When Michael walked into the garage, he expected to find KITT alone. He wasn't; Bonnie was there, too. Nothing unusual about that, really.
Except that Bonnie was running her hands over KITT's fender in the kind of way nobody should touch any car, much less a sapient one.
Michael paused in the doorway, a little stunned, and then tapped his knuckles against the frame to announce his presence. "Am I interrupting something?"
Bonnie turned around, her expression neutral, like she hadn't just been caught feeling up a defenseless automobile. "I'm almost finished here," she said. "How was that, KITT?"
"Still present, Bonnie," said KITT, "but it's nominal now."
She frowned down at the black hood. "How much is left?"
"Point zero zero four zero two."
"What is going on here?" asked Michael.
Bonnie picked up a clipboard and a pen, and began to write. "I've installed a feedback field around KITT's exterior," she said. "KITT was upset that he hadn't noticed the disruption of his molecular bond. This way, he'll know next time if there is a breach in his shell integrity. KITT, why don't we see if the flux recedes the rest of the way on its own. If it gets above point zero zero five, I need to know immediately."
"So you're done?" asked Michael.
Michael grinned. "KITT and I ... have a date!"
Bonnie did not look up. "Really? What's her name?"
KITT's scanner switched on, and began to sweep. "Michael, you remembered."
"I'd never forget about you, buddy!"
Jotting down a few more notes, Bonnie said, "Your date is with KITT?"
Michael walked into the garage and stepped up to KITT's driver's side door. "I promised him a wash and wax," he said. "You know, to make up for ... everything."
"I told you yesterday, Michael," said KITT. "You don't need to make up for anything. I was the one who put you in danger. I am supposed to protect you, and I failed." He paused. "Not that I'm refusing the offer."
Bonnie leaned down toward the car's hood. "KITT, you don't need wax."
"That doesn't mean I don't like wax."
She shook her head. "Okay, whatever makes you happy. I guess I can do the rest without you here. Watch that flux, and let me know right away if it goes above point zero zero five."
"I will, Bonnie."
"Let's go!" said Michael. He popped the door and slid into the seat. "I don't want to get caught by the sun."
He drove KITT out of the garage and around the mansion to the other side, where the building shaded a large patch of pavement, and parked next to the black garden hose and bucket he'd placed against the wall ten minutes earlier. He thought that the spot should remain shaded until close to five, when the sun would move around the mansion, and that should be plenty of time.
"So," he said, after he'd gotten out and was filling the bucket with sudsy water. "What's this flux thing about?"
"The feedback field that Bonnie installed this morning is unstable," said KITT. "It works as designed as long as nothing is touching me, but as soon as something does the field destabilizes slightly."
"It isn't, not to you. It was very disconcerting at first, but we got the flux down to a tolerable level."
Bucket filled, Michael turned the hose on KITT to sluice off the dust before starting. He knew that KITT's finish wouldn't scratch if he skipped this step, but it was a habit and he wouldn't think he'd done the job properly if he didn't go through all the steps. "Is it dangerous to you?" he asked as he sprayed water over the black car.
It took a moment for KITT to answer, and when he did his voice was uncertain. "I don't believe so," he said. "According to my calculations, even at the highest flux level I experienced this morning, there should be no possibility of damage to my systems."
"You don't sound sure."
"It was very disconcerting."
Michael directed the spray into KITT's front driver-side wheel well, and frowned when the runnels of water turned reddish-brown. KITT rarely complained when the gunk wasn't visible, but it annoyed Michael when bits of the landscape stuck to his partner. He got down on one knee and turned the nozzle to narrow the water jet, and waved it up into the dark recesses of the wheel well. "What was ... disconcerting about it?" he asked.
"I'm not accustomed to getting ... feedback, when something contacts my exterior, and the flux was fairly strong at first."
Hold on ... Michael shut off the hose and peered at the door of the car. "Are you saying you could feel it when Bonnie was touching your fender?"
"Yes, Michael," said KITT. "It's an undesirable side-effect, but we were unable to eliminate it this morning."
Michael looked down at the hose in his hand. "And ... you can feel me spraying water all over you, I suppose."
Well. Michael wasn't sure how he felt about this plan to wash and wax KITT with this new information. He could hardly back out now, not after he'd promised and after KITT had clearly been looking forward to it, but ... well ... now it was going to be a little weird, wasn't it? "How exactly is this going to operate?" he asked, to buy himself a little time to work through this. "What about when people shoot you? We get shot at a lot, if you recall, and it's usually you taking the bullets for us."
"Bonnie didn't do any firearms testing," said KITT, "but I expect it will be just like anything else coming into contact with me."
"Won't it hurt?"
"I'm not programmed to experience pain, Michael. I have damage diagnostics and structural integrity monitors for that purpose."
"That doesn't answer the question. You're not programmed to feel it when someone touches your fender, either."
Again there was a slight pause. "I wouldn't say it was ever ... unpleasant, exactly, even when the flux was at its highest level. I wouldn't know how to describe it. It's merely ... odd, and distracting. I wouldn't really mind it at all, except that it was very distracting, and it could get in the way when I have something important to do."
That sounded ... like something Michael didn't care to think about too much. He resumed spraying water into KITT's wheel well, and then went over the black tire, trying not to imagine what this must "feel" like for KITT. "Yeah, we don't need you getting distracted," he said. "That could be an issue."
"You don't have to worry about that. If Bonnie and I can't get the flux eliminated by the time we go out, I'll shut off the feedback field until we can work on it again."
"So you could just shut it off now?" asked Michael hopefully.
"I could, yes."
"Maybe you should do that, then."
Michael stood up and moved down to KITT's rear wheel well; not surprisingly, that was even dirtier than the front one. "I mean, I can't see why you'd want it on when you're just parked here on the Foundation grounds. Didn't Bonnie say it was to monitor your molecular shell?"
"No danger to that here, is there?"
Apparently that was a step too far. "Is there some particular reason why you'd like me to turn it off?" asked KITT.
"Oh, no, no," said Michael. No, it couldn't possibly be that easy, could it? "No, it's entirely up to you, KITT. It's your whatchamacallit thing."
"Capacitive structural feedback field," said KITT primly.
"Right." The more Michael talked about it, and made light of it, the less important he convinced himself it was. He wouldn't feel strange about giving a dog a bath, after all ... this was not much different.
Except ... for the part where dogs didn't talk. He would feel strange about giving another person a bath. Unless that person was attractive, and things were moving in an interesting direction ...
He banished that thought as best he could. He was just washing a car, here. A car.
When the water ran clean in KITT's rear wheel well, Michael stood up and walked around the back of the vehicle, spraying water across the bumper and spoiler. That was the key; he had to see KITT as just a car. He was washing a car. That was all. Nothing at all strange about a man washing a car. And it shouldn't be hard to see KITT as a car ... KITT was car-shaped, and did car things, he had a car smell and took unleaded.
Michael sprayed a narrow jet around the contours of KITT's license plate. He was even licensed as a car, taxed as a car. His tax assessment was on his registration card.
Yep, just a car. One did not assess a value to people, and one did not pay a wheel tax on people. Michael crossed around to the other rear wheel well and began to clean it out. He'd even owned a car not too unlike this one, back in his other life.
"As long as you're back there," said KITT, "could you clear out my hubcap? There's something stuck in there."
"No problem," said Michael, his comfortable illusion broken. It was no use ... KITT was too firmly slotted as a "person" in his mind. And KITT was attractive, in a car way ...
No, bad, wrong. He did not think of KITT in those terms. He examined KITT's hubcap, discovered a rock wedged between the hubcap and the rim, and pried it out.
KITT made a pleased little sound as the rock came free, and finally Michael couldn't help it anymore. "Doesn't this seem just a little strange to you?" he demanded, as he sprayed out KITT's right front wheel well.
"What do you mean?"
"You know," he said, not at all sure, himself, what he meant. "Getting hosed down, like you were, I dunno, a big dog or something?"
"I could hardly hose myself down," said KITT. "Why do you ask? Have you changed your mind? Do you not want to do this anymore?"
He said it as forthrightly as any computer could, but Michael could hear the disappointed hurt behind the words. KITT loved to be washed and waxed. As soon as Michael had suggested it the day before, KITT had jumped immediately on the offer (while, simultaneously, dismissing the motive behind it). "That's not it," said Michael, because he would be a terrible friend if he backed out of a promise like this one. This was one of the few things he could do for the AI that gave so much for him, and it was such a simple thing. "The only way I wouldn't do this would be if Devon dumped an emergency on us."
"Then what's bothering you?"
"... nothing." KITT may or may not have been equipped to understand. Michael was certainly not equipped to explain it. "Nothing's bothering me. Just ... let me know if ... if I hurt you, or something."
"I'm certain that's impossible."
He had to walk back around KITT after that, to get the hose unwrapped, and ended by spraying water down KITT's shiny hood and into the crevices of his grille. The red scanner was sweeping; KITT knew he was lying, Michael was sure of it. Oh, well. If KITT wasn't going to call him out on it, Michael wasn't going to say anything either. He moved the bucket next to KITT's tire, shoved a sponge down into it, and then slopped soapy water across KITT's front bumper.
It was better once he got into it, the weirdness fading. KITT's finish felt the same as it always did, smooth with an almost imperceptibly velvet overlay, and KITT gave no hint that this was producing any kind of ... sensation for him. Michael soaped down the hood and hosed it clean, then sat on the ground next to the front bumper to get at the fog lamps. The sweep of the scanner slowed, became lazy, like the purring of a contented cat.
"I wish you shed bugs like you do bullets, pal," said Michael, wiping grime off the lenses. They, like the rest of KITT, were theoretically impervious to contamination, but insects struck at two hundred miles per hour stuck more firmly than glue.
"Better there than in my turbines," said KITT.
"I guess so."
Once the insect scrum was softened by the soap, it came right off. Michael cleaned out the grille and the scanner recess as well, then rinsed it all out; the fog lamps gleamed, and the scanner lenses sparkled. There was always a certain amount of satisfaction that came from making KITT shine like he was new.
"Michael," said KITT.
"Would you mind doing that again?"
"Doing what again?"
"What you just did, with my scanner and the sponge."
Oh. Suddenly the weirdness was back. "Um," he said. "Why?"
KITT's voice was completely nonchalant. "The field flux increased when you got into the scanner recess," he said. "We should test it to see how high it will go."
Test it. Right. "Maybe we shouldn't," said Michael.
"Bonnie will want to know. If we don't do it now, she and I will have to do it later. This will save time."
That was a thought that was, as KITT might say, disconcerting. Michael recalled the impression he'd gotten when he'd first walked into the garage and spotted Bonnie fondling KITT's fender; what would it be like for her to start fingering the scanner recess? Michael was not yet prepared to think of Bonnie in quite those terms. She spent a lot of time with KITT already, and Michael wanted to believe that the relationship was firmly platonic, solidly in the mother-AI realm, and nothing ... else.
Purely in the interests of science, and not at all in the interests of keeping that particular image of Bonnie out of his mind, Michael said, "Sure," and re-soaped KITT's scanner. "Let me know, ah ... when you're done ... testing."
"I will, Michael. Thank you."
The pace of the scanner increased somewhat as Michael re-cleaned it; presumably KITT was analyzing whatever ... data ... this was supplying him. Michael pretended to find more insect parts wedged into the corners, and rubbed the sponge to reach these fictional bits. This was all weird again, and was even weirder than before.
After he'd soaped up KITT's scanner for a third time, Michael said, "Uh, KITT ... how much more testing do you need to do here?"
"I finished it two minutes, thirty-eight seconds ago."
Michael stood up and glared down at the scanner. "You said you'd tell me when you were done."
"I'm sorry, Michael," said KITT. "The flux is ... very distracting."
"I see that." He sprayed the scanner recess with the hose, feeling like he'd just been used somehow, and by his own car! "You and I have to talk about this flux thing. Now."
"I already told you about it," said KITT. "What else do you want to know? Oh, could you run that water through my grille again, please?"
"That," said Michael, directing the hose at KITT's grille. "What's that about? Why would you want me doing this?"
"Michael, I told you, the flux ..."
"Yeah, yeah," Michael interrupted. "The flux. It's like you want this flux thing to happen."
KITT was silent, and suddenly Michael knew he was right. That squirmy feeling in his gut was right. He shook the hose accusingly at the car's windshield. "You like it, don't you? You're enjoying this!"
"It's not like anything I've ever experienced before," said KITT. "Bonnie said we should get rid of it, and it is very distracting ..."
"No kidding." Michael could just imagine! Having a sense of touch for the first time, after a lifetime without it ...
"But you are correct. It is enjoyable."
Michael stared at KITT's windshield for a few moments, completely weirded out now, in the same kind of way he'd been the first time KITT had spoken to him. This was something a car shouldn't do. Cars shouldn't talk, and it had taken him a while to get past that. Cars shouldn't physically feel things, either. They shouldn't notice when someone else opened a door into them, or when a rock flew up from the road and struck them. Or when someone gave them a wash and wax.
KITT said nothing; the slow track of the scanner was patient and unhurried. Michael wondered what he was thinking.
Well, he couldn't back out; he had to do this. And, he recalled, he had in fact gotten past the issue of KITT talking. He was so far past it now that he only noticed it when KITT stopped talking.
He could get past this, too.
Maybe the solution was just to own it.
"Well, okay," he said, dunking the sponge into the bucket of soapy water. "I'm glad we're on the same page again. Let's get you clean, buddy. And, ah ..." Own it. Own it. "If there's anywhere you'd like me to pay special attention to ... you just let me know."
"I will, Michael." Was that a hint of relief in KITT's voice? Michael crushed down that feeling of wrongness and ran the sponge over the black car's fender, right where Bonnie had been touching him in the garage.
He'd washed KITT many times before, and could make a short or a long job of it, depending on the amount of time he had, and his mood and KITT's. He made a long job of it this time, and forced himself to go slow and get into all the crevices where one body panel met another, and around the edges of the windshield and windows. He had to own it; he'd never work himself through this if he tried to pretend that this was just like every other time he'd washed the black car. KITT had a lot more crevices now, since he had all those new control gizmos that extended during SPM, and Michael went over each of them very closely.
KITT said nothing for a while, until Michael reached the contours of the new lateral air intakes on the passenger side, just behind the door. As he ran the sponge through the barely-perceptible groove around the top intake, KITT said abruptly, "There ... there, Michael."
Michael dipped the sponge into the bucket and ran it slowly down KITT's panel. "Here?" he said, as he wiped the sponge through the groove again.
This was just wrongful - was he really masturbating his best friend, who was also a car? - but it wasn't as difficult now as it had been initially, and Michael was realizing that this was not something KITT could do for himself. He leaned against the vehicle's warm side and made himself comfortable, and gave the outlines of the air intakes another slow pass with the sponge. "Why this spot?" he asked.
It took a moment for KITT to respond, and when he did, his voice was, indeed, very distracted. "The ... field is already ... prone to instability there," said the AI, "because of the ... configuration of ... the air intake modifications."
"Ah. So when I do this ..." Michael swiped the sponge from the top of the car, slowly down to the bottom of the panel, over both intakes and ensuring that the corner of the sponge went through the grooves. "There's increased ... flux."
"Yes ... Michael."
"And you like that." He pulled the sponge up the other way.
Michael gave that section of KITT's flank a long and slow scrub, and after a few minutes he moved the sponge to a more palm-held grip so that he could stroke his fingertips over the smooth black finish. Idly, he wondered how long he should keep this up. Was it even possible for KITT to reach some kind of ... climax? If it wasn't, he could be here all day never get the wax done.
That thought led to another, and Michael moved on to KITT's rear quarter panel without a word. Through the windows he saw the center of KITT's voice modulator flash for an instant, as though the AI were about to say something but then thought better of it.
Michael finished washing KITT down without lingering on any particular spot again, not even the intakes on the other side, and hosed off all the soap; he ran a chamois over the car to dry him. At this point he could have called it a day, as the MBS shone like a mirror, but wax would give extra depth to the shine.
And Michael was kind of interested in how this was going to go.
"Now for the best part," he said, picking up the tin of wax and wetting down a clean rag. He never really considered this the best part for himself - waxing a car was hard work and somewhat messy - but it was definitely the highlight for KITT even under normal circumstances.
This time ...
He heard KITT's scanner run a single active sweep.
Michael checked the angle of the shadow on the pavement and judged he had another two hours before Mr. Sun came for a wax-ruining visit. He started with KITT's fender, because there was just something about that fender where he'd seen Bonnie's hands on his car, and then moved backward. He was halfway done with the door when KITT spoke up.
"Michael ..." said the AI, and his voice was ... distracted again.
"Yes, KITT?" asked Michael, totally nonchalant.
"The presence of ... of the wax is ... very disruptive ..."
Michael looked over his handiwork thus far; white swirls of wax, drying in the cool air, covered KITT's fender and half of his door. "Lots of flux, buddy?"
KITT hesitated for several seconds, an age to an AI. "No, Michael," said KITT at last.
"Okay." Michael leaned down and smeared more wax onto his rag, then onto KITT's door. "You let me know if it gets too ... fluxy in there for ya."
"I will, Michael."
Working his way down the car's sleek black flank, Michael soon found himself applying wax to that apparently-sensitive spot over the auxiliary air intakes between KITT's door and rear wheel. KITT said nothing this time around but Michael was starting to actually get into it, so he spent a few extra minutes there, applying the wax in very small circles, taking care to avoid smearing it into the thin grooves. He liked to imagine that he felt the car trembling; nonsense, of course, as KITT's ability to move in ways that didn't involve rolling his wheels was extremely limited, but it still pleased Michael to imagine it.
He got the rear quarter panel of the vehicle covered in wax, and at this point, if he'd been doing this the normal way, he would be back up at the front buffing the wax into a rich, glossy shine. Instead he leaned on KITT's spoiler and said, "Too much, yet?"
"You can't ... know what this is like," said KITT.
"Oh, maybe I have some idea." Michael swiped at a glob of wax, an extra-thick bit that was maybe a little overboard. "But I have to be honest with you, I don't know anything about this field or this flux, and I want to be sure it's not going to hurt you before I do anything else."
"Hurt me?" Disbelief bloomed through KITT's voice. "Michael, this ..."
"Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, buddy."
There was a long pause before KITT responded, and Michael hoped that meant he was running calculations. "I will not be damaged," said KITT.
"You're sure?" But Michael didn't wait for the confirmation, and walked around to KITT's other front fender. "You know Bonnie will take me apart with her bare hands if you get hurt." He didn't mention how guilty he would feel about this himself.
"Yes, Michael. I'm sure. Please ... continue?"
Michael gave him a grin. "Sure thing."
He rubbed wax down KITT's other side, and when he got to the lateral air intakes he thought he heard the car starting to moan. He quickly realized that it wasn't really a moan, but that KITT had momentarily turned over his engine. That was too bad; that initial impression had been kind of exciting.
Moving back up to the window, Michael decided to prod his partner. "Hey, some feedback would be nice," he said.
The lights on the dash were all lit except the ones that monitored the once-again deactivated engine. The center of KITT's voice modulator panel flickered, and then KITT said, "What ... what do you mean?"
"Well, how does ..." Michael swiped the wax-covered rag over the upper air intake. "... this feel?"
"Like ... like ..."
"Yeah. I'd like to know ..." He thought about a moment as he applied a bit more wax, and when he spoke again he lowered his voice. "If you were a human," he said, "I'd be able to tell when I did something you liked, because you might moan, or squirm, or start panting ..." The mental image of the low-slung black Trans Am squirming and panting under his hands was suddenly so interesting that Michael had to pause; he felt himself starting to get hard, and that was wrong in every possible kind of way. Including the good way. "You gotta give me that kind of feedback, or I won't know what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong."
"Michael, you're not doing anything wrong," said KITT, and the words came out in a rush.
Michael rubbed more wax into the rag, and then onto KITT. "Then you gotta let me know," he murmured.
"I ... I don't know how."
He remembered, then. KITT knew nothing, except for what Bonnie loaded into his reference library and what he experienced and learned for himself. Michael was confident that Bonnie had not given KITT any files on sexual response, and Michael had certainly never provided KITT with a demonstration. Not that some of his girlfriends hadn't wanted to make out in his sexy car, but Michael had always been conscious of the intelligence observing them; he'd never let things get too intense inside KITT.
And, he decided, right now, parked alongside the Foundation mansion where any gardener or mechanic might walk by (or Bonnie! or Devon!) was not the time or the place to give KITT this particular education. "Later," he promised. "Forget I said anything for now, but later ... I'll show you."
He spent a while on the area around the lateral air intakes, and then moved on. The trunk and spoiler were next, then the roof, and then he finally came back around the front of the car with the intention of waxing the hood.
KITT's scanner was practically quivering. Michael couldn't tell if it was tracking so fast he couldn't make out the individual sweeps, or if it was just literally trembling; either way, it was totally unexpected, and unexpectedly hot. He stood there staring at it, and then had to adjust himself as a full erection grew and pressed uncomfortably against his jeans. He covered the motion by moving around to one side as he shifted himself. Wow. He definitely hadn't expected to see that. And he definitely hadn't expected something like that to get to him.
Applying wax to the curved planes of KITT's hood typically took no time at all, but Michael made it take time; it was a pleasure to almost lay across the vehicle's hood to reach the center of it. He leaned one shin against the hood near the scanner, and he did feel something shaking this time, a faint vibration transmitted through the car's frame. Something mechanical in or around the scanner, he guessed. It made him want to lean down and ... well, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do, really. This was a car, after all, and his friend, and what was ultimately a very young personality.
Whatever it was that he wanted, Michael knew it was inappropriate at this precise moment (and perhaps inappropriate for any moment), so he didn't think about it too hard. He worked his way down the hood, from the windshield to the grille, and covered every square inch with a thin layer of wax.
Then he closed up the wax and set it and the rag aside. "How ya doing, pal?" he asked KITT, bending down to the door window and keeping his voice low.
"How long ... can you leave it on?" asked KITT softly.
Michael checked the angle of the shadow. "Not long," he said. "Unless we move to keep you in the shade."
KITT made a peculiar sound, one that Michael could not interpret, and then said, "Go ... go ahead and ... finish."
Michael gave him a pat. "Will do."
Now this really was the best part, at least for Michael. The scrim of wax came away easily under the buffing cloth, KITT's finish retaining the thinnest possible layer, and it took only moments to uncover the car's deep gloss. This was the most satisfactory part of the whole process, using the soft cloth to transform dull white swirls into fathomless black. Michael started with the fender and worked back along KITT's side, rubbing and buffing and, occasionally, stroking KITT's finish with his fingertips.
"You really are a good-looking vehicle," Michael said as he went over the rear quarter panel. Normally this would prompt some verbal preening by KITT, but this time there was only silence. Michael had a decent idea as to why.
Once the entire car was buffed and shiny, Michael took a step back to admire his work. KITT's scanner was no longer shaking, and the sweep was slow and lazy again. He wondered what that meant, whether KITT had gotten some kind of release, or if that was even possible. "How you feeling?" he asked.
It took a long moment for KITT to respond. "Thank you, Michael."
"You're welcome." Michael tossed the buffing cloth in his hand down onto the pile next to the wall. "How's the flux?"
Grinning, Michael said, "I take it you enjoyed yourself."
The word was practically a moan, and it was all Michael could do not to laugh. Or cry. He wasn't sure which. This had been an ... interesting day, to say the least. He felt like he'd just molested his car, and he knew the feeling was telling a true story. "Why don't you just ... rest here a while," he said.
"I think I will." KITT paused then, and said, "You won't tell Bonnie about this, will you?"
Bonnie was about the last person on Michael's list of people to tell. "Why would I do that?" he asked.
"She wants the field to be completely stable. If we tell her what just happened, she'll probably want to get rid of it entirely. I don't think I want that."
"Oh." Michael waved his hand, dismissing that concern. "That's between you and her, I've got nothing to do with it. What you tell her about this is up to you. My lips are sealed."
"Thank you, Michael."
Michael leaned down to pat the hood. "No problem," he said. "And, uh, hey ... you might want to keep this to yourself, actually. As in, tell nobody. I don't think anyone else would understand." He definitely didn't think anyone would understand his role in it.
"I don't know who I'd tell," said KITT.
"Me, either, but let's keep this to ourselves for now."
Michael emptied the bucket and rinsed it out, and dropped all the cloths and bottles into it to put away. He'd been right; the weirdness was mostly gone. He'd worked through it. And KITT had enjoyed himself. No harm done to anyone.
The only problem now was that he still had half an erection, but that was something he could deal with on his own.
Well, and that he was looking at KITT in a way he hadn't before. That could be a problem.
He ran a hand over KITT's door frame and said, "See you later. Maybe we'll go for a drive."
"Whenever you want," said KITT. It was surely Michael's imagination, but he thought he felt the car shiver.