?" Weir called, her voice echoing in the great empty space.
There was a pause; then the sound cut off and a blond head popped up on the far side of the Trans Am, sliding out of a welding visor. "Elizabeth! Hi! Oh, is this the new driver?"
"I hope he drives better than the test drivers," another voice grumbled, the source entirely hidden. The voice was male, slightly distorted as if over a speaker, and John couldn't tell where it was coming from. "Morons, the lot of them. I almost threw an axle the last time. Where do you find these people, Elizabeth -- NASCAR?"
"Mer, be polite," the blonde mechanic snapped, and whacked the Trans Am on its hood. John blinked.
"John." Weir, unable to hide a grin, gestured to the Trans Am and the beaming blonde mechanic. "This is the experimental piece of technology that we'd like you to drive for us. Some of its systems can only be used by someone with the ATA gene."
John approached the car with the sort of caution normally reserved for poisonous snakes and Jehovah's Witnesses on the doorstep. "Did it -- talk?"
"I can see we're not dealing with one of the brightest intellectual lights of the universe," the disembodied mechanical voice said loudly. John jumped.
Jeannie whacked it again just above the fender. "Meredith, behave!"
"And it's called ... Meredith." John carefully skirted the car, studying it from all sides. It appeared to be a perfectly normal 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am except for a peculiar gloss to the paint job, and a red flashing light embedded in the front bumper. The red light gave him the creeps. He couldn't shake the idea that it was watching him.
Jeannie shrugged cheerfully. "Technically, the project is code-named the Weir Industries 2000, but unfortunately it shortens to WITT and that just sounds silly."
"Yeah," John said, attempting to shake off his verbal paralysis. "Meredith is much better."
The car emitted an outraged squawk; John, to his embarrassment and irritation, jumped again. "It's Rodney! Jeannie, as if the constant ham-handed poking at my sensitive internal parts wasn't bad enough, the very least you could do is introduce me to the hired help by the name that I prefer."
Jeannie patted the hood in a placating manner, and said in a sweetly unctuous tone, "You're absolutely right, Mer. Please do consider me corrected. I suppose the tweaks to your fuel injection system don't need to be done, since I wouldn't want to get my ham hands anywhere near your sensitive internal workings."
"Now you're just being difficult," the car sulked.
Overcoming some of his wariness -- a talking car was creepy, but a whining car somewhat less so -- John bent over to peer through one of the tinted windows. It looked like a normal Trans Am inside as well as out, except for the dashboard; he'd grown up around automobiles, first his dad's classic fleet and later the less glamorous but infinitely cooler muscle cars that he preferred, but he had no idea what some of those controls were for.
"That's it, gawk at the sideshow. A talking car, ha ha, very amusing, let's all move along now." One of the mysterious panels on the car's dashboard lit up when it spoke; after a reflexive flinch away from the window, John leaned closer trying to get a better look. "See anything you like?" the car added snidely.
"Can it see me?" John asked Jeannie over his shoulder, awed.
"Can it see you! That's fantastic, dehumanize me and talk about me over my hood in the same sentence. I'm very impressed, except in all the ways that I'm NOT." The Trans Am fell into a sulky silence, exuding petulance in a way John hadn't imagined was possible for an inanimate object.
"Yes," Jeannie said, petting the hood with disturbing gentleness. "He can see you; there are short and long-range sensors of all types on the vehicle body itself, as well as an ability to tap into local computer networks. For example, Mer is able to watch us through cameras in the garage itself, as well as via his own sensors." She pointed above them to a security camera mounted on the ceiling, distant red light blinking.
"Would you like to take the WITT-- uh, take Rodney for a spin, John?" Weir asked politely. "A test drive, as it were."
John had been temporarily distracted by the talking car, but suspicion came crashing back down on him. "Aren't you afraid I'm just going to take off and head for the hills?"
"I told you, you're not a prisoner here, John." Weir smiled. "Besides, Jeannie will go with you."
The Trans Am handled like a dream. In general, John wasn't fond of the third-generation Firebirds, mostly because of the underpowered engine, but whatever they'd done to this one, it definitely had a world-class engine under that sleek black hood. He quickly discovered that all he had to do was prompt Jeannie, and she became a torrent of information about the car's updated specs, easily diverted to wax rhapsodic about the relative merits of the Camaro vs. Mustang, or whether 1972's revamped NASCAR rules marked the death of true stock car racing. John had known a few guys at the station who shared his hobby, but he suspected that for sheer automotive geekiness, Jeannie could hold her own with some of the guys he'd known on the actual racing circuit.
"Is it possible for this conversation to BE any more boring?" the car announced during a lull in the conversation. They were somewhere far out on a desert highway, Weir Industries long since left in their dust; John wasn't paying too much attention to where he was going, trusting in Jeannie's navigation skills, and the GPS that she'd assured him the WITT had, to get them back. "Don't blame me if I fall asleep and drive off the road and kill us all. I hope you people will be happy if we all die in a violent flaming wreck."
"Sorry, Mer." Jeannie leaned over to pat the dashboard with the same unnerving affection that she'd displayed earlier.
"You're a car," John pointed out, his hands resting lightly on the wheel. "Shouldn't you be interested in your own -- uh, pedigree?"
The Trans Am had been complaining at regular intervals since they'd left the garage (John's driving was too jerky; the asphalt was too hot and hurt its tires; it had an ache in its clutch plate and Jeannie needed to run a diagnostic) but, to John's surprise, in this case the dashboard indicator remained dark. John glanced over at Jeannie, mouth open to make a joke, but the sorrow on her face stopped him. Her slim hand went on caressing the dashboard.
"There's something about Mer I haven't told you, John," she said, looking away, out the window at the rolling desert scenery. "I haven't told you why we call him Mer."
"Rodney," the car pointed out, but in a subdued voice.
Jeannie was silent for so long that John was tempted to prompt her, but he remained silent, and finally she said, "I haven't always been the lead researcher on the WITT project. I was in charge of the actual engineering on the Trans Am, but my brother, Meredith Rodney McKay, was the one who worked on integrating the ATA-based technology into our Earth technology, and most importantly, he developed the AI. He used himself as a template. The original idea was that we'd later modify the AI's personality template to be more user-friendly, but ..." She went quiet again, watching the scenery. "There were a lot of things we didn't count on."
"Your brother..." John began, and trailed off, uncertain what to say.
"Dead," the car said. "Bit the big one. Kicked the bucket. Gone on to the big laboratory in the sky. So here I am, with a lifetime's memories of being human, except I have wheels rather than hands and the knowledge that I'm a mechanical copy of a human being." It spat the last words, laden with bitterness.
Strangely, John found that he could almost sympathize with that. His situation was radically different, but he already felt the disconnect between his life as Detective John Sharpe, and this strange new existence he'd been thrust into, with just as little choice as Rodney-the-car had gotten.
"You said there's alien technology embedded in the Trans Am chassis," he said, starting to speak to Jeannie -- it was difficult to remember to directly address a disembodied voice -- but then turning his attention to the car. "Rodney, what can you do?"
The car snorted, sounding more cheerful already. "Oh, hello! What can't I do?" The pitch of the engine changed subtly, and the car said, "Okay, I want you to think 'on' as hard as you can."
"Don't say it, think it! Honestly, do your lips move when you read?"
Outside the windows, the rolling desert hills had become a blur. John, startled, looked down at the digital speedometer. Holy shit. The numbers were clicking over rapidly, approaching 150 mph. He could feel acceleration pressing him back into his seat.
"Mer --" Jeannie's voice was taut. "We haven't tested this."
Ahead of them, the long straight stretch of highway rapidly closed on a sharp turn, the road veering around a mesa rising out of the rugged desert country. Jeannie gasped and tightened her grip on the dashboard.
"Come on, Johnny Magic Genes," the car taunted John in its bitter, mechanical voice. "Think 'on'. You've got one job to do here; let's give it the old college try!"
On, John thought. On. On.
The wheels bucked on some minor bump on the roadway -- at this speed, the tiniest imperfection was magnified a hundred times. They were closing on -- good God -- 200 mph. John wasn't even sure if he could make that turn. His foot was no longer on the gas pedal, but they were still accelerating, and he realized that he'd had nothing at all to do with their burst of speed. Automatically, he found himself reaching for the brake.
"Don't!" the car barked. "Trust me!"
John closed his fingers around the steering wheel, and fought the urge to close his eyes, and took his foot off the brake.
The turn was upon them -- and the car bucked one more time, and then they were off the ground. Flying.
When John was a teenager, his greatest dream had been to become a pilot. His father had found out and yanked him out of private pilot's lessons after only two sessions at the stick, and he'd turned to his second love, muscle cars, for consolation, but to his shock he discovered that the reflexes were still there even after nearly twenty-five years. Operating on sheer instinct, he hauled back on the steering wheel as if it was the little training Piper's yoke, and incredibly, the Trans Am responded, turning nearly vertical as it climbed the mesa. They had to be pulling a couple of g's, at least, but John could barely feel it -- no worse than the acceleration on the roadway had been. Any airplane would have stalled at this ridiculous angle, but the Trans Am's powerful engine purred without complaint.
They leveled off above the mesa and landed in a cloud of dust, rolling to a halt only a few feet from the edge. John sat for a moment, gasping, his heart battering against his ribs. Not with fear, he realized, but exhilaration.
"That was awesome," the car said, heartfelt.
Jeannie made a small squeaking sound. John heard her take a deep shuddering breath, and when he recovered enough to look over at her, he saw that she was leaning on the dashboard as if her arms (and the seatbelt) were all that was keeping her from slumping forward. "It's one thing to see it on the specs, Mer, but it's quite another thing to -- to -- You do realize I'm the single parent of a four-year-old, don't you?" She smacked a fist into the dashboard, but gently. "Show-off!"
John was amazed to discover that he could somehow feel the car turning its attention to him. "I have to admit, that was some ... adequate driving," it said thoughtfully. "Also, I suppose, flying. Of course, I was doing most of the work, but I still have to admit that you didn't entirely suck at it."
Jeannie laughed; the sound was a bit tense and high-pitched, but genuine. "Coming from Mer, I think that's some pretty high praise, John."
John's breathing was starting to return to normal. Beneath their impossible vantage point, the desert country was spread out like a tawny quilt. A small dust cloud marked a semi truck far out on the highway.
"Well ... Sheppard?" the Trans Am asked, using his new pseudonym for the first time. There was challenge in its voice, and John realized that despite the mechanical overtones, its inflections were perfectly human. "The hours are terrible, the pay is worse, and I can't say I think much of the health plan. Actually, now that I think about it, I'd recommend that you start running and get as far away from Weir Industries as possible, aside from that whole thing where the Trust want to kill you. But, assuming that you don't come to your senses ..." It trailed off on a hopeful note.
And John found that he was grinning, grinning helplessly. Flying car. "Yeah," he said. "I'm in."