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The Long Road

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-A conference room in Denver, Colorado.

“The assets have made it to the second site,” a man reported to a woman in a business suit. She was standing behind several other people seated at computers.

“The second site? They were supposed to be heading to Zeichner! Is everyone in this company incompetent?”

“Ms. Granat there were problems with their containment and transportation.”

“How hard is it to administer sedatives and get them on a trailer to the nearest jet?”

“Reports say that their uh, bodies were adapting to the sedatives used and overriding them. The truck made it one state over before a potential containment hazard arose. The driver and lead scientist both agreed it would be safer to instead drive to the secondary site and hold them there.”

Helen Granat swore quietly. “Fine, fine, we’ll deal with that later. They’re safely contained correct?”

“Yes. The second site was designed to hold the next step in Project Walrider, so it should be adequate for these patients.”

She couldn’t be too upset at the guard who delivered this news to her. The security regulations around the new assets were harsher than those pertaining to Project Walrider. This poor man didn’t know much about what he was talking about, he only knew there were some dangerous patients being transferred to a new facility, anything else was beyond his paygrade. “As Project Overseer I’ll be moving my office to that site then. The Engine shielding is stronger this time around allowing me direct access to all the facilities. Starting tomorrow I’ll be working there full time, instruct anyone wishing to contact me to use the updated information.” She paused. “Alright what’s the status on Mt. Massive?”

“All traffic in and out of the mountain has been halted.”

“The reason?”

“Re-grading the roads. The recent rains made some of the dirt roads unsafe and hazardous. The only people we let out were those working for the fish and wildlife service up at that fishery. After that we blocked the roads.”

“Good. And the asylum?”

“Nothing since we sent that first team in. And as you know, they never returned.”

Helen rubbed her head with her fingers, massaging away a potential headache. “I want the whole mountainside searched again. Clearly some Variants were missed in the initial sweep following the riot. Then send in five teams, full bullet proof armor and heavy weapons, to clear out the asylum. Leave no survivors; we can always get more test subjects.”

“What about the rumors that Project Walrider still hunts those grounds?”

“Just that, rumors. Our tests have shown over and over again that no human can host that thing without being attached to life-support. Billy Hope died and that iteration of the project died with him. The soldiers that fell to it on the morning of the riot died to a beast’s final struggle.”

“R-Right, I’ll assemble the teams.”

“Good, don’t botch the mission this time. We’ll move forward with the detonation plans in mid-November, that should give the scientists enough time to salvage everything from the labs and move it to the secondary site.” Helen turned her attention to the other people in the room. They were seated at computers, hastily typing away. “Have either of you completed the cover story for the footage yet?”

“We’re working on it,” one of them replied, a young woman, straight out of university. She was a smart and gifted writer, looking for a job in journalism. She ended up spinning lies instead of truth, but it paid well and she had debts to pay down. Morality tends to bend under the weight of money. “There’s a few different avenues we can approach this from. We can go the slander route, destroy this Mr. Park’s reputation and make him seem crazy and vindictive. Or we can deny it outright; say it’s a prank, hoax, or advertisement for a movie or game. I sent several emails to the heads over at the Damage Control Department as well as Public Relations. When they get back to me I’ll draft the first copy of the formal press release. If all goes swiftly we can put a representative on a podium by tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow morning is the fastest you can manage?”

“Yes Ma’am. Damage Control seemed very worried about this, they’re taking everything slowly. We have to place our cards carefully or the house will blow over.”

Helen always liked the girl’s analogies. “Fine, if it can’t be helped, it can’t be helped. I like the idea of it being a viral marketing campaign, that’s what popular these days anyways right? I’m overriding the Damages Department; get a group together to start researching possible ways to spin this into a movie. Tell PR that’s the direction we’re going and get them ready to brief a representative.”

“Yes Ma’am.” She turned around to look at Helen for the first time that day. “In our last email Damages was requesting information on a Mr. Upshur? Miles Upshur?”

Helen nodded and said, “I’ll handle that. Your focus is on the press release. You know what to do.” Without waiting for the confirmation she knew was coming, Helen walked out of the conference room and dialed up a number. “This is Granat. Put me through to the Director. Hello Sir, everything is handled down on my end. The mountain is being swept again, all roads are blocked and a team will move in on the asylum shortly. That leaked footage is being dealt with as well. There are two loose ends we need to discuss, one being easy and the other being hard. We’ll start with the easy.”

“Go on,” said the voice on the other end.

“Mr. Waylon Park contacted a host of different reporters. Only one showed up. Miles Upshur. Our legal teams and public relations have already dealt with him and his articles before. The man is relentless and even followed us to Africa to write a report. In the footage we could easily make out his Jeep parked out front. His press badge was left in plain sight. In my professional opinion, he’s not a worry to the Murkoff Corporation.”

“What do you mean? If he saw even a second of that riot we’ll have a problem.”

“Lucky for us he’s dead.”

“Do you have confirmation?” The man asked.

“Yes. In the leaked footage Mr. Waylon Park took Mr. Upshur’s Jeep to escape. Mr. Upshur was not inside. Had he survived the riot he would have taken his own vehicle. If our best soldiers couldn’t make it past the Variants without being carved up like pigs then an unarmed reporter stood no chance.”  She continued. “There’s more, all of his social media has gone dark since the sixteenth. The last thing he posted was a picture on Twitter. It was of a rest stop bathroom, the hand dryer. Graffiti, someone changed the phrase “saves paper towels” to “saves poopy owls”. His humor is crass.”

“Get to the point Granat.”

“Sorry. It has been three weeks since then and there’s been no activity from any of his feeds. No accounts have been accessed and his friends haven’t mentioned hearing from him. If Mr. Upshur escaped he would have broken the story by now, not Mr. Park. It’s my conclusion that he died. None of our helicopter sweeps of the mountain on the day of the riot picked him up, nor did any of our eyes in Leadville spot him.”

“What was the hard problem?” The Director asked, pleased that the reporter had been taken care of.

“Our dear whistleblower, Waylon Park. We had left him and his family alone while work on the secondary site was finishing up. We kept tabs on him, but he seemed too skittish to ever leave the house more than a handful of times. Our Damages team was going to make him go away after everything at Mt. Massive had been taken care of. However, now that he’s leaked the footage, he becomes an immediate threat. He needs to be disposed of.”

“Then dispose of him, I don’t see what the issue is.”

“Well, Sir, he has a wife and two sons as well. Mr. Blaire spoke with them a few days before the riot. Informed them of their husband and father’s condition. If we kill him, the wife will know.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I need your permission to order the wife and children to be killed as well. Murkoff will never be able to move past this dark day unless all loose ends are taken care of. His family has become a loose end.”

“Very well, I authorize the killing of Waylon Park and his family. You may proceed as soon as possible.”

“Thank you Sir, we’ll move quickly. Soon this will be nothing but a bad dream to this company and our investors.” Helen hung up the phone and continued down the hall. Her footsteps echoing down the empty hall was the only sound.

---

-Leadville, Colorado. The Park residence.

A black claw tapped Miles’ shoulder. “There’s movement inside Host, the time to act is approaching.”

Miles nodded and sat up a bit straighter, he shoved his notebook into his backpack and listened. He couldn’t hear through walls, he didn’t have that kind of super power, but he trusted R. “Remember, you stay out of sight, invisible, and do not do anything.”

“We know. We will stay hidden. This plan will not work with Us involved.”

“At least not now,” Miles said. “We’ll have to tell him eventually, especially if we’ll be on the road together for as long I think we’ll be. I can’t hide you from someone like that.”

“Not to question your control Host, but We do not think you’d be able to. You rely on Us for conversation and for physical support far too much to shut Us out for weeks.”

“Yeah, no shit. This whole parasite host thing is the worst sometimes,” Miles said with a chuckle. “I’ll tell him about you, but not now. We need him to trust us, and to let me in. Then when I’m sure he won’t run, I’ll tell him about you, about me.”

R’s laughter rippled through the static. “It almost sounds as if you are laying a trap.”

“Maybe I am,” he murmured and left the safety of the firewood pile. The sun was just starting to rise, it cast a pale light over the early morning sky. Miles crept along the side of the house, he was still hidden, cloaked in a swarm of dark nanites that kept him looking like any other shadow. He could see a woman move from the house to a car, turning it on to warm it up, before heading back inside. Miles took a few breaths and watched it freeze in the morning air. He hadn’t noticed how cold it had gotten, R must be doing a more thorough job at maintaining his core body temperature than he thought.

“Your body runs hotter now Host.” R supplied the answer to Miles’ unasked question. “You produce too much energy; this will make you appear warmer than the average human. An added bonus is that you will be harder to chill.”

Miles whispered, “So it’s like I have a mini engine or furnace inside me?”

“That is the idea, yes.”

After a few more minutes had passed the woman came back out with two young boys trotting behind her. “So Park does have kids,” he said. “Shit.” Kids weren’t the end of this plan, but they complicated things needlessly and it would be better, safer, if they weren’t there. But he’d deal with that later. For now, he had to make contact with Mr. Park and not scare him off.

They waited for another hour, crouched along the side of the house before Miles began moving again. He wanted to be sure that the wife was gone, and didn’t forget something. It would be much easier to talk with just Mr. Park, alone, than with the wife too. There were things he didn’t know if she should hear, or see. “Do you know what you’re going to say Host?”

“I have an idea,” he muttered back. He stepped up to the front porch and took a deep breath. “Well, it’s now or never,” Miles said. He knocked on the door and waited. The sky around him was now much brighter, and he could see the details in their surroundings.

There was a long pause of absolute silence. Not even the birds were chirping. Miles raised his hand to knock again, but the door opened and interrupted the motion. A man came to the door with fearful eyes, and messy light brown hair. “Who are you?” He asked, in a voice that strove to be brave but was falling short.

“Mr. Park?” Miles asked instead. He wasn’t going to offer up his name until he was sure. The man nodded. “Good,” relief washed over him for a moment. “My name is Miles,” he said and extended a hand. “Miles Upshur.”

“U-Upshur?” His eyes went wide. A trembling hand took Miles’ own and shook it briefly. Miles could see that his eyes were analyzing him, taking him all in. It was in this moment he regretted not showering before leaving the mountain. He hoped his hand was clean enough. Waylon’s gaze lingered just a bit too long on the severed pointer finger of Miles’ right hand.

“That’s me. Do you have a moment to talk?” Miles retracted his hand.

“Y-Yeah. Please, come in.”

Before Miles stepped fully into the home he gave Waylon one swift, not very gentle, punch to the gut. The man nearly dropped and clutched his stomach. The fear returned to his eyes. “Sorry about that, I promised past me I’d sock whoever sent me that damn email.”

“But it was an anonymous tip,” Waylon wheezed out. “How’d you figure it out?”

“For someone who was just assaulted you seem to be asking the wrong questions. Shouldn’t you be demanding I leave your property?”

Waylon cracked a pained smile, “Honestly, I probably deserved that one.”

“Fair enough.” Miles stepped inside and closed the door. The house was small, homey, and extremely clean. Either the Parks didn’t have a lot of stuff, or someone was very anal about putting things away. Miles didn’t know them well enough to decide which answer fit.

“What do you want to talk about?”

“First off, and I don’t mean to offend, but for a smart guy, you are really, really, dumb.”

“Excuse me?” Waylon said, stepping into the hall and guiding Miles into the living room. “You punch me, come into my home, and now you insult me? You better start talking before I call the cops.”

“Please don’t call the cops, I do not need that headache on top of the mess you caused.”

“Again, excuse me?”

“The footage you released yesterday. You fucked up.”

“How?” Waylon asked. “I did what any sensible person would do. Murkoff was hurting people, from the looks of it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. How did I fuck up by exposing those bastards?”

Miles sighed and ran a hand down his face. “Ughhh, I knew you wouldn’t even know what you did wrong. Did you ever stop to think for a second that the footage would be considered fake?” Waylon shook his head. “Did you ever expect that Murkoff would figure out who leaked it?”

This time Waylon shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. I went in anonymously, they told me they’d cover my tracks.”

“They? You mean the leakers?” Waylon nodded again and Miles burst out laughing. “Those bastards at VIRALeaks are probably lounging in beach chairs in the Bahamas sipping drinks with little umbrellas, all off of your story’s ad revenue. Trust me, they didn’t cover shit. You know what they did do though? Line that link with advertisements and watch as their hit counter went through the roof.”

Waylon suddenly felt sick and sat down. “But my footage, I cut myself out of it…”

“But you didn’t cut out your prisoner jumpsuit, Mr. Twenty-Five Thirty-Six.” Miles didn’t sit down next to Waylon, he didn’t want to dirty the couch. “Listen, I’m not here to beat you down, that’s the last thing you need. I’m here to lend you a hand, offer my help.” Miles could see that Waylon’s mind was racing. “Listen, please just look up your story, look up Murkoff. You’ll see that they’ve already covered their asses.”

There was a computer on the table that Waylon pulled onto his lap. He flipped it open and ran a quick search. Miles could tell by the way the other man’s face paled that he was learning the hard way how difficult a foe Murkoff was going to be. “This is ridicules,” Waylon said. “A viral marketing campaign for a film? Are you kidding me?”

Miles sighed. “I’m not, at least they didn’t slander your name, I was prepared for that outcome as well.”

“You said this was my fault, that I fucked up. What else was I supposed to do?”

Miles shrugged off one of his backpacks and let it crash to the floor beside the table. “Well, for starters you needed to release more than just the footage. Footage can be claimed fake, as you’re learning right now. But you know what they have a harder time explaining away?” He pulled out binders and folders of his research data. “Emails between employees, signed medical documents, official government documents and military projects, transcripts of audio recordings that are signed and dated. This is the kind of shit that ruins corporations doing shady work.” He let the documents drop onto the table with a dull thud. “This, combined with the footage would have won this story. But now it might be too late. It’s already being spread as a hoax, and it’s going to be damn near impossible to fight the media on this one.”

“What does this have to do with me? Wait, no don’t answer that, how the hell did you get all of this?” Waylon asked as he started to paw through the documents Miles dumped on the table.

“I spent about a month living in Mount Massive, collecting everything I could.”

“That’s impossible, the Variants would have ripped you apart.”

Miles shrugged, “I got lucky, most of them were dead by dawn. Murkoff Tactical were damn good at their job,” the lie was minor and he doubted Waylon would catch it. “And the reason this involves you is because Murkoff is going to come for you. Probably within a day or so. They didn’t publically fuck you over, they didn’t say you were a crazy ex-employee with a grudge to settle. No, they went the safer route. However, this doesn’t mean they aren’t going to eliminate a threat to their wellbeing. And you are that threat. If they have even the quarter the resources I did, which they don’t, they have double, they’d be able to find you. You need to move, now.”

“How did you find me Mr. Upshur?” Waylon was starting to grow suspicious of this stranger.

“Easy, you have my Jeep. Inside my Jeep I left my phone and laptop, there are trackers inside all three, all I had to do was activate them and I had your address. Who you were was easy to figure out too. The patient records I found had a Mr. Waylon Park forcibly committed to their care the same day you sent me the email. After talking with other surviving ex-employees it was easy to see what happened. You blew the whistle, you got put into their care, you escaped during the riot and you took my Jeep to safety.”

Waylon leaned back, impressed and overwhelmed. “Ok, I have to admit, that’s pretty good.”

“I am a journalist. Our best skill is digging.”

“Right, well Mr. Upshur I’d love to believe you but…”

“You want to see my footage?” Miles asked.

“You have footage?” Miles looked at Waylon like he was stupid. “Right, reporter, should have guessed. Yes, I’d like to see your footage.”

“Great, I’ll let you watch on a few conditions.”

Waylon cautiously agreed, “Ok, and they are?”

“First, you don’t call the cops. Second, you show me my Jeep, and third you let me use your shower.”

“Deal,” Waylon said. They weren’t all that outrageous. He led Miles to the door to his garage. “Here’s your car.”

“Oh!” Miles exclaimed and ran up to the vehicle, “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again baby.”

“Uh, the key’s on the-” Waylon stopped as he watched Miles throw his arms over the car in what looked like an attempt to hug it. Then he dropped down and reached under the driver’s side wheel well. “What are you doing?”

“Grabbing the spare key,” Miles said and produced a small box. “There we are,” he pulled out a set of keys and walked to the back of the car. “I always keep a spare set in a hidden spot, speaking of hidden…” He opened the back hatch and pulled the carpet up in the back. Waylon watched as he lifted a false bottom out and slid a key into a lock. From there he opened up a large compartment that had a suitcase and a few bags. “You have no idea how happy I am to see my own clothes, and my Jeep.” Miles said.

“I guess it really is your car, you aren’t lying.” Waylon didn’t know how anyone would know about those two secret places unless they were the original owner.  

“Nope, most definitely not lying. And really eager to shower off all this shit, I must reek.”

Waylon admitted, “Yeah, you kinda do.”

“That’s what I get for living in an asylum full of dead people for a month,” He pulled out a change of clothes and grabbed his computer bag before closing up the compartment and locking everything back up. Before he left he grabbed his phone from the front seat. Once they were back in the living room he tossed his computer bag down and pulled out a few chargers. He handed Waylon his camera and a notebook. “You’re looking for the first memory card, please don’t go digging around in the others. It should be the first file; you’ll know because it’s the long one. The notebook contains a few time stamps where interesting things happen, you probably don’t want to watch two hours of me hiding in a locker or under a bed.” He took his change of clothes and the phone charger when he stood up. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“We have two,” Waylon said ejecting the card and putting it into his computer. “You can use the master bathroom, it’s upstairs to your right.”

“Thanks, I’ll try to make it quick.” Miles left Waylon to dig through his footage and think about things while he took to the stairs and located the bathroom. He plugged in his phone on a nearby outlet and flipped on the lights. “God I look terrible,” Miles said to his reflection. “Why did Park even let me in?” He stripped out of the stolen clothes and looked at his naked body in the mirror. It had been a while since he’d studied himself.

His skin was pale, like death, even though R assured him he was healthy. His eyes were still grey, still human, but ringed in dark circles, like he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in ages. He hadn’t. His dark hair was matted and greasy, he looked like shit, but he looked human. That all changed when he let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding and let his forehead touch the cool mirror. Near instantly his skin shifted to black and his eyes became glowing silver orbs. “Fuck,” he said and backed away. Even his teeth had become pointed.

“Relax, Host. You are fine. You’ll look human again in a moment. You slipped because you relaxed. It is normal.”

“You better be right R,” he said and stepped into the bathtub. He stood for a few moments staring at the shower dials before figuring out how to get the water to run hot. Within a few minutes the air was steamy and Miles was enjoying the blissful hot water. He used what he assumed was Waylon’s body wash and shampoo. He’d gone a long time without a proper washing, sure he used the showers in the labs a few times, but there was no soap to be found and water only does so much. Dirt and dried blood swirled the drain and he smiled watching it disappear. Hopefully this would be the last time he’d have to wash off so much blood.

He stepped out refreshed and clean for the first time in weeks. Miles toweled off and ran a hand through his hair, it was silky smooth now and would be fluffy when dry. After he put on his own clothes and underwear he was feeling incredibly better. “Nothing beats wearing your own clean clothes after a shower.” He wiped a spot free of the mirror and smiled, a normal human smile reflected back at him. Feeling braver he opened the door to the bathroom and grabbed his phone, he was ready to rejoin Park in the living room.

He took the steps two at a time and strolled into the living room. He could hear his own voice, whimpering and near tears, and the cocky voice of Trager coming from the speakers. “Oh, just in time for my favorite part,” Miles said and stood behind the couch, watching the screen. Waylon flinched at both his sudden words and the footage on the screen.

“Sorry about your hands,” Waylon said.

“Eh, it could have been worse, I could have been captured by that creepy fuck with the table saw.” He saw Waylon visibly shudder at the sudden memory. “Who needs all ten fingers anyways, eight out of ten is still a B.”

Waylon chuckled, “You sure are upbeat, have a nice shower?”

“I’d prefer a nice bubble bath, but that did the trick.” Miles walked around the room while Waylon continued to watch his recording. He’d ask a question every now and again, and Miles would answer. Most of them were about what he was feeling at that particular moment. When the video neared the last annotation Miles slipped behind the couch again. He watched the camera fall from his hands as the Walrider attacked him, and he watched as R possessed his body. Hopefully Waylon didn’t catch on. He reached over Waylon’s shoulder and paused the video and closed it. “The rest is just me stumbling down the hallway, I pass out for a good forty minutes and my camera filmed the wall. Not really riveting television.”

“I can’t believe you survived an encounter with the Walrider and lived.”

“Shit, me either, but here I am.” He walked around to a different chair and collapsed down into it. “So, you believe me a bit more? Or trust me more at least?”

Waylon nodded slowly. “Yeah, yeah I think I do. After seeing you with your Jeep, and this footage, I’m willing buy more of your story. So after that you just stayed there? You didn’t run for safety?”

“Well, when I woke up Murkoff Tactical had already taken care of most of the Variants, there weren’t really many threats. I thought about bailing, walking down the mountain, but I had a job to do. After all the shit I went through and survived…I’m too stubborn to give up and go home. Plus I didn’t have my Jeep, phone or wallet. That sucked. So I stuck around, kept doing research and compiling a story until I saw that the news had broken ahead of me. After I figured out who did it and that it wouldn’t work I packed up and left. I wanted to get to you before Murkoff did.”

“And then what? What’s your plan? Why do you want to help me?”

“Because you’re a survivor, we’re survivors. I can’t let Murkoff kill you, we’re stronger together and honestly, I need the help,” Miles admitted. “I know my way around the media, and I know about Murkoff. I can keep you safe until we can post the real story, the full story.”

“So what does this include?”

“We go on the run,” Miles said. “Murkoff has no idea I’ve even been to Mount Massive, unless they freeze frame the few shots you took of the inside of my Jeep and read my press pass. But they won’t think I escaped. They won’t be looking for me. They’ll be looking for you. So come with me, lay low, and then we can release the whole story as well as my footage and reveal Murkoff’s movie to the bullshit we both know it is.”

Waylon considered Miles’ proposal. “And where will we run to? For how long?”

“My apartments, I have a few scattered up and down the coast. I want to head to the one in Oregon; it’s the closest and best stocked. How long it takes will depend on how fast we can chew through this data and get it all scanned and uploaded. I’ll need to write the actual article too. Maybe a month at most, a few weeks at best.”

Waylon thought this over, “A month…” He thought, “That wouldn’t be so bad.” He met Miles eyes and said, “What about my family? I have a wife and two boys. Will they be coming with?”

“That’s where this gets tricky,” Miles said. “I’d prefer that they go someplace else, motel hop or stay with a family friend until this blows over. Murkoff will be targeting you, but I’m sure you’re as aware as I am that they wouldn’t hesitate when it comes to harming your children or wife. If they’re with us, they’re in danger, and I’d rather have them out of the line of fire.”

Waylon agreed but he wasn’t sure how well Lisa would be taking all this. “You’re sure they’ll come for me?”

“Definitely. You’ll have an “accident” soon and then that’s all that there will be of Waylon Park.”

“And what if…what if this doesn’t work? What if you break the story and Murkoff still denies it? What then? Both our necks will be on the line.”

Miles stood up and looked through the sliding glass door to the outside. “If we do everything we can, and they still try to shove it under the rug, well…” Miles paused, “Project Walrider is mighty impressive in person.”

“Oh no, you won’t get me to go back there. I refuse to even step foot on that mountain again.”

“Don’t worry; we won’t need to go back.”

“I don’t understand. How would we show them Project Walrider without going back? And it shouldn’t even be alive; you clearly killed Billy at the end of your footage. I don’t know much about Project Walrider but I know that once you kill its host it dies.”

“Once again, for a smart man, you can be sorta dumb. I thought you would have figured it out by now.” Miles kept his face turned away from Waylon. “We don’t need to go to the mountain because the Walrider no longer resides there.”

“Meaning?” Waylon asked, but he was afraid he might already know the answer.

“Project Walrider lives in me,” Miles said, and turned back to face Waylon. He let his control slip, just a bit, and his human disguise fall away. He flinched when he saw how Waylon reacted; it was instant fear and panic. “No, no please don’t! Shit, I’m not going to hurt you.” Miles forced himself to look human again and took a few steps away from Waylon, his hands in the air. “Listen, please, when I killed Billy the Walrider didn’t die, it jumped hosts. That’s why I stopped the footage where I did; I didn’t want you to see that before I could explain.”

Waylon was still debating whether or not he should make a break for the door, but he had seen what the Walrider could do. It would rip him to pieces before he could hobble to the kitchen. If Miles wanted to kill him, he would have already. The monster had him trapped. “Are…are you dangerous?”

“No,” Miles said quickly. “No I’m fine, one hundred percent ok.” He wasn’t completely sure it was true, but he needed Waylon to trust him. “I’m the host, yes but I’m in complete control. I won’t go on a murder spree like Billy Hope. I promise.”

“Why did you tell me this? If you’re in complete control wouldn’t it be better if you just hid it from me?”

Miles shrugged helplessly. “I figured you deserved to know. Especially if I was going to ask you to travel with me. It wouldn’t feel right to keep that a secret.” Miles met and held eye contact with Waylon. “Listen, I need your help, and you need mine. The worst thing I could do would be to lie to you.” Miles rubbed the back of his head and tried to appear as harmless as he could. “If you’re too scared of me, it’s fine, I get that. I can give you and your wife some tips on hiding and vanish from your life. I’ll take my Jeep and you’ll never see me again. But,” he looked away and towards the pile of information on the table. “But I think we’d be stronger together and I’m afraid I can’t do this alone.”

“Couldn’t you get one of your other journalist friends?”

Miles shook his head. “This isn’t their fight, and I’d rather not endanger the lives of the few friends I have.” He was certain he would have at least one ally on his side, but there was no way he could risk asking something like this of him.

“I want to watch the rest of your video,” Waylon said suddenly.

“Why?”

“I want to see you become the host.”

There was a moment of tense silence before Miles agreed and pulled out his memory card again. He popped it in and skipped directly to the part where the Walrider attacked him. “This is when he entered my body,” Miles said and paused the video. “At first I thought he had just disappeared, and that the pain was from the beating I just took. I was very wrong.”

“Pain?” Waylon questioned.

“Yeah, pain.” Miles elaborated, “Hosting the Walrider takes a considerable toll on my body. For the first few days I was in incredible pain, like my bones and blood were on fire. It’s mostly passed now.” He continued the video.

Waylon watched as Miles stumbled forward, dropped to the ground several times, and struggled to breathe. When they reached the part where Miles was shot repeatedly Waylon gasped. “How are you still alive?” Before Miles could answer they both heard Dr. Wernicke proclaim Miles as the new host. Then, even though the camera was pointed at a wall, they heard the ripping and tearing of flesh.

Miles swallowed, his throat dry. “I know what you’re thinking, that doesn’t seem like control to me. And it wasn’t, I was unconscious and my body was protecting itself. It hasn’t happened since.”

Waylon closed the video file and opened his own. He also skipped to the end and paused it on the scene of the shadowy man on the staircase. “Was that you?” He asked.

“Yeah, that was me. I wanted to make sure you got out alive, and that no one tried to stab you again.”

“So you killed Blaire?”

“I did.” Miles watched himself hobble towards his Jeep. He laughed quietly. “Can you believe I thought that maybe you’d take me with you? If I had known how monstrous I looked I wouldn’t have even went outside.”

“You saved my life,” Waylon said quietly. More to himself, but Miles still heard. “Alright,” he said, and met Miles’ gaze. “I’ll travel with you and help you take down Murkoff.”

“Thank you,” Miles said, and he meant it. “It’s not going to be easy, and it won’t be safe. We’ll be burning a bridge here. One we might not be able to rebuild.”

Waylon nodded. He had gotten a similar speech from the man representing VIRALeaks. “I know, if I wasn’t ready to take this all the way I wouldn’t have leaked the footage in the first place.” He examined Miles again and asked, “How did you survive getting shot? You didn’t answer. That was at least…ten shots, maybe more.”

Miles nodded. “Eleven,” he clarified and took off his shirt, exposing his chest. “I survived eleven shots from a high caliber rifle. I shouldn’t be alive, but I’m not exactly human anymore.” He pointed to the various scars that littered his chest from the event. “The nanites that live in my body are parasitic and protective; they can produce both their own cells and mine. When I was shot they became synthetic veins and muscle. Basically they held me together while my own cells repaired the damage. The process took about two days and only the scars leave proof I was ever shot.”

Waylon watched Miles move to put his shirt back on but he stopped him. “Can you…can you do that thing again? Where you look like a monster?”

“Y-Yeah, I can.” He took a deep breath and let his control slip. He could hear R whisper in his mind.

“You’re doing good Host, do not worry, you have complete control.”

This reassured Miles and he let himself relax completely. He could feel the swarm move around his body, lightly brushing against his skin and weaving around his arms. “This is uh, me, I guess. What I look like now. At least when I’m not putting on a human disguise.”

Waylon was out of words. He had questions but they all died at the tip of his tongue. Instead he nodded dumbly and tried not to scream. He didn’t want to be afraid of Miles, but seeing something so similar to the Walrider that once hunted him, it was a primal form of fear he couldn’t shake. “You can stop, I’ve seen enough.” He could tell from Miles’ reaction that his voice had not been steady and betrayed his fear. He was amazed at how quickly everything vanished, how quickly the darkness evaporated and Miles appeared normal and human once more. “You’re a monster,” Waylon couldn’t stop himself from saying.

“Yes,” Miles didn’t deny it. He had spent weeks up on a mountain denying that simple statement. “I guess I am. But I’m a good monster.”

“If there’s such a thing,” Waylon muttered. He started to paw through the files, his eyes glancing up every once in a while to look at Miles. The man hadn’t moved any closer to him, he was keeping his distance. He was clearly aware that he frightened him, and didn’t want to make any sudden movements. “I would have kept yourself a secret,” Waylon said. “I don’t think I can ever look at you without seeing the Walrider.”

Miles sighed and said, “I figured as much. But I didn’t want to hide that from you. I especially didn’t want the truth to come out unexpectedly down the road. We’ll be traveling and living in close quarters. Even if I could keep my disguise up at all times I’m sure I’d slip eventually.”

“How close are we talking?”

“Well, all the traveling will done in my Jeep, it’s not the biggest vehicle, so you’ll either be driving, sitting next to me, or in the backseat. My apartment isn’t that big, it’s a one bedroom, and of course there’s the motels we’ll need to stop at, I’m sure you’ve been in a few.” Miles sat down in the chair across from Waylon and leaned back. “I don’t expect us to become best friends or anything, shit I don’t doubt that we’ll hate each other by the end but…well that’s what happens when you’re forced to spend a lot of time with a stranger. I’m sure we’ll do more than a bit of bickering.” Miles chuckled. “Kinda looking forward to it.”

“How so?”

“I spent three weeks talking to corpses,” Miles said, “A living person is a step up from that.”

Waylon nodded. “So all that stuff about Murkoff Tactical killing all of the Variants was a lie wasn’t it? You survived because you’re the Walrider.”

Miles shrugged. “Not entirely. You saw them; they were very efficient at killing everything that moved, including my human body. By the time I woke up they did clear out a large portion of the asylum before they were overwhelmed.” Miles sat forward and rubbed his forehead. “The others? Yeah, I intimidated them, and their fear kept me pretty safe.” He omitted the parts where he slaughtered hundreds of them for sport, pity and food. Those secrets were going to the grave with him. “I ransacked the kitchens, hoarded food, and created a safe space for myself to do my research. That’s how I survived. There’s no doubt that any normal human, who wasn’t already in the asylum’s ecosystem, would die.”

“Ecosystem?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Miles said. “The Variants they, they created various territories and leaders and such. There were vague rules and a system of respect. If you didn’t tread somewhere you weren’t supposed to be you’d be safe. Well, as safe as you could be.”

“But no one messed with you, right?”

Miles smiled. “Wish that was the case. A lot of Variants wanted me dead. I was messed with plenty, but I mean…I’m the host of the Walrider, they weren’t going to harm me much.”

“You’re insane.”

“Probably.” Miles pulled his chair closer to the table and helped make sense out of the papers on the table. “You’ll have a lot of time to spend with this stuff, but, I do have it semi organized.” He went over a few of the major folders and explained what was in them. “I also have flash drives of documents and I scanned and emailed myself more. There’s a lot to sift through, I wasn’t even able to get through half of it before I bailed.”

“Incredible.”

“You didn’t email a rookie,” Miles said, a bit of pride creeping into his voice. While Waylon flipped through papers Miles pulled out his phone. It had charged quite a bit while he was taking a shower and he turned it on. As soon as the home screen flashed up the phone started to vibrate madly with missed call alerts, old texts, emails and voice mail messages. “Jesus,” Miles said and set the phone on the table where it vibrated away.

Waylon raised an eyebrow. “Somebody’s popular.”

Miles rolled his eyes and waited for the phone to stop buzzing. “Seventy-two missed calls, one hundred and three text messages, ninety emails and sixty voice messages. This should be fun.” There was no surprise that the vast majority of them were from Julian, with most of them being recent, within the past two days. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to make a call.”

“I’m sure you do,” Waylon replied and watched Miles get up and walk to the kitchen.

Once in the other room Miles selected Julian’s number from his speed dial and waited for the other man to pick up. It didn’t take more than one ring for a very concerned voice to sound in Miles’ ear. “Miles?”  

“The one and only.”

“Oh thank god, you have no idea how worried I-“

“I think I have an idea, don’t you think like eighty texts and fifty-five voice mails are a bit much?”

He heard Julian huff on the other end. “After seeing that footage and knowing that’s where you went, can you blame me?”

“No, not really. I’m honestly surprised you aren’t driving here right now to kick my ass personally.”

“Oh don’t tempt me Upshur, do not tempt me.” Julian sighed and asked, “Are you ok? Are you hurt? Clearly you’re alive, so that’s good. Was that footage I sent you legitimate? Murkoff is already calling it fake, a promotional video but…shit that looked far too real.”

Miles took a deep breath and said, “Unfortunately yes, all that you saw was very, very, real.”

“I thought so.”

“I’m ok for right now, I’m not hurt, I just, Julian I need you to do something for me ok?”

“Yeah, of course, anything.”

“No, I really need you to promise me this.”

Julian’s voice grew more serious. “You’re in trouble, aren’t you?”

“Guilty as charged,” Miles tried to sound lighthearted. “Listen, I got into something bad. I’m not in danger yet, but I’m with the Whistleblower from that asylum. I’m very afraid for his life. He’s the only other survivor and I need him for this case.”

“Does Murkoff know about you? I saw your Jeep at the end of that video, that’s how I knew you were there.”

“I don’t know yet, honestly they could know about me, I’m just not sure. For now I’m going to say they don’t, pray they don’t. I need those few extra days to escape with Mr. Park and disappear.”

“What did you need me to promise? Miles I’ll do anything.”

“I’m counting on that,” Miles said and leaned against the fridge. He glanced down at the children’s drawing and managed a smile. “I need you to do absolutely nothing ok?”

“What?”

“You heard me Jules, nothing. This case is…it’s nothing like what I’ve covered before. It’s… it’s fucking crazy, for lack of a better term. I cannot risk any more lives.”

“Miles you know I can’t-“

“You can and will,” Miles interrupted. “Damn it Jules I’m in way over my head.”

“Then let me help you! The two of us can handle this. We’re stronger together.”

“I won’t risk your life.”

Julian laughed. “That’s awful sweet of you, but I’m twenty-nine and don’t need you protecting me.”

“Like hell you don’t!” Miles tried to calm down. “The stuff I saw…the shit I’ve been through…just Julian Murkoff isn’t joking with this one. They’ll want whoever knows the truth dead. And I don’t want to get you killed.”

“Not good enough,” Julian said. Miles could imagine his stance now, arms crossed, eyes hard and set.

“Fine,” Miles gave in, just a bit. “How about this? Follow my lead on this one. Don’t investigate on your own, don’t poke around, don’t give Murkoff a reason to suspect you. If they discover me, when they discover me, lets be real, they’ll start digging through my friends.”

“We’ve been through this before. I haven’t seen you since college; we worked on a few projects before you went independent, same drill as always. Code words, fake names, and our backup emails.”

“I’m going to try to wrap up my counter report in a month. Hopefully after that this will all be over. If it goes south, which it might, I’ll be backing everything up on my servers. You still have all the passwords right?”

“Of course. And the ones to your blogs, and site.”

“Good. If shit goes south, if I die-“

“Don’t say that.”

“If I die Julian. I need you to pick up where I left off.”

Julian snorted. “Oh so it’s perfectly fine for me to risk my life after you die but not while you’re still breathing and I can help save you? That makes a lot of sense.”

“I know, I know. I’m being stupid, I get it. I just…I want to handle this myself if I can. But, but I can’t let Murkoff get away with this if they catch me. They can’t win. You’re my backup; I need you to be alive to carry the torch.”

“So you don’t want all your eggs in the same basket? Is that what this is?”

“Yeah. Listen, I know it’s shitty, just please don’t get involved yet.”  There was no answer on the other end. “Julian.”

“Ok, ok, I won’t.”

“Thanks. I gotta go, listen I’ll be in touch.”

“Miles-“

“And Jules, for what it’s worth, I’m really sorry I worried you.”

“I thought you were dead,” he admitted softly.

“I would have come to the same conclusion, and I regret putting you through that. My cell died and things got hectic. I just…I’m sorry ok?”

“Apology accepted. Don’t get killed out there Upshur.”

“I’ll try not to. Talk to you later.”

“Later,” Julian promised.

Miles hung up and stared at the ceiling. He trusted Julian with his life, with everything. If he was thinking straight he’d be running straight to him, using him instead of Waylon, but deep down he knew that it wasn’t the right course of action. This was the safest route for everyone involved. The thought did cross his mind to send Mr. Park’s family to him, Julian could shelter them while he finished the report, but even that was too risky. He hated worrying Julian but there was no other way around it this time.

This story was way larger than anything he’d ever hoped of covering. He wasn’t lying when he said he was in over his head, he was practically drowning. R swirled around him briefly, offering his support through the static. Miles wasn’t as alone as he thought he was, and that gave him a bit of strength, a bit of courage. And he’d need all that courage and more for his next phone call. He walked back into the living room and dug around in his backpack. He was looking for a very specific piece of paper, one with a name and number written in perfect lettering. “Just one more call Mr. Park,” Miles said, “then we can discuss more.”

Miles stood up and walked to the sliding glass door again. He’d been dreading this call for over a week. He dialed the number and waited. It was still early in the morning, and he wasn’t sure if anyone would even pick up, but he had to give it a try before his bravery ran out.

The phone rang several times before a male voice answered. Miles frowned and asked, “Is this the Annapurna residence?”

“It is, may I ask who’s calling?”

Miles took a deep breath. “I’m a friend of David’s; I need to speak with his wife Ana, if she’s available.”

“You’re a friend of dad’s?” The voice on the other line asked. Miles remembered that David had a son named Edward. Apparently he just graduated from school not too long ago, he was going to be a doctor, David was very proud.

“Yeah,” Miles said. “It’s important that I speak with her.”

“Right, hold on one moment,” Miles could hear him call for his mom.

A few moments later someone else answered the phone. “Hello, this is Ana.”

“Hello, Ana. My name is Miles Upshur,” he said. He wasn’t going to lie to her, no fake names, no hiding, this was the truth. “I have some information regarding your husband, David.”

“I saw that footage, that horrible awful footage. Who are you?”

“I’m a reporter; I went to Mount Massive on the day of the riot, when that footage was shot. It’s true, all of it. It’s not a marketing campaign for a movie.” He heard the woman on the other end take a breath before Miles continued. “I want you to know that David didn’t die in that massacre ok? He wasn’t mutilated; he didn’t get murdered, or shot.”

“So what happened to him?”

“Murkoff hurt him,” Miles said. “They performed experiments on him, and they, they really hurt him.”

“But why?” She asked. “He was just an Orderly. They told me he was sick…They were lying weren’t they?”

“Yes. David was a hero, though not many will ever know it. I want you to know right now that he did not hurt anyone while employed by Murkoff. He never harmed another patient, he was always kind. But he started to catch on that something wasn’t right, that people under his care were being transferred and never seen again. He started asking questions, and when they weren’t answered he requested a transfer to a different location. When he was ignored he threatened to blow the whistle, call the authorities to investigate. That threat wasn’t taken too well and they forcibly imprisoned him.”

“I knew it…” Ana said softly, “I knew he didn’t leave us.”

“David was a remarkable man, and it’s because of him that I survived the riot and the fallout after it alive. I’d be dead a hundred times over without him.”

There was a lengthy pause before Ana worked up the courage to ask the question that Miles knew was coming. “So why are you telling me all this instead of him?”

“I think you already know the answer, Ms. Annapurna. Your husband isn’t alive, I’m so very sorry.” Miles waited a few moments to let the confirmation sink in. “The experiments that Murkoff did, the patients you saw with deformities, that’s what happened to David. These experiments cause a form of rapid spreading cancer, that’s what killed David,” Miles said. “I was there when he died, by his side. He wasn’t alone.”

More silence greeted Miles on the end but he continued talking. “Before he died he asked me to tell you something. He made me promise to make you promise not to go after Murkoff. He didn’t want you or your son to end up dead trying to avenge him. Instead he left the burden of justice on my shoulders, and I will not stop until either every bastard responsible is brought to court or I die.”

“And just who do you think you are? How can I even trust a word you’re saying?”

Miles shrugged helplessly, even though he knew Ana could not see it. “You’ll just have to go on faith. I’m an investigative journalist, and I went through the same hell your husband did. I was close to David, I know that sounds stupid, we only knew each other for a few short weeks, but I was. He saved my life and now it’s time for me to pay him back.”

Waylon watched and eavesdropped on the conversation. It was clear to him that Miles was calling the wife of a former staff member of Mount Massive. And the more he listened, the more it dawned on him that Miles could have ended up calling Lisa instead. Miles could be reporting back his own untimely demise, and it could be his wife on the other line, trying not to cry as she realizes her sons are without a father and her bed will be half empty and colder. One misstep, one wrong room, and that could easily be him. If he had breathed too hard in a locker, picked a bad bed to hide under or didn’t struggle hard enough he’d be dead.

These thoughts had plagued him since he escaped the asylum and was lying on a clean hospital bed. But never had they seemed so real. Miles was calling the wife of a whistleblower who didn’t make it back home. Miles was calling someone who was one mistake away from being Lisa.

“So please,” Miles said, “promise me, and promise David you’ll stick to the sidelines. Watch the news, follow the story and don’t for a second believe anything the mainstream media tells you. Murkoff is a dangerous and powerful force in this world and they have a choke hold over the media. You and your family will be safe if you don’t draw attention to yourselves. Take whatever condolences the company gives you, stay silent, pretend to buy every single thing they tell you. And when their world comes crashing down you burst out of hiding and make it so they don’t forget you or forget David. Can you do that?”

“Yes,” he heard Ana say, a newfound strength was present in her voice. “Yes I think I can.”

“Great. Now, if you have a pen handy I want to give you some of my contact info. Reach out to me anytime if you feel you’re in trouble. I’ll do my best to help, or get you to someone who can help.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

Miles smirked and said, “In my line of work there’s a wide, interconnected, network of people who are very good at poking things they shouldn’t and lying low when the thing they poked comes roaring to life.” Miles rattled off a few phone numbers, multiple email addresses and both his websites. He hoped that would be enough. “Thank you for speaking with me, Ana. And I’m truly sorry about David.”

“As am I…you know? It might sound harsh, or callus of me to say, but... I’ve thought David was dead for months now. I grieved him once, and now that I know the truth about him, it might actually be easier grieving the second time.”

“You’re a strong woman, Ana, someday maybe I’ll get a chance to meet you.”

“I’d like that, and Mr. Upshur? Thank you for calling. Thank you for telling me the truth when no one else would.”

And then the call ended and Miles was left staring out at an empty backyard with nothing but static ringing in his ears. “Mr. Park?” Miles asked when he turned to face Waylon. “Why are you crying?”

Waylon hurriedly wiped the tears away and muttered, “It’s nothing. Nothing.” He had to pull himself together if he had any hopes of surviving the mess he caused. “Are you ok?” He asked instead. “You’re shaking, tough call? You sounded like you knew them.”

“I didn’t, not really. David was just a patient I met in Mount Massive, we became good friends. It was… His death was hard on me.” Miles bent down to dig through his computer bag when he froze. When he held out his hand it was shaking uncontrollably.

Worry flooded his static and R responded silently, whispering in his mind. “Host, We do not wish to cause you panic, but you should feed soon. We did not interrupt your phone calls as they seemed important but now that you are free and aware We advise you to obtain food.”

Miles thought at the Walrider, “How long? How long do I have before I lose control? It’s been so long since I’ve skipped a meal.”

“You are in no immediate danger. At best thirty minutes, at worst ten.”

“That’s not a lot of time.”

“You’ll get better at judging your hunger, We promise.” The static seemed reassuring to Miles. R was confident and that feeling traveled to Miles.

“Hey, Park,” Miles said as calmly as he could. “Are there any fast food restaurants nearby? Burger joints?” Waylon hesitated and Miles continued. “What about a grocery store?”

“Why?”

“I’m hungry, starving actually. And I won’t inconvenience you by eating all your food. However I will inconvenience you by asking you to drive me to the nearest one.”

“Y-Yeah they just built a new fast food place down the block. They should serve all sorts of artery clogging burgers.”

“Perfect.” Miles stood and shoved his hands in his pockets, the less chances he gave Waylon to see them shaking the better. “Mind driving me there? We can take my Jeep.”

“Don’t you want to drive?” Waylon questioned. “It is your car.”

“I don’t know where I’m going,” Miles said simply. “You could get me to food faster.”

“And why the hurry?”

Miles smiled; he hoped it didn’t look predatory. “I’ve been eating canned beans for three weeks; a cheeseburger is going to be heaven to me.”

Waylon couldn’t argue with that. It was hard living in that hellhole for a few days; he didn’t want to imagine surviving there for weeks like Miles had. “Sure, sure, let me grab my wallet and we can head out.”

Miles went to his Jeep and hopped into the passenger seat. From there he fished out his own wallet from under the seat and looked through his cash. He had a couple tens and a twenty in between gas receipts and bank notes. “Gonna need more than this,” Miles muttered. He’d make one big withdrawal of cash as soon as he found one of his banks. He wanted to avoid leaving a paper trail as soon as possible. The quicker he could start making all cash payments the better. “Hey R? How much do you think I’ll have to eat daily to stay healthy?”

“Several pounds at least.”

Miles rubbed the back of his head. “That’s going to cost money,” he thought. “A whole lot of money.” Even a constant intake of fast food would rack up a bill Miles was uneasy thinking about. They’d have to figure this out sooner or later, but right now Miles putting it in the “later” category. Saving the Parks was his first concern and that involved fleeing Colorado as quickly as possible. Waylon joined him and they pulled out of the driveway and started down the road. Miles kept his eyes trained on the houses passing by. “Cute town,” he said when they hit a main street type road.

“It is,” Waylon said. “Lisa and the boys love it here.”

“And you?”

Waylon chuckled. “Before I left to work with Murkoff I thought I could do with some more people, a few more stores, better internet.” He kept his eyes on the road. “But now? Now I wouldn’t mind being in a town all by myself.”

“Shit hasn’t been easy for you since you escaped,” Miles guessed. “If I was smarter I’d be like you. But for some reason…shit I just can’t wait to get back into civilization.”

“Something tells me I’ll be shut up in your apartment for the duration of our stay in a bigger city. You can enjoy the crowds and noise, not my thing anymore.”

Miles nodded. “I understand, don’t worry about it. My place might be small but it’s-”

“Upshur?” Waylon turned to look at Miles when he didn’t respond. “You ok?” Miles was bent over, a pained expression on his face.

He started to pull over when Miles growled, an actual growl, “Don’t stop, please just get me to the restaurant.”

“What’s wrong with you?” There was a tinge of panic edging its way into Waylon’s voice.

“Try not to freak out,” Miles groaned and grit his teeth. “Part of my…condition dictates that I need to eat constantly or I’ll lose control of the Walrider portion of myself.”

“You said you were safe!” Waylon said, his voice near a shout. “This doesn’t sound very safe to me!”

Miles wanted to roll his eyes and laugh it off, but hunger stabbed his gut and suddenly Waylon smelled really appetizing. “I am safe,” Miles said through clenched teeth. “In the asylum I had access to as much food as I needed, but I had to walk down that damn mountain. I haven’t had a decent meal in almost a day.”

“What happens if you don’t eat?” Waylon dared to ask.

Miles lifted his head and Waylon flinched. He could feel the nanites swirl his body and cover his skin. “You don’t want to find out,” he said. “Just drive a bit faster if you can.”

Waylon stepped on the gas. He couldn’t help taking quick glances at Miles every block or so. The man was straddling the line between monster and human and it made Waylon want to crash the car and kill them both. But after viewing the other survivor’s footage he realized that a simple car crash probably wouldn’t even slow him down. “Can you make it?”

“Yeah,” Miles said with a bit more confidence. He was taking careful, calculated breaths and focusing on keeping himself grounded. The distant memory of a makeshift church and a chorus of broken voices flooded to the front of his mind. There was a time in that church where he felt similar hunger pangs as he was feeling now. Only then it was focused on his friend David and not Waylon. Before he was able to struggle through it, and he was going to do it again.

“Breathe in,” R said into his mind. “Breathe out.” Miles did as instructed. “In once more Host. You are doing fine. In, out.” Miles gripped his pants tightly and concentrated on R’s voice in his head. So far he was winning against his instincts. They came on far faster than Miles had anticipated, but he was holding them off. Just one breath at a time. He could feel his claws come in, and his teeth too, he was swiftly losing the battle of looking human. Through the fog and static he managed to pull the collar of his jacket up over his face and neck more, in case someone happened to look at him through the car window. “So much for my first day going smoothly,” Miles muttered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” Miles clenched his teeth again. “It was nothing, just me bitching.”

Waylon’s eyebrows furrowed and he pushed the Jeep over the speed limit and prayed no local cop would catch him. When he reached the fast food place he pulled in and parked crooked. “What now?”

Miles chanced a look at himself in the review mirror and dug out his wallet. “I can’t go inside, not when I look like this.” That and he didn’t want to eat any of the innocent people inside. He pulled out several bills and his credit card. “Get as much as you can, preferably meat. Burgers, chicken strips, I’m not picky. I don’t care about fries or a drink, just get meat.” Waylon took the money from him; both of their hands were trembling in equal amounts. “If there’s not enough cash put it on my card, the pin is 1987.”

“And you’ll be ok in here?”

“Just go!” Miles said, a bit too harsh, and a bit too loud. Waylon didn’t hesitate after that and hurriedly exited the Jeep, limping into the store. “Fuck,” Miles said leaning back.

R was quick to comfort him. “You’re doing well Host, you have not snapped at the human.”

Miles rubbed his eyes and growled. The smell of cooking food was making his stomach turn and his instincts scream. Even with both windows up he could smell the food, and people, inside with disturbing clarity. “This better not become a daily occurrence,” Miles snarled at R. “There’s no way we’ll make it out of Colorado without being spotted at this rate.”

“Stockpile food in the vehicle Host, it shouldn’t be too difficult.” R tried to sooth Miles, calm his nerves a bit. He was quite proud of how his Host was handling things. If they had been experiencing this same event two weeks ago R was certain that Miles would have slaughtered the people in the restaurant by now. His control had vastly improved.

“It shouldn’t be too difficult, says the one who has never been inside a grocery store. Do you even know how much money this is going to cost?”

“Then we will steal.”

Miles groaned and pressed his head into hands. “R…” He dropped the subject and turned his eyes to the restaurant. “Damnit Park…hurry the fuck up.” So far he was holding out, but there was a part of him screaming for release. R was still reassuring him and instructing his breathing when Waylon did emerge from the building.

He had two large bags in his hands and Miles could smell the meat, it was nearly overwhelming. Waylon opened the Jeep door and handed over the bags of food to Miles. R had evaporated into nothing. Miles snatched the bags out of Waylon’s hands and pulled out the first burger. He didn’t unwrap it and shoved the whole thing in his mouth, paper and all.

Waylon watched in a combination of disgust and curiosity as Miles ripped into the food. The other man shoved meat into his mouth; he didn’t even look like he was pausing to chew. It didn’t look pleasant or pleasurable for the other, he almost looked pained. Finally the crazed eating seemed to slow and Miles’ features returned to a human state.

“S-Sorry about that,” Miles choked out. He took the time to unwrap this burger and tried to eat like a normal person, not a ravenous beast. “I’m good now, I promise.” He wiped his face with one of the numerous napkins in the bag. Miles pulled down the bag and checked to see how many he had left. “Want one?” He offered.

“No, no, they’re all yours,” Waylon said weakly. “Besides I uh, I lost my appetite watching you.”

Miles sighed and continued eating. His heart had stopped hammering and his mind was clearing up. He felt ok again. “I really am sorry,” Miles apologized again. “It’s…hard, being the host. There are challenges I never had to face before that I do now. The main one being my appetite.”

Waylon turned the key and started the car. “Why? What makes you eat like that? You plowed through seven double quarter pound burgers in a matter of minutes.”

He took another bite and answered the best he could. “There are cells inside my body that aren’t my own; they belong to the Swarm, the Walrider. Part nanite, part organic they course through my blood just like any red blood cell. They’ve turned parts of my body into mini factories that create their cells instead of mine.” Miles took a few more bites of burger and went on. “The added strain of nanite production burns far too much energy. My metabolism spiked and my appetite did as well. I have to eat or I’ll start dying. If I start dying…well, the other part of me takes over to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“So as long as you’re kept fed you’ll be fine.”

“That’s about it,” Miles said. “Sorry I sprang this on you. I was hoping we could ease into this whole “I’m not human” thing, but we can’t always get what we want.” He pawed through the bag and took out a box of chicken nuggets. “Woah, they still sell fifty-four piece chicken nuggets? I thought they outlawed these things long ago.” Miles chuckled. “Save humans from themselves, because they’ll actually order and eat this shit.” Miles popped one in his mouth and chewed. “Though, here I am, eating it.”

“How can you be so calm?” Waylon asked, bewildered. “Aren’t you even the least bit concerned? You were just a few steps away from being a monster. How can you be joking?”

Miles grinned. “I’ve been alone in that asylum for weeks getting used to this, I guess I forgot how normal people should react.” Miles turned his eyes to the houses and said, “You lose a bit of yourself in that place, I’m sure you understand. But living there, seeing so many dead bodies, so much blood, it…you forget what reality is like, what the world is like.” Miles shrugged. “I guess I’m just desensitized. If it makes you feel any better I was pretty embarrassed back there. You had to watch me eat like an animal, I’m not proud of that.”

“So you just shrug it off?”

“Yeah. Humor and sarcasm to cover my real emotions is sort of standard with me.” Miles ate a few more chicken nuggets. “Besides R will keep tabs on my hunger from now on. We slipped up today, but it won’t happen again. We’ll iron out the kinks, don’t worry.”

“We? R? What are you talking about?”

Miles closed the lid on the chicken nuggets. “Since I’m dropping bombs left and right today, want another?”

“There’s more?” Waylon asked, he wasn’t sure how much more he could take.

“Just one last thing. Another big one, you might want to pull over.”

Waylon did so and took the Jeep into a side street and stopped it. “Ok…go for it.”

“Well, R is a pet name I’ve given to the Walrider.”

“But you…you’re the Walrider.”

“Nope,” Miles said. “I’m the host not the Walrider.” He commanded R to materialize and he popped in from the back seat. “Mr. Park, meet the Walrider, R, Mr. Park.”

R stuck out his hand in a friendly greeting but Waylon had screamed and pressed himself against the door. “That’s rude Host.”

“R it’s only natural, don’t take it personally.”

Waylon had opened the door and tumbled outside, scooting away from the car. “Stay away!” Waylon said when Miles exited to join him.

“Hold on Park, settle down. Don’t…” he made R disappear again. “Don’t panic, please.”

“This is too much, you’re too much.”

Miles leaned against the side of his Jeep and folded his arms. “Maybe so,” he said calmly. “I can’t say that I blame you. You went through the same hell I did, only you came out with anxiety and PTSD and I came out a near god.” Not to say that Miles wasn’t also concerned about his own mental health. But he was riding a high and hadn’t come down yet. “But this is it; everything is out on the table now. There are no more secrets.”

“So that…thing, it’s separate?”

He nodded. “R, or the Walrider, is a separate entity from the Swarm, and from me, the Host. However, he’s under my direct control. I’m not sure how much I can explain without going into super detail, but he’s basically a parasite. He lives off of my body and acts as a type of manager, fixing any injuries, directing my cells and controlling my food energy consumption.” Miles tried to give Waylon a comforting smile. “He has a personality of his own, can communicate with me through the static, and his sense of self is stored within in my brain. We’re inseparable unless I die.”

“You named it? That horrible monster?” The shock was beginning to wear off and Waylon was starting to think more critically.

“Well…when you have something that lives inside your mind and is a constant companion you sorta get close. I’m not saying we’re best friends or anything, but I gave him a name and we’re trying to make the best of things.” Miles turned to where R was sitting in the backseat, still invisible to a normal human. “He’s on our side, we’ve agreed as parasite and host that it would be mutually beneficial to work together. He doesn’t want me to die; I don’t want to die. Honestly, he just wants to see the world.”

“So it’s not dangerous?”

“Oh sure he’s dangerous, we’re Project Walrider. But we don’t want to be dangerous. He won’t do anything I don’t want him to do, and I don’t want to be a killer. You’ll just have to trust me on that.” Miles looked down at Waylon and tried to judge his emotions. The man was hard to read, he was scared, Miles could easily see that, but there was something else, trust? Miles wasn’t so sure. “Like I said, if I make you too uncomfortable I’ll leave. I’ll vanish from your life and you and your wife can protect your family on your own.”

“But you’d like me to come with you?”

Miles nodded. “I would really, really, appreciate it if you came with me to help.”

“It won’t hurt me?”

“Nope. He’s completely fine, I promise.”

“Ok.”

Miles bent down and offered his hand. Waylon stared at it for a moment before he grasped it firmly and Miles helped him to his feet. “Ok.” Miles tried not to sound too relived when he said, “Us survivors gotta stick together alright? Because that’s what we are, survivors.”