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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.”

Chapter Text

“Then we’ll head west on I-70 for about three hours before catching US 191 where we start to head north. It’ll be another-” The front door flung open and slammed closed interrupting Miles’ conversation with Waylon. Both of the men looked up at the sudden noise.

“A fucking movie!” Miles heard someone say from the front door. “Can you believe this shit? A movie! They can’t get away with this!” The owner of the voice entered the living room. She was a fiery woman, Miles could tell. Her long, dark, curly hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her brown eyes were simply ablaze with anger. “How could anyone who viewed that footage believe this line of bullshit? Do those people have eyes that fucking work? Or functioning brains?”

Waylon rose from the couch and crossed the living room to try to calm her down. “Lisa, sweetheart please watch your language around the boys-“

“Oh the boys are in the car, don’t worry about them. I told them to wait there while Mommy had a talk with Daddy. I can’t believe Murkoff is trying to weasel out of this! Actually I can, those fucking cowards wouldn’t admit to a damn thing even if you held a gun to their head.” Miles had to chuckle. Seeing the two standing next to each other was a sight to see. They looked like complete opposites. Where Waylon was pale, anxious and calm, Lisa was dark, confident and overflowing with emotion. “And who the hell is this?” She asked, gesturing at Miles. His smile grew wider, oh; he was going to love her.

“This is Miles, Miles Upshur,” Waylon said. “You know… the reporter I uh, killed.”

“You didn’t kill him Way, I keep telling you that.”

“Clearly not, as he’s sitting right-”

“No, no I mean you didn’t force him to go investigate nor did you tell him to he had to do it during a goddamn riot.”

“That’s what I tried to tell him,” Miles said and stood up. He closed the gap between the couple confidently and held out his hand. “Miles Upshur,” he introduced himself again, “it’s a pleasure to meet you Mrs. Park.”

She looked at his extended hand critically before shaking it. Miles wasn’t ever bothered by his missing digits back on Mount Massive, but now after only two handshakes he was starting to feel a bit self-conscience. “While I’d love to say likewise I’d like to know why you’re here, in our living room Mr. Upshur.”

“That’s a long story,” he continued quickly when he saw her eyes narrow, “that we’ll get to later I promise. But first, is there a way we could get the house to ourselves? Just us adults? The sort of things we have to discuss shouldn’t be said around children.”

Lisa frowned and nodded. “Actually, yes. The boys both brought up that they would like to spend the night at Carter’s house. Apparently their friend got a new videogame and they want to hang out and play it. I told them to ask their father when we got home.”

“Perfect,” Miles said. “Please, make the arrangements; we have a lot to go over tonight.” He could tell Lisa wasn’t as trusting as Waylon had been. “I’m going to be upfront with you,” he said and tried a smile to smooth some of it over. “You’re not going to like a lot of what I’m proposing, but as you’ve probably gathered…the situation we’re in is pretty messy.”

Waylon spoke up and said, “Please listen to him, he’s not here to screw us over. He wants to help.”

“Help how?”

“I want the same things you two want. I want Murkoff held responsible for the things they did, and want to be safe from their grasp for the rest of my life. And right now, if we don’t act fast, we could lose both of those things.”

She was quiet for a moment before she agreed to talk with him. “I trust my husband’s judgment. I’ll get the boys and call over to Carter’s house. If his parents agree to a sleep over I’ll drop them off. Then I want to know everything.”

“Thank you,” Miles said. “I promise I’m only here to help.”

She turned her back on the two and stepped outside. Waylon spoke his next words quietly. “Are you going to tell her everything everything?” Miles raised an eyebrow. “I mean, are you going to tell her about you being…you know?”

He shook his head. “No, that stays between us. I want her on the same page with what we’re doing, our plans for splitting up and taking to the road. She needs to know the dangers we’re facing, and obstacles in our way. She should definitely know how much information and proof I have, but my condition isn’t vital to this operation.”

“I think it’s pretty vital.”

Miles laughed. “Yeah, you would think that. But you’re not the one hosting a top secret bio weapon. I am, and I think it would be better if the world believed that Project Walrider died in that asylum.” With that Miles left Waylon standing in the living room and headed towards the garage. There were a few more things he wanted to pull from his Jeep; he had a great idea about how to appeal to the Parks. When he came back inside Lisa was on the phone and both of the boys were excitedly running around the living room. One of them was holding a toy nerf gun and shooting at random objects in the room while the other had a toy foam sword. Miles watched them for a few moments, children had always amused him.

He stepped fully into the room and sat down at the couch. Out of his backpack he produced a small camcorder; this one was much simpler than the one he took with him to Mount Massive. He ejected the memory card and did a quick transfer of all the files to his computer. This was a personal camera that he typically took with him to parties or to smaller news events. After the card was wiped he placed it back inside and looked out at the two kids playing. “Hey, Park,” he said, and got Waylon’s attention.

“Yeah?”

“What are the names of your boys?”

“Oh,” Waylon smiled and said, “I guess you haven’t been properly introduced.” He walked over and leaned against the couch. “That one is Alex,” he said, pointing at the younger son. He was the one with the nerf gun. The kid looked very much like his mother, even at this young age Miles could pick out some defining features. His hair was darker and his eyes were the same deep brown that his mother had as well. “And that’s Lee,” he said, motioning at the older of the two. Lee seemed to inherit both his father’s lighter hair and his reserved personality as he would later notice. “Boys,” Waylon said to get their attention. “This is Miles Upshur; he’s going to be staying with us for a while.”

“Hi Mr. Upshur,” Alex said. Lee said nothing.

“Hey,” Miles said back. “Come here for a second, I have a gift for the two of you.” Alex came running over while Lee hung back a bit. Waylon just looked confused. Miles opened up the camera and asked, “Have either of you two made movies before?” Alex shook his head and Lee seemed a bit more interested now that the camera had come out. “Well then, this should be fun.” He placed the camera in Lee’s hand and said, “This is for you two, to share. It’s a camcorder; you can use it to film movies.” Miles showed him how it worked, how to stop the recording and start it again, as well as go back and view what was previously recorded. “It’s important to document your life,” Miles said. “But it’s also important to have fun. Think you two can make a cool movie at your friend’s house?” He asked.

“Yes!” Alex exclaimed and ran around the couch. “We’ll make the best movie!” His emphasis on best made Miles smile.

“Thank you,” Lee said. “Is this really ok? We can keep it?”

“Sure,” Miles replied. “I already have my own,” he said and pointed at his more expensive camera on the table.

Lee carefully put camcorder down and reached for Miles’. “It’s broken,” he stated, pulling open the screen.

“It’s uh, well loved,” Miles said back. “That camera has been through a lot with me, it’s pretty special.”

“Do you make movies Mr. Upshur?”

“Something like that,” he said. “Not professionally or anything.”

“Like on YouTube?”

Miles chuckled. “No, not for YouTube. I’m a journalist, I work around the news. I film current events and write about them.” Though the thought of vlogging this trip was amusing. But he was pretty certain the Walrider and the Swarm could be picked up on camera and he wasn’t too eager to accidently leak Project Walrider to the world. There was no doubt in his mind that some of the trip would be filmed, he couldn’t help it, he loved recording too much.

“That’s pretty neat Mr. Upshur. Dad always says we should have hobbies.”

“And what are yours?”

He shrugged. “I like computers and books.”

“Both very good,” Miles said.

“I like dinosaurs!” Alex said and jumped up on the couch. “And I like videogames! And cartoons and spaceships!”

“Dinosaurs and spaceships are also very cool. What dinosaur is your favorite?”

 Alex seemed troubled by this question, his eyes narrowed and he fell silent. “Hmmmm,” he said and put his hand on his chin, the classic “I’m thinking” gesture. “I dunno,” he said finally. “All of them!”

Miles chuckled and said, “Very good answer, why pick? All of them are pretty cool.”

“Alex, Lee, go get ready. I’m going to drive you over to Carter’s soon.”

“Look what Mr. Miles gave us!” Alex said and scooped up the camera. He ran over to his mother to show her. “He said we can make movies with this!”

“That’s awfully nice of him, did you say thank you?”

“Yes!” He ran up the stairs and Lee followed.

Waylon watched them go and asked Miles, “What are you up to?”

“Just planting the seeds of a reporter in them. Gotta start early.” He grinned and leaned back. “Or maybe one of them will really take to making films, or photography, either is good. The world could always use fresh pairs of eyes behind the lens.”

“That camera’s a goner,” Lisa said. “Alex breaks near everything he touches.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Miles said. “Lee seemed to really like it. I’m sure he’ll be the one handling it.”

“I noticed that,” Waylon said. “It’s rare for him to take to something, or a person.”

They came back down shortly after, both of them with pillows under their arms and a sleeping bag in the other hand. “Ok, we’re ready!” Alex said excitedly. Miles felt a bit of nostalgic yearning, for days where overnighters were exciting and a hell of a lot more innocent. Sometimes he missed being a kid. When he looked back at the most recent times he crashed on a buddy’s couch they were all either because he was too drunk to drive home or stressed over work. Sometimes those two overlapped. Long gone were the days he and Julian would just sit around and watch TV, now Miles had to stumble in, pissed off about something and complain until he either passed out or Julian took the bottle from him.

When this was all over he would like to tone it down a bit, he decided. He wanted to try to get what they had back in college back, not everything, but maybe there’d be more pizza and game nights and less random ranting. Miles just wanted to have fun again, he realized. He hadn’t had honest to god fun in a long time. Maybe it was time to change that? I am a god now right? I think I could cut loose a bit more.

“We’d like that Host, you’re way too cautious, guarded.”

Miles flinched and then remembered that no one else could hear R. He took a deep breath and shot back. “Nope, never mind, I’m never going to relax for the rest of my life.” The static crackled in a laugh and Miles wanted to punch R, but couldn’t. “You’re lucky I’m not good at this whole mind speaking thing. Or I’d give you an earful.”

“Host, you already give Us an earful.”

“Upshur? You ok?”

Miles snapped back to attention. “Yeah, yeah, just thinking about some things.”

Waylon seemed concerned but didn’t press it. The other man looked human at the moment so he gave him some credit. “Like you said, Lisa isn’t going to like any of this.”

“She doesn’t have to like it,” he replied smoothly. “This can only go a few ways. We split up, move fast, and save all our asses, or we don’t and we die, or worse.”

“What could be worse than dying?” Miles looked up at him and didn’t say anything, but his expression said enough. “Right, it’s Murkoff. It’s the Engine…they could just strap us to that again.” Waylon tried so hard not to think about the nightmare machine. He wasn’t even attached to the proper device but the therapy fucked with him more than he’d like to admit. “What about you? Would they put you back in it?”

Miles shrugged. “If they were smart, they wouldn’t. If they were smart they’d just shoot me.”

“Because that worked out so well for them the first time,” Waylon said.

“Maybe next time they’ll aim for the head instead of the chest.” He put his stubby pointer finger to his temple and made the motion of a gun going off. “Putting me in the Engine would probably kill me,” Miles said. He dug through a stack of papers and pulled out some patient reports. “I’m already the Host, and a damn good one at that. I can’t be bonded any further with the Walrider and I can’t control it during lucid dreaming. The Engine would just be a pointless strain on my body.”

“So what, you’re perfect?”

“No, you are not “perfect” but close. The closest they ever got.”

“R, R says I’m not perfect. But I’m close.”

“Is that thing in the room with us?”

Miles nodded. “Yeah he’s usually next to me, or around me at any given time. Does that…bother you?”

“Yeah,” Waylon said, he wanted to be truthful. He figured he owed Miles that much. “Yeah it bothers me. It freaks me out. I don’t like thinking that that thing is alive and can speak.”

“You get used to it,” Miles said.

Waylon disagreed. “No I think you got used to it, maybe because you had no choice, or maybe because of something deeper, I don’t know. But I don’t think I’ll get used to it.”

“That’s fine. It’s just a month, think you can hold out for a month?”

“It’s not like I have a choice.”

“That you don’t,” Miles said and started the task of prepping the coffee table for their discussion. He thought about using the larger kitchen table but the couch was comfortable and he was all about being comfortable at the moment.

Lisa returned a few moments later, the carefree smile was gone from her face and she was all business. She sat next to Waylon and gripped his hand in hers. “Before you start I want to know something. How did you survive? We’ve had your Jeep since the riot, you were stranded there. Mr. Upshur I’ve seen the footage, I’ve seen what those monsters could do. How did you-”

“They weren’t monsters,” Miles said quickly, surprised at the anger in his voice. “Sorry,” he apologized. “The people that Murkoff hurt they weren’t monsters, they were victims and I will not let them be vilified.”

“What about the one that tried to saw my husband’s penis off? Or the one who wanted to eat him? Were those not monsters?”

Miles shook his head. “No, they were bad men, horrible men, but they weren’t the average prisoner.” He dug around in his backpack and pulled out a vanilla folder full of patient documents. This collection was one that David had helped him prepare. “Mrs. Park I want you to read through some of these, maybe not now, but someday. While Mount Massive was indeed an asylum for the criminally insane, and there were some bad eggs in there…there were also prisoners like your husband, like my friend David, or William Hope.”

He put the folder down and stared her dead in the eyes. She didn’t flinch. “My time in that asylum, while similar to Park’s, was also very different. I saw things in there, broken men who never asked for this. Men just a year past being children who were mutilated, tortured and their bodies filled with tumors. Murkoff… they didn’t just pull their test subjects from local prisons. No, they went after the weak, the poor, and the people seeking mental help who couldn’t afford it, who thought this was actual charity. Those people weren’t monsters Mrs. Park.”

Miles cleared his throat and said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off there. To answer your question I survived by dumb luck. I was in all the right places at all the right times. Murkoff sent in a second wave of their security team called Murkoff Tactical. They’re basically a mini private military force. I hid and they did a sweep of the buildings, putting almost everyone down. The ones who survived were ones who, like me, hid as well.” He motioned to his computer and camera. “Waylon already viewed the footage I recorded during the riot, if you’d like to see it too I’d have no objections.”

Lisa shook her head. “Not now,” she said, “I don’t want to watch whatever horrors you captured right now.”

“I understand. You’ve probably gathered from the large amount of files I have scattered around that I didn’t do all this during the riot. Like your husband I spent most of my night trying to avoid being killed. But, like you did mention, my Jeep was gone. I was stranded and I decided to dig. The asylum was mostly empty and I didn’t have many issues with raiding their data bases.” Miles continued, “I was even able to interview a few of the more cooperative patients and ex-employees that hung around.”

“So why are you here? Why now?”

“Two things. The first and most important, I got wind that the story broke and it wasn’t handled in the right way. I knew that Murkoff would sweep it under the rug and then come after the whistleblower and his family. So I packed up and headed straight here. The second reason is that I wanted my Jeep back. I’m rather fond of that vehicle.”

“How did you know? How did you know that Waylon blew the whistle and that we had your stuff?”

Waylon answered that. “He was able to trace my identity by the serial number on my prison jumpsuit. And his Jeep has a tracking device on it, same with his phone and laptop. All he had to do was look that up and see that all three items were at my current legal residence.”

Miles nodded. “Did you have any other questions about me?” She shook her head. “Ok so I’ve been talking with Mr. Park and here’s what we’re thinking. I would like you to take your two sons and leave town for a while. Call the school, call your work, tell them there’s been a family emergency and get out. Stay at a few motels, crash with some friends, distant family, anything really. I’d even recommend picking up a tent, grabbing some winter wear and camping for a bit. It’s cheap and the boys should find it fun.”

“Why?”

“Because Murkoff is going to come for you all. With the bullshit movie cover-up they’ve appeased the general public. The viral marketing campaign lie went over way too well. With that success they’ll want to close up the loose ends, your family has become a loose end.”

“And Waylon? What should he do?”

“I’m going to go with Upshur,” he said. “We’re going to drive up to his apartment in Oregon and stay there while Miles writes out a more detail story to expose Murkoff.”

“You won’t be caught? Wouldn’t they be looking for you Mr. Upshur?”

“Nah,” he said simply. “If there’s any link to me being there they’ll assume I died, like you two did. I should be in the clear for a little while at least. People come and go frequently from my apartment and I’ve been known to disappear for long amounts of time. None of my neighbors will find it suspicious and any Murkoff agent watching the place won’t see anything out of the ordinary.”

“You’re sure your story will do what Waylon failed to?”

“It should,” Miles said. “Your husband only released footage, which can be claimed false or manipulated. They’ll have a harder time covering up all the official documents I have. Combine it with my footage and I should be able to show the world the truth.”

“If it fails?”

“I don’t like thinking about failure,” Miles admitted. “I know it’s not ideal to split up a family, especially one that has just been reunited, but I don’t know what else to do. They’ll come for Waylon first and I don’t want your boys in the crossfire.”

“How do you know they’ll eventually come for me?” Lisa asked.

Miles laughed. “You’re made of fire Lisa Park. There’s no way they won’t come for you. Especially after the way you handled Mr. Blaire a few weeks back. The reports they have on you are less than favorable for your continued survival.”

“What will happen if they get to us?”

“At best, death, at worst? They’ll make you disappear. Trust me; you don’t want Murkoff to make you disappear.”

Lisa was quiet for a few moments. She squeezed Waylon’s hand before saying, “Fine. I’ll take the boys to a friend of mine. I don’t like the idea that we’ll be hunted, and I don’t think we’re safer apart but…but I’ve seen what Murkoff can do. They took Waylon from me once, there’s no doubt in my mind they’d take him again. How long?”

“About a month,” Miles said. “Think you can manage?”

“A month? There might be a few issues with the school, and I’ll lose my job, but…yeah I can manage.” Lisa picked up one of the folders and started to look through the information on the pages. What she saw wasn’t pretty. There were patient reports and treatment logs. Some of them contained graphic photographs of the tumors and others were cross sections of human body parts tainted by whatever Project Walrider was. “What happened to the thing they tried to create? The monster? Waylon got some good footage of it stumbling out of the asylum. Did you ever see it Mr. Upshur?”

“Project Walrider? I saw it a few times during the riot, but it’s dead now.”

“How can you be sure? Waylon said the same thing.”

“I killed William Hope,” he answered. “I cut his life support and watched him die. He was the last host, and when he died it died too.”

“You murdered someone?” Her eyes widened. “I don’t know how comfortable I am knowing this about you, Mr. Upshur.”

Waylon interjected, “Lisa that place… that place made monsters of men, in more than one way. It was kill or be killed, he did what he had to survive. I would have done the same. It’s not fair to judge him any harsher than you judged me.”

Miles was thankful for Waylon’s defense. He might be scared to death of Miles, but he wouldn’t let him stand alone. Sticking with the other survivor was probably a good call. They understood better than anyone what that riot was like.

They were in the middle of discussing the details of both plans when Lisa stopped them and grabbed her phone. “I’m going to order a pizza, is that alright with you?”

“Sure,” Waylon said. “Pizza sounds lovely.”

“I’ll buy,” Miles offered up and tossed two twenties on the table. “Order whatever you like, I’m not picky. After a month in Mount Massive I’ll eat pretty much anything.” It turned out that Lisa did want to view some of Miles’ footage, she was curious about what happened to him. He gave her an abridged viewing, skipping through a lot of stuff, especially some of the nastier bits. “Don’t want to ruin our appetites,” he said, skipping over a section he knew contained a mountain of decomposing, ripped apart, bodies.

“I don’t know who had it worse, you or Way,” Lisa finally said.

Waylon wasn’t watching the footage; he had seen enough of that place for one day. Instead he was reading some of the profit reports that Miles had printed out. “I don’t think it’s a contest,” he said. “We both went through hell and back.”

“I suppose…” Lisa turned her attention to Miles. “You don’t seem too bothered by this. Waylon was very reluctant to even let me see the footage; he wouldn’t talk to me about it for weeks. But you, you don’t seem phased at all.”

Miles didn’t know what to say. “I uh, I mean I am bothered by it. What I saw and experienced was horrible but… but I think I’m desensitized to it all. I lived among the surviving patients for a few weeks. I ate with them, interviewed them, and stepped over the bloated corpses of the fallen for near a month. I guess after you see so much gore it stops being shocking.” He closed his laptop and messed with his phone. “God knows I’ll probably need therapy for years after this, but right now I can’t focus on it. I have a story to tell, and I promised a few people that I’d tell it.” Luckily the doorbell interrupted Miles and he didn’t have to try to explain more. He wasn’t sure if Lisa was buying his story, he hoped she did.

They moved to the kitchen where Lisa placed two extra-large pizza boxes down on the table. Waylon handed out plates and napkins. For Miles it felt like his mouth was overflowing with saliva. He had to use great restraint when opening the pizza box and grabbing the first few slices. Pizza, he declared to himself, was the best food humans had ever invented.

His body kept sending him signals to eat more, consume more, fill his gut, but he had to hold back. He was playing human, and humans don’t eat ravenously devour an entire extra-large pizza in under five minutes. “R can’t you do something about this? It’s hard to focus when my body is screaming at me to eat.”

“Sorry Host, you’re on your own for this one.”

“Goddamn it.” He chewed slowly, drank water between bites and tried to ignore the way Waylon was staring at him. “This is way better than cold canned beans,” Miles said to break the awkward silence. Both Waylon and Lisa laughed.

“When should we leave?” Lisa asked.

“I want to be out of Leadville by tomorrow. The longer we stay, the more at risk we are. They’ll move fast, we just have to be faster.”

“I’ll start packing after dinner.”

Miles nodded. “I don’t mean to alarm you, but I would suggest you take anything you can’t replace. Things you hold dear. They might not be here when this is over.” Lisa acknowledged Miles’ suggestion. “Waylon I want you to pack only the essentials, clothing, your computer, and toiletries. We have to pack light.”

“Why?”

“For starters my Jeep isn’t that big, and more importantly, if my apartment is being watched we’ll have to motel hop. It’s easier to do this with fewer things. We’ll raise fewer suspicions too. A red Jeep packed with cargo is easier to spot than one without.”

“Understood. I’ll start packing as well.”

Miles helped to clean up the kitchen before returning to the living room. He started organizing folders and papers and putting them back into their respective places. Both Waylon and Lisa seemed a little jumpy, like they thought Murkoff could come bursting through the door and windows at any moment. He wished he could tell them they wouldn’t. After a while though, their constant anxiety started to get to him. “I’m going to head out for a bit,” he said. “Just take a quick drive around town, get some fresh air.”

Nobody argued with him and he vanished into the garage where his Jeep awaited him. He got in the driver’s side this time and started the engine. There was still a bit of gas left in the tank and Miles carefully backed out and turned onto the quiet neighborhood street. As soon as they were out of view Miles let himself slip and the Swarm dance around his skin. He rolled down the windows and let the cool mountain air rush in.

Whenever he had a lot of things on his mind he’d take long drives or go jogging. After eating he didn’t feel like working out. His stomach growled and he growled back at it. Miles found the burger place again and pulled into the drive thru. After checking his funds he purchased another bag of burgers, not as much as the first time, but still a staggering number after just eating pizza. “R, what the hell? I never ate this much up on the mountain. What’s going on?” He had found a secluded spot in a parking lot eat.

“We do not know. The level of energy your body is demanding is fluctuating. If We had to guess, it would be because you’re stressed out.”

“I’m stressed?” Miles asked between mouthfuls of meat. “How do you figure that?”

“Being among humans again has been a strain on your body and mind. We’ve been monitoring you closely. You’re maintaining control but We think the sudden change in environment and spike in interactions has put a stress on your body. In response it is using more energy to cope.”

“Do you think it’ll even out? R I can’t be getting cravings this bad every three hours. This won’t work. Even if we resorted to petty thievery I wouldn’t be able to maintain this pace.”

R materialized in the passenger seat and looked over Miles with blank black eyes. “We think this is a transitional period and you will adjust with time. Perhaps a few days, maybe a week, We cannot be sure.”

“Well, that’s a bit of good news I guess,” Miles finished inhaling the last burger and crumpled the wrapper up. He reached for the milkshake he bought and greedily sucked that down too. “Fuck yeah, regular fast food is awesome. Let’s hit the local grocery store for some snacks and swing back to the Park residence.”

Unfortunately for Miles, the small town of Leadville didn’t have the demand for a twenty four hour grocery store and it closed up shop at nine. He decided to pop into a gas station instead and purchased a few bags of chips, some jerky, and a case of soda. “Host these food items are terrible for you.”

“Yeah, yeah, lecture later.” He turned the vehicle on once more and started back towards the small family home. “Right now we don’t have a lot of options. It’s going to be fast food and junk food for a bit. When things are more stable and have calmed down we can work out a better diet.”

R picked up one of the bags and Miles could feel his disgust ripple through the static. “These things will kill you faster than any Variant or bullet.”

Miles grinned. “Stop being so dramatic.”

Things at the Park residence seemed to have settled down by the time Miles returned. He felt better after another meal and some time alone with R. It was actually weird to not have spoken to the Walrider for a long period of time. Even though it was just for a few hours it still felt off. Miles hadn’t realized how accustomed he’d become to talking with him. “Hey Park,” Miles called when he walked in through the garage door. “Where am I crashing tonight? The couch? My Jeep?” He was cool with either.

A voice called down from upstairs but Miles couldn’t hear what it said. He was halfway up the stairs when Waylon appeared in the hallway. “We have a guestroom, if you would like to sleep there you can.”

“Thanks,” Miles found the room on the first floor; it was right off the living room, near the staircase. He dropped a bag by the bed and tossed his pillow with the others. He flopped down and sighed. “What a day,” he said. It seemed surreal that yesterday he was still sleeping on a bloodstained couch in the Administration Block. R was right, he had become used to a lifestyle and routine that was dangerous. If Waylon hadn’t broken the story there’s no telling how long Miles would have been comfortable staying up on that mountain. It had truly been the best and the worst thing to have happened.

“We think you are already lighter and freer,” R said.

“You think?” Miles rolled all the way onto the bed and sat up. He reached for his backpack and lifted out his laptop. It was killing him not to be able to update any of his social media. He was a natural loud mouth and loved sharing his adventures on the road. But he had to go dark until this story was ready to launch. If he dared to post anything then the jig would be up and Murkoff would be on his ass as hard as they were on Waylon’s.

One good thing they had going for them was that there were quite a few journalists who weren’t buying the viral marketing campaign story that Murkoff put out. Many of the blogs and sites that Miles browsed were owned by friends of his. He was glad to see that people he kept in contact with had working brains. On a whim Miles opened up Julian’s personal blog, “To Clear My Mind” and read the latest post. The timestamp put it sometime after their phone call.

“Watch who you trust, now more than ever before. Think critically, act safely, be careful who you associate with. Keep your friends close and the dead closer. They won’t win, we won’t let them.”

“Wow Jules, way to be subtle,” Miles mumbled and scrolled through a few of the comments.

“Is this about Murkoff? I agree their story does a bit…like a cover-up? That footage seemed far too real.”
“Do you know what happened to Upshur? The guy hasn’t responded in weeks.”
“I agree, that footage wasn’t staged. That wasn’t an actor. Something’s not right.”
“You guys can go chase that corporation and pull its tail. Count me out. Their legal team scares the shit out of me.”
“As it should, haha. Those guys mean business. I have no idea how Upshur got away with his little water scandal story a few years back.”
“That’s probably because he DIDN’T get away with it. If that footage was real and not a movie promo there’s no doubt in my mind that Upshur’s rotting in a cage somewhere. Think he left me anything cool in his will?”
“Hahahaha. Dude at least wait till he’s officially dead to lay claim to his crap.”
“Mainstream media has reported nothing but the movie story. It seems legit if we go by the top sources.”
Julian responded to that comment. “When have we ever believed the mainstream media hook line and sinker? I’m not at liberty to say more, mainly because I don’t know any more than the rest of you. But we’ve all been through the muck long enough to spot bullshit when we see it. I’m not saying you should storm the company or flood them with emails, but I would suggest a closer viewing of this story. Something’s off. No word from Upshur. We all know he can be rather…flighty sometimes. He’ll turn up.”
“It’s cute how you have hope that he’ll surface. His last blog post clearly indicated that he was going to Colorado. Either two things happened there, that riot happened and he’s dead, or it was a movie and he’s laying low out of shame.”
“When has Upshur ever known shame?”
“Maybe he went camping?”
“Camping? Haha that’s rich. That kid wouldn’t know how to deal with nature.”

Miles nearly snorted in laughter. God he wanted to comment so badly, he wanted to say something like “Glad you guys sure speak fondly of me when I’m presumed dead or missing.” Instead he just backed out of the comment section of that post and went back to looking at other blogs and sites for their input.

“Hey,” a voice said from his doorway.

It startled Miles and he jumped a bit. “Mrs. Park, shit you scared me there for a second.”

“Sorry,” she said and leaned against the doorframe. “What were you reading? You were really focused.”

“Oh,” Miles leaned back against the wall and moved his laptop off his lap, “I was just browsing a few sites, you know, just trying to keep up with the news. Mostly I was interested to see how my side of the media was handling Murkoff’s slew of lies.”

“And?” She asked.

“They’re skeptical, which is good. It’s what we want. We need some people to be questioning what they saw and the answers they were given. Things will be easier down the road if we some people willing to stand by our story.”

“I see,” Lisa said. She lifted her hand and Miles spotted what must have been Waylon’s camera in her hands. She was playing with the screen and toggling buttons. “It was really nice, what you did for the boys,” she said. “They don’t have much, we don’t have much, if you haven’t noticed.”

“I did… And I don’t mean to be rude!” He said quickly. “I just…I have a good eye, I notice things. I couldn’t figure out if this house was just really clean, or if you didn’t have anything to put in it.”

Lisa laughed. “A bit of both, actually,” she said. “Waylon has been obsessively cleaning the place since he came back from the hospital.”

“How is he? I noticed a limp, can’t be helped I guess, he did fall through an elevator.”

“He’s…better,” Lisa settled on. “He needs help though, therapy or something, anything.”

Miles nodded. “Hey maybe I’ll be of some help?” He could see Lisa was giving him a strange look. “Well, I mean I survived what he did. I’m no therapist, but I sure as shit knows what it feels like to be stalked down dirty halls and hide beside corpses in the dark.”

“Maybe he’ll open up to you in ways he didn’t to me. Or, maybe he’ll stay closed off like normal. He’s not the best with strangers.”

“A bit of an introvert? That’s fine, I might be the opposite but I can respect boundaries. Honestly Mrs. Park I’m not looking for a friendship between myself and your husband. I just don’t want to see a family like yours torn apart by this corporate monster. If I end up helping in more than one way, well, that’s just a bonus I suppose.”

“It might do him some good as well, to get out of this house. He hasn’t left for anything more than a trip to the store. The trip to Denver was pushing his limits I’m sure.” She lifted the camera again. “Anyways, I’m just here to say that I saw what you did for the boys, and I appreciate it. This won’t be easy on them once the magic of a road trip wears off. The camera will be a nice distraction.”

“I thought so. When I was a kid I always liked making little movies. Though, I had a lot less to work with. The camera I gave them is pretty good; it’s got a few filters and a decent zoom. They should have some fun, even if it’s just filming action figures.”

“Does it have one of those night vision modes? Like yours and Way’s did?” She asked. Miles shook his head. “I was always amazed at how high quality these small cameras could get. Especially with that night vision mode.”

“Yeah,” Miles said. “I’m not sure the specs on the camera Waylon lifted from Murkoff, but mine is really nice. I’ve had it for years, the cracked screen is nothing I won’t get repaired. It survived hell with me, there’s no way I’ll be tossing it out.”

Miles should have been paying more attention to Lisa, or more importantly to the buttons she was fiddling with on that camera. If he had, he could have caught the sound of the night vision turning on and maybe prevented the scream that made him press against the wall and freeze. Lisa looked from the screen then to Miles and then back to the screen before shouting, “Monster! You’re a monster!”

“Park!” Miles yelled. “Park get down here!” He placed his hands in the air and kept himself backed against the wall. “Lisa please stop screaming-”

“You’re one of them!” She said, “You’re that…that thing that Murkoff made!”

“No! No! I’m-” Then he spotted R out of the corner of his eye. The Walrider materialized and started heading towards Lisa. “R no!” His command was so strong that R flinched from receiving it. “Back off R. Now!” The Walrider hesitated but ultimately reformed next to his host.

“You said no one was to know about Us. You said that We must remain a secret. The adult male We could accept. He has already seen Us, but the adult female? She should die.”

“No,” Miles said, just as sternly. “No.”

“What is that thing?” Lisa asked. Miles was impressed; she wasn’t trembling like her husband had.

“That’s Project Walrider,” Miles said.

“But you said it died!”

“I lied,” he said simply.

“And what else have you been lying about?” And Miles knew in this instant he had just lost all the trust he could have had in Lisa.

Thankfully Waylon had stumbled into the room just in time to buy Miles some time to think. He took one quick look at room, saw Miles backed against the wall, saw the Walrider ready to attack and saw his wife with the night vision filter on the camera in her hand. It wasn’t hard to put together what had happened. “Lisa it’s ok he’s-”

“It’s ok? It’s pretty fucking not ok Waylon! Look at this!” She held the camera out to him. “Look at what this thing is! What he’s been hiding from us!”

“Not us, you,” Waylon said as calmly as he could muster. “Miles already told me what happened to him, he showed me the Walrider and what he’d become.”

Lisa seemed more furious than scared now. “And you thought it was a good idea to let him stay? In our house? With our children?”

Waylon wanted to shrink back but he stood between his wife and Miles. “He’s a good man.”

“He’s a stranger who we know nothing about!” Lisa pointed at him and said, “I don’t even think he’s human anymore. And that thing next to him? You thought that was safe? I watched that thing tear people apart. Christ Waylon it ripped a man in half directly above your head!”

“I know! Lisa I know! Out of everyone in this room I think I know best how dangerous the Walrider is.” Miles coughed a bit and was going to interject but Waylon shot him a dangerous look. He kept his mouth shut.

“And what’s worse is that you thought it was ok not to tell me! Don’t you think I’d like to know what kind of things we let inside our house?”

“I wanted to tell you, but Upshur told me not to.”

“Of course he didn’t want me knowing. Because I might be the only person here with their head screwed on straight!”

“Will you let me explain?” Miles spoke up from the bed. “There’s a lot about Project Walrider that you don’t understand. Please? You can absolutely throw me out if you want. But it still changes nothing. Murkoff will be coming for you both. I still want to help but-”

“How do we know you’re not working for them? You’re their pet monster.”

Miles frowned. “Not true. If anything, I have more to fear from getting captured than you two do.” He put his hands down and rested them in his lap. “I told you before that they would either kill you, or make you disappear. That won’t happen to me. I’ll be thrown into experiments; I’ll be used as the weapon they had intended to create. I might have a strong will now, I might be in control now, but I might break. I’m just a person, same as anyone else, and I’m terrified of Murkoff breaking me. Because when the break me, they’ll get to him.” Miles jabbed a thumb towards the Walrider. “That “Thing” as you call it is under my direct control. But if you remove me from the equation…” Miles trailed off.

“What will happen?” Lisa asked.

“You saw the footage.”

“Listen, just hear him out ok? I’ll make coffee and you can grill him for all the answers you want.”

Lisa stared at Miles long and hard, then at the monster next to him. “This is insane,” she said and left the room, heading out towards the living room.

Miles sighed. “Thanks for sticking up for me Park.”

“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d just told her from the start.”

Miles shook his head. “Nah, I’m pretty sure she should have tossed my ass out in a heartbeat. Shit, she still might.” He got up and picked up his bag and laptop. “It’s not like this wasn’t the reaction I was expecting. I know what I am.” He shouldered past Waylon and sat down on one of the chairs. “R get in here, no need to hide, this might go over better if you’re visible.”

“How do you figure that Host? We think it would be best if We vanished.”

“The more they see you the more they’ll get used to you, maybe.”

Waylon started the coffee maker and Miles could hear him talking with his wife. While they weren’t exactly being quiet, Miles made it a point not listen in. People deserved their privacy. He went over what had just happened and wondered if he really would have been better off telling Lisa up front, like he had with her husband. He just wasn’t…expecting anyone to figure it out. He had forgotten about the swarm being visible through the night vision, he’d gotten too relaxed, too distracted. Maintaining a human form wasn’t enough outside the asylum. He had to work harder.

“I want answers Upshur.”

“I know you do. Everything I told you before, every last detail was absolutely true, except for the part about Project Walrider dying with Billy Hope. When I killed the kid the Walrider jumped hosts. The only living human that was close by was myself. He invaded my body and that was that. I became the Host in a matter of seconds.”

Lisa asked, “How is that possible? Waylon was telling me that the people who were put into the Engine or the ones who had become hosts had to be primed. If they weren’t they’d just die. How did you manage? You claim to be an outsider, a reporter.”

“I was in a way…primed. The conditions for being the Host seem to be pretty simple. You have to have seen true horror, been in close proximity to death, experienced great pain, and you had to be exposed to the Morphogenic Engine. During my trip through the asylum I had accidently fulfilled all those requirements.” However, Miles was still unsure himself it was an accident. He had a feeling deep in his gut that Father Martin specifically knew how to make a person more susceptible to the Walrider. Becoming the host seemed premeditated. “If I’m being honest with you guys…I might have been ready to go right from the start. I’m not sure if you know this, but I did extensive coverage during the war. I didn’t sit in a cushy hotel room and do interviews from afar. I traveled with a few ground units. I slept where they slept and was in danger when they were in danger. I saw some shit during that time. Stuff I will never forget, no matter how much I drank.”

“Sorry,” Waylon said automatically.

“It’s fine. Not like anyone can do anything about it. I moved on, and you’ll move on from Mount Massive.”

“Sure,” Waylon said, but he didn’t really believe it. Miles didn’t either. There were some things that you couldn’t come back from. The haunted looks in both of their eyes would never fully disappear.

“So you’re the “host” then what’s that?” She pointed at R who was standing silently beside the chair Miles was sitting in. “Is that the “parasite”?”

“Yup,” Miles said. “You got it. Project Walrider is an advanced swarm of nanobots. But it gets even more complex than that. It’s not just a machine, it’s organic too. The machines need to be replenished just like any other cell. They can’t make their own parts on their own, so they hijack my body, my bone marrow and manufacture more of their cells inside my body. They need me to live. The Walrider is a more physical manifestation of those cells. There’s a part of it that roosts in my brain. It stores its own data there, like memories, and also allows me to have full control over it, if I desire.”

“So you can tell it what to do?” 

“Yes. I’ve spent a lot of time working on having perfect control over R. Oh, R’s his name, I named him. It’s short for Rider.” He couldn’t tell if he was wining anyone over. “I know you saw the footage of the Walrider during the riot. What I need you to understand is that the Walrider wasn’t running wild. It might not have looked like it, but Billy was in control the whole time. He was sloppy at first, but near the end you could clearly tell there was total control.”

Lisa frowned. “I’m not sure it’s wise to bring up the kid that killed hundreds of people.”

“Well I’m not like Billy. I don’t want death and destruction. That’s not how I want my revenge. Unlike Hope, my control is better. I’m more focused and the relationship between myself and R is far more stable. Believe it or not, the Walrider has thoughts of his own, opinions and can talk to me.”

“This doesn’t change the fact that you could kill anyone at any moment. You’re dangerous.”

“Humans are dangerous. We kill each other better than anything else on this planet. Just because I can kill people doesn’t mean I’m unique. Shit, falling coconuts kill people, stairs kill people, bacteria kill people.” Miles shrugged. “I didn’t ask for this and I don’t want it. But that doesn’t matter, I’m stuck with it, Project Walrider is fused to me for the rest of my life. The only thing I can say to make this better is that I don’t want to be a weapon. I won’t kill people, I refuse.”

“I believe him,” Waylon said.

“Why didn’t you tell me from the start? You both lied to me.”

Miles nodded and bowed his head. “I know. I shouldn’t have forced your husband to keep secrets from you. Especially given the situation you’re all in. I made that call. I didn’t want anyone else to know. Waylon…I had to tell him. We’re going to be traveling together, living together for a while. That sort of close contact means he’d figure it out anyways. I didn’t want a situation like this to unfold in a tiny motel room.” He took a deep breath and lifted his head so he could meet Lisa’s gaze. “I should have told you too, it wasn’t right. I was asking you to trust me with the safety of your family. That trust was broken.” Miles fiddled with the stump of his pointer finger. “I didn’t tell you because I thought it would be dangerous for me.”

“Oh dangerous for you? Yeah that makes it fine then, it’s not like your husband was going to be bunking with a monster or anything.”

“I’m sorry,” Miles said again. “I wanted to keep the number of people who knew that Project Walrider lived on low.”

“And how many people know about you?”

“Alive? Two. You and Park.”

“And dead?” She questioned.

“…Three,” Miles said after a pause. “Sure there were people in the asylum who knew I was the Host, but they didn’t know who I was, the person behind the Swarm. The only other one who did was David Annapurna.” He got up and crouched down next to another bag. He pulled out a stack of files and skimmed through them until he came to David’s file. “He was the only real friend I had in that place. David was an ex Murkoff employee. He was an orderly for the top floors, never went to the basement labs. But he knew something was up. He threatened to go to the police and they locked him up. Sound familiar?”

Lisa nodded. David could have been her own husband for how similar the story was.

“He died there, from the tumors that resulted from extensive rounds in the Engine,” he handed Lisa the file. “If you don’t believe me you can read it here. And if that’s not convincing enough I interviewed him twice. Listen,” Miles sat back down. “I’m really not trying to fool you guys, I’m not some secret Murkoff agent, and I’m not a weapon of chaos waiting to be released. I’m a reporter who got in way over his head. I simply want to see the people behind Mount Massive behind bars. I want justice.”

“And what will you do after that?” Lisa asked.

“Go back to what I’m good at, being a journalist. Though I might lay low for a while after this. Catch my breath.” He didn’t know what else to say. “I wanted this to stay between myself and Park. The more people who know, the more possible ways the information could leak. If word gets out of what I am… well I can kiss my freedom and possibly my life goodbye. I don’t want to die Mrs. Park.”

“How can we trust you not to abuse the power you’ve been given?”

“How do you trust anyone with a gun? With a steak knife? A car? I understand that what happened to me is a bit more terrifying, but the core argument is that I could kill someone. Well, couldn’t you? Or your husband?” Miles looked over at R who was still standing quietly by his side. “I know that I look like a monster, and I know that R pretty much is a monster. But we can keep ourselves hidden, we don’t want any attention. We’re scary, sure, but we just want to live.”

R moved without Miles telling him and he was about to order him to stop when he picked up a piece of paper and a pen. “We want to see the world,” R wrote and turned the paper over to show the Parks.

“Holy shit,” Waylon said.

R took the paper back. “We are the Walrider. We are sixty-six years old. This is the first time We have ever been outside of a laboratory or off the mountain. Our Host is brave and smart and kind. Our Host does not wish to harm other humans. We will not hurt. We will obey. We just want to be free.”

Lisa didn’t know what to say. She didn’t expect the creature to try to communicate with them. She stared at the paper and at the Walrider.

“Sixty-six years is an awful long time to be a prisoner,” Waylon said. “It doesn’t change the fact that it scares the shit out of me, and it doesn’t make me any more eager to sit by it, but I think they deserve a chance.”

“Thank you,” Miles said. R nodded and took his place beside Miles.

Lisa shook her head. “No, Waylon you can’t. You’re coming with me and the boys. I can’t risk losing you to that…thing. It can communicate but that didn’t stop it from killing all those people before.”

“I already agreed. I’m not…I’m not a child Lisa. This is a choice I made, even after Upshur revealed what had happened to him to me. I decided to go with him. I think it’s a good idea. And I think there’s no one safer to travel with than Mr. Upshur.”

“I promise you I will keep your husband safe. Murkoff won’t find him with me, and if they do… I, I’ll make sure they don’t get him ok?”

“If he wanted to kill us he’d done it already Leese.”

He had a point there. As much as Miles made her uncomfortable he hadn’t harmed them yet. He’d been nothing but friendly and outgoing this whole time. The reasons he gave for the information he withheld made sense, she couldn’t blame the guy for being afraid. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like to wake up and not be human anymore, and then try to go out into the world and pretend you are. “If… if you trust him Way, then I’ll… I’ll trust him too. I don’t like it, but you’re right. You’re an adult and I can’t make your decisions for you. I know you’ll do the right thing.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep in touch, you know I will,” Waylon said. “And we’re not leaving right away, we still have tonight. It’s only a month and then we’ll be a family again. I promise.”

“You better not be lying to me Upshur. If Waylon comes back in less than one piece I’ll hunt you down myself.”

Miles had to admit, Lisa Park had even more courage and fire than he could have imagined. He didn’t doubt that she would hunt him down and find him. “Don’t worry Mrs. Park, you’ll see him again, whole. I promise. And I really am sorry I lied. I’ve never been in this type of situation before, forgive me, I’m learning.”

But Lisa didn’t accept the apology. She just grabbed Waylon and pulled him up. “We still have packing to do.”

“But hon, it’s like one in the morning,” Waylon complained. He never got a good night’s rest and this day had been exhausting. He hadn’t had this much conversation in a long time.

Miles piped up, “You did put coffee on, did you not?” They had gotten so wrapped in talking that they had forgotten all about the lonely pot of coffee sitting on the counter top. “Park can sleep on the road,” Miles said. “You however,” he said to Lisa, “you should get some shut eye.”

“By the way,” Lisa asked as she was climbing the stairs, “where did you go before? After dinner?”

“Oh, I grabbed a milkshake at that burger joint down the road and stopped at a gas station to grab some munchies for the road.”

“I see…”

“Oh come on, you don’t believe me do you? Do I have to get my receipts? The chips?”

She shook her head. “Come on Way, grab some liquid energy and come upstairs. I want everything packed before I wake up.”

Waylon groaned and made his way into the kitchen. Miles followed and leaned against the counter. “Hey, uh, thanks for you know…sticking up for me back there.”

“I felt like I had to. It’s my fault you ended up in the situation you’re in, even if you say it isn’t. You at least deserve a chance. I’ll risk my life with you, after all, you risked yours responding to my email.” He poured a mug of coffee and started to make his way slowly back to the staircase. “Drink some if you want, dump the rest. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, tomorrow.”

Miles didn’t have any coffee; even though caffeine hardly affected him anymore he didn’t need an excuse to avoid sleep. His thoughts would be doing that just fine on their own. He dumped the pot down the drain and went back to the guest room. He moved his computer from the bed and face planted directly into his pillow. “Kill the lights R,” he said through the pillow. “And that’s a euphemism for “shut off the lights” don’t actually try to kill them.”

“We know Host, We are not stupid.”

“Good,” he said and flopped over once the light was off. “What a fucking day,” he said.

“So let Us get this straight. We cannot be seen or known about…except when you decide it’s fine?”

“Yeah, that’s about it. But before you go complaining about how poorly I’m doing at keeping us a secret, it’s just going to be the Parks, no one else ok?”

“You are now three for three for adults you’ve met and adults who know about Us. Are you sure you can keep this up?”

“R that’s not fair. You didn’t count the drive through lady or the gas station cashier. That’s like what? Five people? Three of five is still bad, but it’s better than what you said.” He stared at the ceiling and tried to sleep, it had been way too long since he had decent rest. “Hey R?”

“Yes Host?”

“I didn’t know you could write.”

The static rippled with a laugh. “There’s much you still don’t know about Us.”

“Ooo, spooky,” Miles said and rolled over. “Keep watch for Murkoff while I’m out. If you see anyone wake me.”

“Understood Host.”

“See ya tomorrow R,” Miles mumbled, losing energy fast. Sleep was coming and he wasn’t going to protest. Even his racing thoughts were slowing down. The day might not have gone exactly to plan, but everything worked out in the end. Tomorrow they’d split up and start heading for home. He couldn’t wait to sleep in his own bed after all this time away. It was just an eighteen hour drive from here to there. Miles figured they could do it in two days, no sense in pushing it to the extreme on day one. They’d find a motel, take it easy and be at his apartment before long. There were a few more things he had to do in Leadville before they could leave, but he was losing the will to make mental notes. Hopefully he wouldn’t forget anything when he woke up.

R hovered over his host and pulled the covers out from under the human. He placed them over his body before dissipated through the cracks in the window sealant. He would remain vigilant and keep a watchful eye over the household. Like their own bastardized version of a guardian angel.

Chapter Text

Waylon and Lisa both heard the front door open. They rushed to the staircase and found Miles stepping inside their home. He gave them a smile and walked towards the kitchen, where he placed a large, flat box on the table. “Where were you?” Lisa asked.

Miles looked up at them and saw the concern on their faces, but he knew it wasn’t concern for his wellbeing, but for that of the general public. They were afraid he hurt someone. He flipped the box open. “Doughnuts?” He asked.

“What?”

Miles took a sip of the coffee he had in his other hand and said, “I went out to fill the Jeep and get doughnuts. Is that a crime now?”

“N-No, it isn’t,” Waylon said. “But uh, maybe next time you could let one of us know…”

Miles rolled his eyes. “Sure, sure.” He muttered under his breath, “It’s like being a teenager all over again.” He took two of the doughnuts out of the box and stuck one in his mouth. They weren’t the first ones of the day he’d had. There was another box, empty, that sat in a garbage can just outside the gas station. Its contents had been hastily consumed along with several breakfast sandwiches and a few cups of coffee. But he wasn’t going to tell them that. The Parks didn’t need to know that his day started with intense hunger pains that he quelled by scarfing down inhuman amounts of food. He could feel their eyes on him, no need to make everything worse. “No, really,” he said and turned around; he spoke through the pastry in his mouth. “I bought enough for everyone, including the boys when you pick them up.”

Waylon was the first to take the bait and made his way downstairs to join Miles. He was tired, exhausted and only managed to catch a few short hours of sleep before he was woken up by the sound of the garage door opening. They knew Miles had left, but they didn’t know where he was going or how long he’d be gone. Neither of them wanted to go after him either, they figured they’d be no chance against Project Walrider. Waylon met Miles in the kitchen and claimed a doughnut for himself. He took a few small bites and asked, “That’s it? Just gas and breakfast?”

“Yeah? Were you expecting more?”

He shrugged and took another few mouthfuls. “Did you get any more coffee?”

Miles shook his head. “Just this one,” he said. “Here, you can have it, it’s my third anyways.”

“Three?”

Miles nodded. “I’ll put on a pot while you work on that one. I’m sure you and your wife would appreciate the added energy boost.” He turned his attention to the coffee maker and started in on the second doughnut he had. “So, you two all packed?”

Waylon nodded but realized Miles couldn’t see that and said, “Yes. There’s just a few things that we’ll let the boys grab and we should be good to go.”

“Excellent. While Lisa is getting your sons we’ll hit the bank.”

“We will?”

“Yup,” Miles said and turned to face Waylon. “We’ll need money for this little trip of ours, and we can’t leave a paper trail. No cards, no checks, no atm stops. Now,” Miles finished the doughnut and cleared his throat. “I’m going to ask you a bit of a personal question, is that ok?”

“Why not? There’s no benefit in me lying.”

“How much money do you have?”

“I uh…” Waylon fidgeted. He reached for his wallet and pulled out a few crumpled bills. “Let’s see here… one, two…six dollars. And if I’m being honest, it’s your money. I found it in the armrest of the Jeep.”

Miles chuckled. “No I mean, how much do you have in savings?” Waylon didn’t respond. He looked away and held out the six dollars. “Shit, really?”

“Yeah, why do you think I was so desperate for the job at Murkoff?” He sighed and looked back towards the stairs, where Lisa was standing. “Lisa has more money than I do. She’s been paying the bills ever since my pay was frozen.”

“Good. Tell her to withdraw nearly everything she has. Whatever she doesn’t spend can always be deposited later. I’ll fund our trip myself.”

“It’s not going to be that much, is it?”

Miles faked a smile. “Nah, but you never know. It’s best not to take chances.” And Miles wasn’t going to be taking any chances. He’d empty his whole account, right there. He’s done it before and it isn’t that hard, surprisingly. The bank usually tries to screw him over with a fee to close the account, but it’s better to just pay it now than have to use an atm every other week.

“I’ll pay you back Upshur,” Waylon said. “For everything I cost you, I’ll pay you back.”

“No need,” Miles said. “Besides, you couldn’t keep that promise even if you tried. There are some things you can’t just pay back with money,” he said and made sure Waylon could catch a brief glimpse of sharp teeth and silver eyes. For some things the cost was far too great to ever repay.

After Waylon and Lisa had cleaned up a bit and fully woken up they set off to begin the day’s many activities. As soon as Lisa left Waylon began carrying boxes downstairs to the front entry way. Miles watched as the man struggled to lift some of them and noticed his bad leg was only getting worse.

Miles followed him up the stairs for the next round, R shadowing close behind his host. “Let me help you with those,” he said and bent down to lift the next box. “You can put another two on top of this one, don’t worry I can handle whatever weight you give me.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.” Miles had bent steel bars and ripped apart humans with his bare hands, a few moving boxes would be no challenge. For the remaining boxes he had R materialize and lift them. “This will save you a few trips. R grab those and follow me downstairs, when Lisa comes back with the car you’ll help me load these in.”

“So it really follows your orders?” Waylon asked as R picked up the rest of his stuff and followed his host down the stairs.

“Oh yes, we’ve only had a few uh…disagreements, and that was back when I was still new to this whole Host thing.” Miles set down the boxes and R did the same. “We’re in agreement now, no worries.” He pulled out his car keys and motioned towards his Jeep. “Come on, lets hit the bank before Lisa gets back.”

The drive was fairly quiet, Miles was in the driver’s seat, Waylon next to him and R was invisible in the back. At first Waylon protested about going with, saying that it wasn’t necessary, but Miles got him to agree. He didn’t want Park alone in the house, too many bad things could happen. It was decided that he’d be safer with Miles. He pulled into the parking lot of the bank, thankful that there was a branch location way out here. “I’ll be a few minutes. They usually don’t like it when I withdraw this much money. Do you want to come in or stay here?”

“I’ll stay here,” Waylon said and reached for the radio.

“Ok, I’ll leave the keys in the ignition and R behind if something goes wrong.”

“No, no, you can take him! I’ll be fine out here.”

Miles chuckled. “It’s no big deal, if something happens inside R can be by my side in seconds. He’s way more useful out here, protecting you. Unless you know how to summon a protective nanite shield and you’ve just been hiding it from me?” Waylon shook his head. “Got it, then R stays. Keep watch and protect him, but only if you see Murkoff agents.”

R nodded and picked up a book off the floor to read. Miles always kept a few spare novels lying around the Jeep and it had been a while since R had something to read.

“B-Be a good nanite monster,” Waylon said as soon as Miles had gone inside. “I don’t want any trouble.”

R looked up from the book at the scared human. He was pressed against the dashboard, as far away as he could get from him. It reminded him of when he first met his Host. His Host was also this timid and afraid. R rolled his dark eyes and went back to the book. He had no interest in this worthless human. This man wasn’t strong like his Host, and thus didn’t warrant any attention. He’d protect him if threatened, but only because his Host had ordered it. And he always followed a command from his Host. Always.

Waylon seemed to relax a bit when the Walrider didn’t move from its position in the backseat. It just causally flipped pages on the paperback novel it had found. It wasn’t that surprising that it could read, Waylon figured if it could write then it must know how to read too. He always thought Murkoff’s mighty weapon would be different. From the reports he thought that it would be constantly out for blood and his experience during the riot seemed to support that idea. But ever since Miles had been in his presence the Walrider hadn’t done anything remotely violent. So maybe Miles was telling the truth, perhaps the Walrider really is just a puppet, and as long as the one pulling the strings is peaceful so will the beast.

He turned the radio on and listened halfheartedly to the words and melodies that tumbled out of the speakers. His eyes and mind were elsewhere. In just a few short hours he’d be leaving the sleepy town of Leadville for a destination that he had no knowledge of. All he had was the promise of safety given by a complete stranger. Maybe Lisa was right, maybe he was out of his mind for agreeing to this. But it was too late now, the wheels were already in motion and like it or not he was getting dragged along.

The rhythmic words that made up songs ended and something else filled the gap in Waylon’s ears. At first he ignored it, but then he snapped to attention at the mention of Murkoff. He leaned forward and turned the volume up. R looked up briefly; he was interested in the sudden movement from the previously still human in the front seat.

“Murkoff representatives still claim that the footage released to the web two days ago was a viral marketing campaign for an upcoming movie titled “Outlast”. Numerous media outlets have expressed disbelief at the story, many claiming that footage seen was too real to be merely movie footage. Others stated that the total run time for the footage far exceeds most feature length films and that something like that would have cost a fortune to film. Rumors have also been circulating on the web that the asylum the footage was allegedly shot at was now off limits to the public and all roads leading up to it have been blocked. A Murkoff representative has taken stage at a press conference to quell the recent flare of up rumors.”

“I am speaking on behalf of the Murkoff Corporation about claims against Murkoff Psychiatrics at Mount Massive Colorado. Two days ago footage was supposedly leaked via a whistleblower that showed the rampant abuse, neglect, and inhuman experiments being performed on our patients. Once again we here at Murkoff must assure you that none of those things happened on our Colorado campus.”

A reporter from the crowd asked, “If that’s true than how come the roads to the asylum have been closed along with the building?”

“The road closures on Mount Massive were due to heavy rain in the area. The dirt roads became washed out and dangerous for general traffic. Four weeks ago all of the patients and staff at Mount Massive Asylum for the Criminally Insane were transferred to our new location for further treatment. As many of you know, Mount Massive was closed for a number of years before being bought and reopened by our charity division. We had thought we could perform adequate repairs and get the building up to code, however the damage was far more extensive and we decided to shut the building down and have it bulldozed.”

“Excuse me, on the night of the potential riot there were reports of low flying helicopters in the area. Many are suggesting that they were looking for escaped inmates. Comments?”

“Yes. If I have my dates correct that should have been on the seventeenth of September. The local DNR were performing a routine spray for box elder bugs along the forests of Mount Massive. The helicopters were dispensing the sprays all night to control a potential infestation. Any further questions?”

“Yes. I have one. This is supposed to be a viral marketing ploy for a movie called Outlast? If that’s so, then why go through so much effort and why have so much gore? If the movie is like the footage it won’t even be allowed to hit theaters.”

Waylon leaned forward to hear the representative. “The footage was designed to be shocking and over the top. We wanted waves of talk and arguments over its legitimacy. We spared no expense in its filming and editing. On our website we have a whole page devoted to the making of the footage. I urge you all to check it out and give some support to the brilliant minds behind the lens and those individuals in charge of makeup. The website also has a completed cast roster for the film and a plot summary. We assure you, the final product will be much more subdued. We wanted shocking, and well… we got shocking. Maybe a bit too shocking.”

“Sir, I have a question.”

“Yes, you have the floor.”

“I have a hard time believing all of this, even with the added sources. You see, a friend of mine, another reporter, by the name of Miles Upshur visited that very asylum three weeks ago and hasn’t been heard from since. In the footage you could clearly see his red Jeep in the background. How do you explain that?”

The representative paused before speaking. “Red Jeeps are a popular vehicle in America. Look around you and I’m sure you’ll have no problem spotting several. It was merely a coincidence that the vehicle we used as the protagonists escape car just happened to match your friends. If you are truly concerned about his whereabouts I suggest filing a missing person’s report with your local police.”

“Why VIRALeaks?”

“That was the most believable avenue we could think of. VIRALeaks has had a consistent standard of providing factual and truthful leaks of the world’s biggest scandals. Therefore they were the perfect-“

A claw tapped the buttons on the radio and changed the station. Waylon nearly screamed and pressed himself against the door. “I-I was listening to that!”

R looked at the human then back at the radio. He continued pressing buttons and completely ignored the other man. They already knew that the company was lying; they didn’t need to waste more time listening to the asinine babbling of liars. There were other things they could be listening to. However R couldn’t relay his feelings to Waylon as the human couldn’t hear his voice. The inability to communicate with humans other than his Host was very frustrating.

Waylon reached for the dial to turn it back to the previous radio station but yelped when his hand was swatted away by the Walrider. The black swirling face of the monster was impossible to read. It was like a puzzle of the human face, but it was missing several pieces. It had eye sockets but they were filled with nothing, it had a mouth that didn’t seem to work, and slits for a nose. The one thing it did have that Waylon could recognize were eyebrow ridges. They were pressed down in a scowl and Waylon backed off the controls. “I suppose I can read a transcript of the press conference later,” he said and tried to relax. The Walrider was apparently pleased with his answer because it returned to sitting in the backseat and resumed reading its book. It wasn’t long after that that Miles emerged from the bank. He was carrying a backpack that Waylon didn’t remember him having before.

“Everything alright?” Miles asked as he slid into the driver’s side seat.

“Yeah. Did everything go well on your end?”

Miles nodded and tossed the backpack into the back seat. “I withdrew every penny I have,” he said. “Well…I have half of every penny I have, the other half we have to drive to Denver to get. This smaller branch didn’t have enough cash on hand to completely pay out my account.”

“H-How much is in that bag?”

“Nearly thirty grand.”

“Thirty grand!”

“Yeah, keep your voice down; don’t need all of Leadville to know.”

“Don’t you think that’s a bit…much?”

Miles shrugged and started the engine. “Like I said before, whatever I don’t spend I can just deposit in another bank. I’ve done this before, it’s nothing new.”

“Why the hell would you need to have done this before?”

Laughter accompanied Miles’ answer. “This isn’t the first time I’ve dug myself into a hole and needed to avoid detection. Probably won’t be the last either.”

Waylon couldn’t believe it. That backpack contained more than what he and his wife had made combined for the past three years. “I didn’t know journalism was so lucrative.”

“It isn’t,” Miles said. “I’ve just been saving since I was a kid. Got lucky with rent, didn’t have to pay that for like four years, and I was either poor enough to qualify for federal aid or got a scholarships throughout college.” He laughed. “It sounds impressive but I know people with much more than me, and people with much less. I know I’m not average, there was a lot of luck. For that I’m thankful, we might need everything I have.”

“I thought it was just for a month?”

“I’m always prepared for the worst. Plus with my new diet…I don’t even want to know how much cash I’ll blow through.” He changed the subject, “Was R good waiting? I haven’t had much of an opportunity to leave him alone with others. I know he won’t do anything, but I’m curious to know if he just sat there or if he tried to interact with you.”

“He didn’t let me listen to a press conference, he changed the station half way through.”

“Rude R. What did I tell you about sharing?” R leaned over Miles seat and flicked him. “And what did I tell you about respecting me?” He laughed but Waylon seemed to go pale again. “Relax Park, we’re just having a bit of fun.”

“Host We only changed the station because We are tired of listening to humans lie. We do not care. We would much rather listen to the Dragon Band. Put on the Dragon Band Host.”

“The radio doesn’t work like that, and next time just deal with it. We need to know what’s going on, lies or not.”

“What did it say? You were just talking to it right?”

“Yeah,” Miles said. “He was complaining about how he didn’t want to listen to Murkoff because we already know they’re lying so it doesn’t serve a purpose.” He glanced at R and said, “But it does serve a purpose. Just because you find it annoying doesn’t mean we all do. We have to know if they start changing the story, or if they send anyone after the Parks publically.”

“Fine. Next time We will let the boring humans talk.”

“Thank you, see? That wasn’t so hard.” Miles looked over at Waylon and said, “I want to move quickly to Denver. The quicker we can get my cash and leave the better.”

“Why? Murkoff still thinks you’re dead and there’s no way they have access to your banking information.”

“You’re probably right; my account closing probably won’t even appear in the system for another day. But on the off chance that Murkoff’s hands reach further than I even I thought, well, I don’t want to take chances is all. The last thing we need is to walk into an ambush.” They pulled into the driveway and Miles was relieved to see that Lisa had returned. He parked next to Lisa’s car and got out. “Check in with Lisa, I’ll help you load your possessions in the car after I pack my bags.”

Waylon gave a quick nod and went into the house. Miles walked to the back of the Jeep and opened the false bottom and dumped the backpack with all his money in it. Before he locked it back up he took out three thousand dollars in various sized bills. Then he jogged back into the house to collect his meager possessions. Documents and books comprised the majority of his belongings. He only had one duffle bag with a few changes of clothes. He tossed everything in the back and shut the door. Lisa and Waylon were talking upstairs and Miles tried his best not to overhear. That was hard when his hearing was more advanced than theirs.

To escape the conversation he wandered to their backyard. The boys were playing catch with a football. Miles walked over to them. “Mr. Miles!” Alex said cheerfully as he approached. “Wanna play catch!”

“Sure, I’d love to.” Miles took the ball and tossed it to Alex who had to run to get it. “Sorry,” he apologized, “I’m a bit rusty.”

“We’re moving aren’t we?” Lee asked quietly beside Miles.

“What makes you say that?” He asked while catching the ball that Alex had thrown. “You’re just taking a bit of a trip.”

“Mom explained it to us on the ride home. We had to pack up, you’re taking dad. Are they getting a divorce?”

“No, no,” Miles said, shocked at how quickly the older son had jumped to conclusions. “Nothing like that.”

“I know you’re not dad’s friend.”

Miles threw the ball and purposefully tossed it long so he’d have some time to talk with Lee. “Why do you think I don’t know your father?”

“Because I’ve never seen you before, and because mom doesn’t like you. Mom likes all of dad’s friends.”

“You’re a smart kid,” Miles said and looked down at him. “I can promise you this, your parents aren’t splitting. Try to have some fun, road trips are supposed to be fun. You get to see new places and as a bonus, no school.” Lee didn’t look convinced. “Hey, did you figure out that camera I gave you?”

“Yeah, it wasn’t that hard.”

Miles chuckled. “I didn’t think you’d have any problems.” Alex came back with the ball and threw it at Miles. The boy’s aim was off and it nearly smacked Miles in the head. He caught it and tossed it back. “Did you like it?”

Lee nodded. “It was alright.”

“Do you want an assignment? From me?”

“Sure, what is it Mr. Upshur?”

“I want you to film a movie for your dad. Something to show him at the end of your trip.”

“What should it be about?”

Miles shook his head and passed the ball to his brother again. “No, no, see I can’t tell you that, that’s for you to decide. It can be whatever you like. I’m sure he’d love to see your day to day adventures too.”

The boy was quiet for a moment he said, “Ok, deal. I’ll make dad a movie. Will you watch it too?”

“If you want me to.”

“I want you to,” he said. “Alex! Throw the ball here!”

After that they went around in a triangle and took turns throwing the ball to each other. Sometimes Miles would try to trick one of them by faking a throw and passing it to the other instead. It was relaxing to just do something normal for a change. The boys deserved it too, Miles thought. They should have some fun before the stress. Although he hoped that their stress would be a lot less than their father’s. He wanted Murkoff to focus all of their attention on Waylon and himself and ignore Lisa and the boys. But he knew that that might not happen.

Even though he’d only been around the Park family for less than a day he had taken a liking to them. He didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. More than anything, he wanted this to work out. There had been stories that endangered people’s lives; sure, Miles had even covered some of them himself. It was never easy and as soon as family got mixed in it became difficult. He was always about remaining neutral, just reporting the news and staying as unbiased as he could. But this time it was different. Murkoff had hurt him personally and he’d grown attached to several people involved. He wasn’t staying neutral this time.

“Alex! Lee! Come inside, now!” Miles turned his head to see Lisa calling for her sons. She looked a little spooked, nervous. They trotted along inside and she paused before closing the sliding glass door. “Stay away from them,” she said to Miles before leaving him alone in the backyard.

“Humans,” R said to Miles. “We have never liked them. We aren’t being convinced to change Our mind.”

Miles sighed. “I can’t blame her. She saw what you did under Billy’s control. That’s what I could do. Those are her kids, her family, I’d be protective too.” He walked around the side of the house and continued, “This is exactly why I’m going to keep you hidden. It’s easier this way. I might be able to live a normal life after this is over.”

“Do you want to throw the ball with Us?”

A smile spread across Miles’ face and he laughed genuinely. “No, I’m good R, thanks for asking.”

He looked the Jeep over one more time. He checked the oil, checked the coolant, and checked the tire pressure, anything he could think of. Mostly because he couldn’t afford to breakdown on the side of the road, but also because he needed something to do. The Park family was still getting their stuff together and getting ready to say goodbye. But Miles was ready to go right now; he needed to keep his mind occupied.

“How old is this thing?” He heard Waylon’s voice ask.

“It’s a 1987,” Miles replied. “I get a lot of flak for not driving something newer, but I like her. She’s been dependable and through a hell of a lot with me.”

“It won’t break down will it?”

“Nah,” Miles said and stood up. “She’ll be good to us if we’re good to her. Keep her gassed up, the tires filled, top off all the liquids. I can’t count the number of times we’ve driven across the country.”

“Don’t like flying?”

Miles shook his head. “It’s not that. Flying is expensive and unnecessary in most situations. Sometimes it’s unavoidable but if I have the option of driving I take it.” He turned around and asked, “Are you ready to go?” There was no hiding his unease. He wanted to get moving, they had spent too much time in one place.

“Y-Yeah, should be. Everything is loaded.”

“Good, great. I want to speak with your wife real quick before we head off, and of course I’ll give you some time to say goodbye.”

“Don’t make it seem final,” Waylon said and moved towards the house.

They found her with the boys in the living room. She eyed up Miles suspiciously when he said he wanted to talk with her. He started the conversation. “Since you’ve never done something like this, I have some uh, tips. If you’d like to hear them.”

“Sure, I’ll hear you out.”

“Going to a friend is a good start, but if things get out of hand, or you have to leave I suggest motels over hotels. A lot of them are cheap, less than fifty dollars a night. If you’re worried about the bedding buy a few plastic sheets and lay them down first. You shouldn’t live just off of fast food, sometimes it’s unavoidable. Buy a small cooler and pack it with ice at every rest stop you see. Sandwiches, especially peanut butter ones make good stomach fillers. You should even be able to keep milk cold for cereal. If you really need to vanish, and you might need to, stop at a Walmart or something and pick up some good quality jackets, sleeping bags and a tent. Most state parks or national forests have cheap campgrounds and weekly vehicle passes. It might even be fun, a bit of relaxation. Pay for everything in cash, empty your bank accounts just in case; don’t use your card for anything.” Miles paused and tried to think of other things. “Don’t use your cell phone right now, only call us in emergency. I’m nearly certain they’ll be monitoring your husband’s. And here,” Miles held out his hand, in it was the large roll of money. “This is three thousand dollars; it should be more than enough to get you started.”

“Mr. Upshur I can’t take this.”

“You can and will, don’t worry about it. I’d rather see you and your boys with a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. We’ll be fine; I’m a pro at this sort of thing.”

She took the money hesitantly and said, “Thank you. You’re not…normal Mr. Upshur.” Miles frowned. “Not like how you think. I don’t think the average person would go to such lengths to help strangers.”

Miles shrugged. “I just know when it’s time to do the right thing. Good luck Mrs. Park.” He turned to leave and said to Waylon, “I’ll be waiting in the car.” He left Waylon with his family and went to the Jeep. There he waited, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel until Waylon finally emerged. His eyes were clearly puffy, and his face red. Miles didn’t say anything about it. He just started the engine and backed out of the driveway. Their plan was now in motion.

He turned onto Interstate 70 East instead of West like they originally planned. The pit stop in Denver would cost them nearly a whole day in travel. It would take them about seven hours round trip and they didn’t leave the house until noon. “Ready for some night driving?” Miles asked. “I wasn’t going to push us to that so quickly, but we might need to cover more ground than I anticipated.”

“Sure, whatever you think is best.”

Miles frowned. “You ok?” He asked.

“How can you even ask that?” Waylon was turned away from Miles, his gaze on the pine trees that whipped by. “Of course I’m not ok. I just told my wife and kids goodbye, for what might be last time.” His left hand curled into a fist and gripped his jeans tightly. “When I posted that footage to VIRALeaks I knew that there was a risk, I knew that I could be putting myself and my family in danger. But I didn’t think anything would actually happen to us. I thought the authorities would take care of Murkoff and I could just…just move on.”

“All actions have consequences,” Miles said quietly. “But I promise you, that won’t be the last time you see your family. We’ll get through this.”

Waylon was quiet for a while. “You know,” he said, “I actually believe you. Is that crazy?”

“Nah,” Miles said. “I’m a pretty safe bet at this point. I’ve dealt with Murkoff before and…when push comes to shove, I have way more push.”

“I just don’t understand how you could be ok with this sort of thing.” Waylon glanced at Miles who had his attention on the road. His eyes were bright and a smile was on his face. “Your life was ruined and you act like it’s just another day at the office.”

“In a way it is,” he said. “You might not believe me, but being on the run is almost a habit of mine.”

Waylon didn’t understand. “But how? How can you be ok with this? Putting your life on the line, doing dangerous things? Shit you broke into an insane asylum with nothing but a camera! Don’t you have any self-preservation skills? Any fears?”

Miles laughed. “Oh man, self-preservation skills? I do need some of those. The stories I could tell…”

“What about family? Don’t you have a family?”

“Not like yours,” Miles replied.

“A wife? Girlfriend? Shit even a dog? Is there anyone who would be sad if you came up dead?”

“I don’t really…do connections,” Miles said. “I’m always on the move, always traveling and hunting for the next big story. Those kinds of personal relationships would only get in the way. Sure,” Miles said with a bit of a smirk, “I have one night stands you know? A pretty face in every town, names and numbers to call when I need a good time, but nothing like…permanent with me.”

“Dear god,” Waylon said quietly. “How many children must you have fathered?”

This got Miles to snort. “None if I’ve done my job correctly.”

“Impossible. No birth control is one hundred percent effective. There’s always a chance.”

“Unless my dick is magical and can impregnate the asses of men, I think I’m good.”

“Oh.”

Miles looked over at Waylon. “Oh?” He said with a laugh.

“I didn’t realize…you don’t look…”

Laughter filled the cab of the Jeep as Miles pounded the steering wheel. “You’re a fucking hoot Park. Oh? Oh has to be the best response I’ve ever heard.”

Waylon’s face was turning red, he could feel it. “I’m sorry I assumed you were straight.”

Miles was still laughing but he managed to say, “It’s fine, don’t worry about it. Always fun to see the reactions though.”

“This still doesn’t change the fact that you sleep around a lot.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Sex isn’t something to be ashamed about. Have as much or as little as you want with whoever you want is how I see things. Just make sure everyone consents, is safe and is tested. I get all the fun of release without having to be committed, that’s what works for me.” He shrugged and looked back at Waylon. “You have a wife and based on your responses I’m going to guess you have a closed relationship and there’s nothing wrong with that. Monogamy works for a lot of folks.”

“I…I guess.” The conversation had gotten a bit awkward; Waylon wasn’t used to such open discussions of sex, especially with someone he had just met. “You do you, right?”

“Right,” Miles said. “Sorry if this got too weird for you. I can tell you’re kinda an introverted sort of guy, which is fine. I’ve just been…conversation starved for a while. So I apologize in advance if I wear you out. We’re going to be spending a lot of time together; I guess I just want to know a bit about you.”

“You can talk with that thing right? So you weren’t completely alone,” Waylon pointed out.

“No you’re right,” Miles said. “I did have R, and I had David too for a while. Some of the Gospel of the Sand members would talk to me too.”

Waylon asked, “Gospel of the Sand?”

“How long were you a patient?”

“Uh,” Waylon had to think about it. “I’m not sure; your head gets all…messed up. It could have been days or just a few hours for all I know. Chances are it was a few days, I just don’t remember details. Even the routine is fuzzy.” The more he thought about his stay as a patient the more muddled his memories became. He remembered waking up in a steel walled cell on a thin cot. Then it was injection time and therapy, and then they fed him. But much past that was a blur. He was certain that they ran Engine therapy more than once a day but he couldn’t be for sure. The nightmares made everything blend together.

“That’s fine, I got what I needed. The Gospel of the Sand was a cult like group being led by two different preachers. Father Martin and Father Morgan. Which sect you followed was like night and day. Both preached that the Walrider was a god, a savior, but Father Martin took his flock to their death and Father Morgan didn’t. A fun part of our timelines crossed in our videos,” Miles said. “You filmed the church burning from the outside while I had footage of it from within. That was Father Martin’s self-sacrifice. Still not sure why he did it, well besides being crazy.”

“So people worshipped you?”

“Not me, the Walrider, we’re different remember? Of course being the Host granted me some privilege in the group and I won’t lie, it was kinda nice being the center of attention. But at the end of the day a cult is a cult and nothing good comes from them.”

“What happened to the other group?” Waylon asked. “Father Morgan’s?”

“Dead,” Miles said simply. “They succumbed to their injuries after a few weeks. The cancer inside them is deadly.”

“Thank god I was never put into the Engine.”

Miles agreed. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you had. Without treatment the only thing the Variants have to look forward to is a slow painful death.”

“It’s that deadly?”

Miles nodded. “I have files on it, if you want to read up. But yes, it’s aggressive and acts quickly, killing within a month. Maybe Murkoff has a way to slow the progression, I don’t know. One thing’s for sure, if the normal tumors don’t kill you, the ones made out of lead will.”

“Lead? How is that possible?”

“I’m not going to go into detail right now, but here’s the simple explanation. When you are exposed to the Walrider as a potential host, sometimes the nanites take hold, but not enough to become the host. They take over cell replication but without a clear direction on what they’re making they just reproduce over and over again, like a normal cancer cell. However these ones won’t know what elements to synthesize so they usually just make metal. Thus creating an organic, replicating metal tumor.”

“Could that happen to you? Don’t you have a factory inside you that makes nanites?”

“Shit I hope not,” Miles said. “Hey, R, could that happen to me?”

The Walrider materialized in the backseat, becoming fully visible to Waylon. “No, Host that could never happen. As long as we are connected We will take over production of both your cells and Ours.”

“R says no. He says that we’re bonded in such a way that he has complete control over the production of human or nanite cells.” Miles leaned back. “So I guess I’m in the clear, no metal tumors for me.”

“You really can hear that thing, can’t you?” Miles nodded. Waylon asked. “Could you uh, could you tell it to go away? I don’t like being able to see it.”

“Aw R he doesn’t like you. How does that make you feel?”

“We do not care.” Miles laughed. “The other human means nothing to Us.”

“What’d he say?”

Miles glanced back at R and watched him vanish to the normal human eye before looking back at Waylon. “I uh, I don’t think you want to know what he said.” He caught another flash of fear spread across Waylon’s face. “It’s nothing you need to be worried about, he was just being rude.”

“We were being rude?” The static crackled. “Hilarious. You’re good at jokes Host.”

“Man I liked you way better before you got a smart mouth,” Miles said casually.

Waylon just stared at Miles, half amazed and half terrified. There was a monster in the backseat and Miles spoke with it like it was an annoying child. He took a glance into the backseat to see if it had really gone; when he looked the backseat was empty. His eyes searched the space but couldn’t spot anything.

“He’s not gone, gone,” Miles said, answering Waylon’s unspoken question. “I can make him invisible to the human eye. R isn’t a ghost; he’s made up of particles, of solid matter. I can’t just tell him to go and he can’t keep pace with the Jeep for too long.”

Waylon faced back to the front of the Jeep. “This is crazy. I’m crazy.”

Miles laughed. “I’m sorry Park, but you did choose this path, and it’s a little late to bail out now.” He even hit the door lock buttons to punctuate his sentence. Waylon griped the seat a bit tighter and turned a sickly pale color. “Relax, it was a joke. If you want to leave you can, we’ll be swinging back their way anyways, I can arrange a meeting with your family. I’m not going to kidnap you.”

Waylon swallowed but his throat had gone dry. “Sorry, I guess I just don’t appreciate your jokes,” he said.

“I shouldn’t have,” Miles said sympathetically. “That was in bad taste. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“You already frighten me. You never stopped.” Miles nodded at Waylon’s words and turned on the radio.

“Play the Dragon Band.”

Miles groaned. It was going to be a very, very, long drive.

---

The Denver Branch of Miles’ bank was now lighter by twenty thousand dollars and after a break for lunch they were back on the road. Waylon tried not to watch Miles inhale his lunch, but it was like watching a car crash or train wreck, he just couldn’t look away. It shouldn’t have been possible for a human stomach to store so much food, his gut should have burst. But it didn’t and Miles turned the Jeep back onto Interstate Seventy, this time they were heading westbound. Miles’ hand would dip into a bag of chips every now and again as he sang the words to whatever pop song was on the radio. Waylon stared off into the distance and tried to imagine what would lie ahead for them.

The plan was to head to Oregon, that’s where Miles’ apartment was. Then they’d just write up a story, post more footage, and watch Murkoff crumble from the safety of Miles’ home. But from the way Miles was acting, and the amount of money that sat in the hidden storage compartment Waylon was ready to believe that something much worse would happen. He just couldn’t imagine what though. How would Murkoff catch on? And even if they did, there wasn’t anything they could do, it’s not like they were breaking any laws. Murkoff couldn’t legally do anything about it.

“You could protect me right?” He asked out of the blue.

“Wha?” Miles said in between a mouthful of chips.

“You could protect me right? From those soldiers that Murkoff hires?”

Miles took a few large gulps of soda before he responded. “Yes,” he said. “I can definitely protect you from whatever Murkoff throws at us.” His eyes stayed focused on the car ahead of them, but Waylon could tell they were seeing something much darker than an old pickup truck. “But if we follow the plan that won’t be necessary. I won’t need to protect us if we follow the plan.”

“Just follow the plan, right.” At the next rest stop Waylon dug around in the back of the Jeep. He was looking for something to read and figured Murkoff documents would be suitable. It was important to him that he was on the same page as Miles. But the he didn’t have the reporters month long head start so he had to work extra hard to cover the lost ground.

“That’s a bit of dry reading,” Miles commented as they pulled out of the rest stop. He had a third bag of chips next to his seat.

“Dry or not it’d be nice to know what they were really up to.”

“Didn’t you work for them? How much did they tell you? I figured you’d have more knowledge than me.”

Waylon shrugged. “I was just a tech guy. I made sure the machines worked, that’s all.”

“But you had access to the basement labs right?”

“I did. I was their main guy on call to fix the Engine. I had a level three security clearance, it got me almost everywhere. I even ate lunch downstairs in that cafeteria and not upstairs with a lot of the other staff. The stuff I heard…” Waylon shook his head. “It was horrifying how nonchalantly these people would talk about the suffering of other human beings. How’s patient 2658? Oh not good, his lower intestines ruptured from the increased Engine exposure, can I try some of your wife’s pasta?” Waylon said coldly, “It was sick.”

“Nothing like discussing death over a ham and cheese sandwich,” Miles said. “That’s awful. But you did the right thing, whether you believe it or not.” Waylon mumbled some sort of halfhearted agreement. Miles nudged him with his elbow. “No, really, you did. Do you have any idea how scared people are of Murkoff? What you did was amazing; when we’re done with this they won’t be able to harm anyone ever again.”

“I’m not special. You’ve fought Murkoff before.”

“Yeah but I lack the sense of self-preservation, like you said.”

“Why do you fight Upshur?”

Miles thought about it for a little while, he chewed the answer over in his mind. It wasn’t the first time he’d been asked this question and it wouldn’t be the last. “There are two reasons; one is far more selfish than the other.” He reached for a handful of chips. “Ever since I was little I wanted to make a difference in the world. But I knew I wasn’t cut out to be like a police officer or a fire fighter or anything. But I knew people lied, and I knew important people lied and got away with it. So I wanted to make sure they didn’t get away with it anymore.”

“And what’s the selfish reason?”

“I wanted to be famous.”

Waylon chuckled at that. “The opposite of me. I’d give anything not be in the spotlight.”

“Yet look where we are,” Miles said.

Waylon disagreed. “Not yet,” he said, “I’m not center stage yet.”

“Yet,” Miles said and laughed. “Looks like you think things could go south too.”

“Maybe not south, but I don’t know if I can stay anonymous through all of this. It’d be much more credible if we put a name to the first footage.”

“You’d do that?”

“Well I’m already risking the lives of my family, it’s the least I could do.”

Miles really did feel for the guy, this man had self-destructed his life without meaning to. If he hadn’t been caught he might have been able to slip under the radar. Or, he would have ended up splattered against the wall in a glorious display of blood and organs. Billy seemed to be killing doctors and staff indiscriminately, so the prison jumper probably saved his life.

Miles always wondered why Billy never targeted him until the very end. There were several opportunities where it could have happened, he had even come face to face with the Walrider a few times. Miles glanced in the review mirror and saw R laying across the backseat with a book in his hand. It was odd to think about the times before they were host and parasite, when the Walrider was just a figment of Miles’ imagination or a glitch in the camera. He thought back to the courtyard in the pouring rain where the silhouette of the Walrider blossomed into view with each lightning strike. He remembered how terrified he was when it charged him in the utility shed and he slammed door and watched, horrified, as it crawled out from under the gap.

“It’s odd for Us too, Host,” R said from the backseat. “Sorry,” he apologized seconds later. “We did not mean to read your thoughts, but they’re particularly strong right now.”

“It’s ok,” Miles said. Waylon turned to look at him, an eyebrow raised in question, but he didn’t say anything. “Did you ever feel this way with any of your previous hosts?”

“No. We didn’t feel anything back then, not like now. We existed. We hovered. We learned about Our environment, but We didn’t feel. Feeling was for humans. We are not human.”

“But you’re feeling now?”

R was silent but the static buzzed with worry. “We do not know what this is. Perhaps it is feeling. Whatever it is it started with Billy.”

“How long were you and Billy connected? I never asked and I hadn’t read it.”

“Three months of connection, nearly a day of control. The scientists called it a “lateral ascension” but all it was was Our Host finally realizing We were there and We could move where his body could not.”

“So would this be considered a lateral ascension?”

“No, We think their words and terms were stupid. There’s also the fact that you do not control Us during your sleep.” R set the book down on his chest. “We never had the opportunity to see a potential new host before the infection process began. So you’re an anomaly to Us. We saw you. We interacted with you. We knew you were going to be a part of Us before anyone else and you never even touched the Engine.”

Miles said quietly, “Like I was born for this.”

Waylon glanced over at Miles again, his eyes discreetly leaving the papers he was reading and chancing a look at Miles. He didn’t like the situation he was in. For the past week the static in his head had gone away, his mind was quiet. But now the buzzing returned and danced around in his skull. Waylon didn’t want to blame Miles for it because he wasn’t sure if it was Miles who was causing it. His vision would blur and Engine patterns would flash before his eyes for weeks after he escaped. The static followed him home as well. It would ebb and flow like oceanic tides. So maybe Miles wasn’t causing this particular flare up, maybe he just triggered it. Or maybe his mind was a lot further from healing that he thought.

He decided to ignore the conversation taking place beside him, besides he could only hear Miles talking. It did him no good to listen in to half a conversation. He was certain he would jump to biased, untrue conclusions that would only serve to freak him out more. Instead he focused on the papers on his lap. They were documents that he pulled from a set of folders Miles had yet to look at. He was told that during the last few days before Miles left the mountain he just started grabbing anything that seemed even remotely important. Some of it wasn’t, some of it was garbage in Waylon’s eyes. There were sets of receipts for business trip spending, and inventory records, if it was useful he didn’t know how. I suppose that’s why Upshur is the journalist huh? He’d know if it’s relevant to a story or not.

Despite all that Waylon felt like he had made some decent progress when they finally pulled into a motel parking lot. The sun had retired long ago and Waylon was using the light of his phone to illuminate the printouts. He looked up and saw they had pulled just off of the main highway. There weren’t many options for lodging when you were this far into the middle of nowhere. Most of these places were just there so truckers wouldn’t have to sleep in their trucks. Of course there were a few weary eyed tourists who misjudged the distance they had to go between big cities as well. Waylon could see at least two family cars packed for a vacation. He wondered if that’s what their Jeep looked like? Or Lisa’s car? Would they also be mistaken for tourists? Waylon hoped so.

Miles got out and stretched. He had done most of the driving, in fact he had insisted on it. He said it had been a while since he got to drive and he missed it. Waylon had no complaints; long distance driving wasn’t a thing he looked forward to. If Miles wanted to take the wheel then he let him, it was his car after all.

Waylon squinted and could barely make out the thin ripple in reality where the Walrider followed its host inside. He knew the nanite monster wasn’t literally ripping a space in reality, but it sure looked like it. The space beside Miles’ had a shimmering effect like heat waves over pavement; he could see it even in the dark. Waylon wondered if others could see it to, but he doubted it. His eyes were tainted by the Engine, they were different and he knew it. He had been instructed to wait with the car while Miles got their lodging squared away. He couldn’t imagine this place costing very much. Miles said they could expect to budget anywhere from seventy-five dollars a day to less than fifty depending on the place. A neon open sign steadily shone into the darkness while another below read “vacancy” and glowed a warm red.

Miles returned a few moments later, he was twirling a key around the stump of his pointer finger and whistled an upbeat tune. He got in and started the Jeep only to drive a few short feet before he parked in front of their room. “There’s an ice machine down the row,” Miles pointed to their right, “along with vending and a cash machine.”

Waylon nodded in reply but didn’t know what to do with the information. He was planning on going straight to bed when he got his key. “Which room is mine?”

“We’re in room fifteen. Straight ahead.”

“We?”

“Yeah,” Miles said and got out. He stepped around to the back of the Jeep and opened the back hatch. “I got us a double, don’t worry we won’t have to share,” he said those words with a smirk.”

Waylon suddenly wasn’t so sure about this arrangement. He grabbed his backpack and slid his duffle bag over one shoulder while the other hand gripped his pillow tightly. Miles turned the key and they walked into the room. It was small, and cramped, with two twin beds pushed against opposite walls. A bedside table sat between them with a single lamp and alarm clock. Miles tossed his stuff onto one bed and picked up the phone. “I know we just had pizza,” he said, “but I’m starving and don’t know what else to get.”

The word “starving” made Waylon flinch, but he couldn’t tell if Miles was near the edge or not. The other man seemed fine. He was flipping through a book of places that delivered after dark. “Oh,” he said, “we could get chicken wings…” Waylon put his stuff down on the other bed and walked up and down the small space between the ends of the beds and the wall. There was a TV in an entertainment system with an outdated Nintendo 64 controller resting beside it. A small display showed how much the motel charged for their movie channels, porn, and the videogame by hour. He flipped on the light to the bathroom expecting a horror show but was greeted with a fairly standard toilet, small square shower, and sink with no vanity and one tiny mirror. But it all seemed clean enough, which Waylon was thankful for.

“Ok,” Miles said brightly and sat down on the bed he claimed as his. “Pizza is going to be a forty-five minute wait. Normally I wouldn’t order it to our door but we’re not wanted yet and I used a fake name so it doesn’t matter.”

“Yet? Not wanted yet?” Waylon asked with a frown.

The other man laughed and waved a hand, as if that dismissed all of Waylon’s concerns. “Don’t worry, it was a joke. I’m sure we’ll be fine.” He added with a more serious tone, “If we were wanted though, don’t ever order to the door, order to the lobby or a different room and wait in the hall. We would never want to give up where we’re staying.’

“Right,” he said as if that made sense to a normal person, “of course.”

“Anyways, there’s a TV, this place didn’t have free Wi-Fi and I wasn’t going to cough up the money for it. We won’t be here that long.” Waylon nodded, that was reasonable. Miles could catch that he seemed stiff when he climbed onto the other bed. “You ok?” Miles asked. “Should we take more rest stops tomorrow? You seem stiff.”

“I’m fine,” he said in return. Don’t worry about it. But the longer he sat there the more he realized he wasn’t alright. “I…I don’t know how to start this conversation,” Waylon said finally. “But I’m uh…I’m not comfortable with sharing a room with you.”

“What?”

“I thought, well I thought we’d be getting separate rooms, and I don’t…you still scare me.”

Miles stared at his hands for a while. “But I already paid for the double…” He looked over at Waylon and could see how awkward this was for him. Miles knew that if he wanted to he could force Waylon to give in but he didn’t want to do that. “You know what?” Miles said with a forced smile. “That’s fine. It’s ok. I’ll spend the night in the Jeep ok? I’ve done it before; it’s practically a second home for me. You work through your stuff and hopefully by the time we get to my apartment you’ll be ok with sharing spaces with me.”

“Upshur I-”

“I said don’t worry about it. A shitty motel room isn’t worth arguing over.” He swung his legs to the side of the bed and collected his bag. The keys he tossed to Waylon and said, “I’ll knock with your pizza, we leave at eight in the morning, I want to shower so expect to get up around seven. If you need anything I’ll be in the car.”

And with that he left Waylon to his own thoughts and crushing silence. He wasn’t sure he needed that at the moment. But he was surprised with how easily Miles gave in. He figured that he knew how terrifying he was and didn’t want to push the issue. Miles was smart and he needed this partnership to work. Waylon flipped on the TV and halfheartedly watched the news and some comedy shows, but his heart wasn’t in it. Just like he promised, Miles knocked on the door and gave Waylon a personal sized sausage and mushroom pizza. The other two family sized pizzas disappeared with Miles into the Jeep. No doubt to be inhaled at inhuman speeds.

Waylon picked at his food, finding his appetite still hadn’t returned. He thought maybe that being on the road would help and he’d eat more, but it just didn’t feel like something worth doing. He took a shower instead. The water was slow to warm up but Waylon didn’t mind. When he got out he felt a little bit better. He sat down on the bed and pulled out the stack of files he was reading through. It was only one in the morning but he could already tell that this was going to be a sleepless night. He opened the folder and started to read the first page he saw, it was a collection of archived emails.

Miles was halfway through the second pizza when R buzzed in his head. “Host,” he said, “why are we in the vehicle and not inside the nice room?”

“Because we scare Mr. Park,” Miles said through a mouthful of greasy pizza.

“Then let the human stay in the cramped car. You are far more important than it is. It is weak and you are strong. It is ugly and you are beau-“

“Hey,” Miles cut him off. “He’s just fine. Watch it. Don’t start putting me on a pedestal just because you think I’m better. We’re not.”

“But We are. You are. This is just a simple fact. We mean no insult to the human but it is weak. It doesn’t deserve comfort.”

“R…” Miles ate another slice. “Listen, we’re going to have to get used to this ok? At least for a little while, until we can go back to being on our own. This isn’t the end of the world. A night or two in the Jeep won’t kill me.”

“But…if We understand your culture’s bartering than you exchanged something of value for that room, like you did with the pizza. If you bought it then it should be yours and the human should be outside.”

Miles chuckled. “I did pay for it, but it doesn’t matter, honestly. Drop it R. I’m the one with the sleeping bag, and it’s my car. I don’t mind, really. You’re making this a way bigger deal than it needs to be.”

“We just think you’re being wronged.”

Miles laughed again. “I’m not being wronged R. Relax. If I was truly upset I would have fought back.”

R reluctantly gave up the fight and picked up the book he was reading. ”This book is terrible, Host. The characters are very stupid.”

“It’s a trashy romance novel, what did you expect?”

“Quality,” R said, “Standards.”

He nearly choked and had to swallow some of the two liter soda he ordered. “You wound me buddy.”

“This…book…wounds Us,” he replied. The way he said book was filled with disgust.

Miles, still chuckling, tossed the empty pizza boxes on top of the Jeep and spread out his sleeping bag across the backseat. “Keep watch while I sleep,” Miles ordered. But R didn’t need the order he would have been on watch whether Miles had ordered it or not.

A frantic banging jolted Miles out of bed. He sat straight up and saw Waylon flinch on the other side of the glass.

“The human is here Host.”

“No shit,” Miles mumbled.

He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and forced the nanites to leave his skin. Miles glanced at the clock on the dashboard which read three twenty in steady green numbers. He groaned and opened the door. “Park, what is it?”

“I have to speak with you,” he said, his voice near a panic. “Now. It’s about Murkoff. I found something.”

Chapter Text

Miles shut the motel room door behind him gently and tried to act calm in the face of Waylon’s panic. “Now,” he said and sat down on the bed opposite to Waylon, “what did you find?”

“How much do you know?” He asked instead of answering.

“About Murkoff? I know about as much as you, or so I thought.” Miles scooted further up the bed and crossed his legs. “They reopened Mount Massive Asylum for the Criminally Insane under the guise of being a charity hospital, but in reality they were conducting experiments in order to further their work on Project Walrider.” He shrugged. “The rest is just random information on the company itself, I’ve dug through some sales receipts and profit reports, and I’ve also looked into a lot of the patient files and-”

“No not about Murkoff, about whatever the hell you are! How much do you know about Project Walrider? Do you know how many of you they made? Where they all are?”

Miles looked over at R, a feeling of unease settled over him. “How many of us…I thought you were the only one, are there more of you?”

R shook his head. “No, We are all that there is of Project Walrider. We are old; We are the first and only of Our kind. You are the last Host, there are no others.”

“R says I’m it, we’re the last and only one.”

“He’s lying.” Waylon said it with such conviction that Miles doubted the Walrider’s previous words.

Miles looked back to R. “Are you?”

“No Host, We are not lying to you. In the labs where We were kept there were no others. The scientists tried to make more of Us over the years but something was missing, something they had sixty years ago. We are the only one, you must believe Us Host.”

“I…” Miles looked between R and Waylon, “I do,” he said finally. “I do believe you.”

R seemed to relax a bit, but worry coated the static. “We would have been able to sense more of Our kind, We are sure of that. We can feel you and We could feel other potential Hosts. If there were other nanties We would be able to communicate with them the same way We communicate with you. We never felt others.”

“He said that he would have been able to sense other nanite swarms. He swears that we’re the only one and I believe him.”

“Of course you believe him,” Waylon said, “it lives inside your head. I’d be more shocked if you didn’t.”

Miles ignored the hostile tone in Waylon’s voice. “R wants to know what you found, he’s very nervous about the implications that I’m not the only stable host.”

“Look at this,” Waylon said and handed a file over to Miles. “I found this in my bag. I picked it up in an administration office during my escape. I don’t know why, sometimes I just grabbed files as I went. It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but I was also a bit delirious from blood loss.” He started to pace the room while Miles read. “I couldn’t sleep so I decided to rummage through the documents I collected, since they aren’t in your collection, I came across that one again and it made my heart stop.”

“There’s more,” Miles said and the world seemed to drop out from under him.

“Impossible.”

“Read for yourself R,” he passed the file to the Walrider. “There’s three more like me, but not like me. Maybe that’s why you couldn’t feel them. This email seems to imply that they are different, that they’re not Project Walrider.”

“Perhaps that line only meant they are using different staff on this project. They could be the same as Us but under a different human scientist’s control.”

Miles disagreed. “No, I doubt it. The way it was phrased made it seem like these three are part of the next phase or something. I need more information before we can start making solid conclusions. But at the very least, this proves there are three more Hosts.”

Waylon spoke up, “We need to move faster on this story. We can’t wait a month, we need to act now.”

Miles shook his head and said, “No. We go slow, we take our time, and we do this right.”

“I’m sorry but that’s bullshit!” Waylon snatched the papers away from R who visibly recoiled. “What’s written here, what this means, do you have any idea?” Before Miles could answer he continued, “You said before that Project Walrider is a weapon, correct? You said it was only a matter of time before they made more, but that it would take a few years to get a stable host. Well guess what? We don’t have that time anymore. They’ve already made more and we have no idea how many are out there. It could be just three, or it could be fifty.”

“And what do you want me to do Park?” Miles asked. “Look, I’m just as unnerved about this as you, but rushing this story won’t help. We have to-”

“Who cares about a story?” Waylon exclaimed. “Screw the story! We have to go to the authorities! We have to tell someone now! I know you read that last bit, about Zeichner, that’s in Europe. They’re transporting these things out of the United States and we cannot let them.”

“I can see you point, but I really do think we should wait. If this email is correct then they’ve already been moved and there’s nothing we can do to change that.”

Waylon slammed a fist down on the bedside table. “No! Listen to me. If these things are the next step in Project Walrider then we need to sound the alarm and we need to do it now. I don’t want those things sold off to the highest bidder and I don’t want Murkoff to make more of them while you write a damn news article. The safety of this country and innocent people everywhere rests in our hands. We’re the only ones who know that Murkoff making human weapons the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” He glared at Miles. “I’m sorry but I don’t want the fate of humanity being decided on how many of you creatures one country can own.”

Miles took a deep breath and let it out. Getting worked up wasn’t going to solve this and for him, it was dangerous too. “This news is shocking to me too,” Miles said calmly. He reached into the folder that contained all of the documents that Waylon picked up. He ignored Waylon’s judgmental eyes and angry huff. He skimmed the papers quickly, looking for those patient ID’s once more. He found them attached to another file about terminating Dr. Wernicke from the company. “According to this email here only a few people at Mount Massive even knew there was a side project. It appears to be small, and from this record the three mentioned before seem to be it.” He met Waylon’s eyes for the first time in a few minutes and saw that they still burned with passion, anger, and fear. “This implies that there are only three, and they’re still in a development stage. We need more information, this isn’t enough.”

“But in the time it takes to gather that information it could be too late!”

“Too late for what?” Miles asked. He wanted to know the extent of Waylon’s fears. Was the other man predicting a doomsday scenario or just another war?

“I…” Waylon hesitated. “I just think it’s important that people know.”

“I understand,” Miles said. “This could be a public threat the likes of which the world hasn’t known since the atomic bomb. But it took sixty six years before they could get a host like Mr. Hope. They might have three more hosts, but it sounds like they haven’t been tested heavily and there was no mention of their parasites. It will most likely be years before they are ready to see action.”

Waylon took to pacing again. Miles caught the way he was limping. “I just don’t think a story is all that important, given the circumstances. We have the power to escalate things immediately and end any possible threat. You can write the story for the public later.”

That was true. He could write and release the full story after but there were so many risks in moving ahead and ignoring the plan. He didn’t know how to answer and R wasn’t any help. Sometimes he could count on R to help make a decision but the Walrider just didn’t have any real world experience. “For the record, I still think we should stick to our plan,” Waylon was about to interrupt but Miles held up his severed pointer finger to silence him, “but I think there’s truth and value to your side as well.” Miles fell silent and tried to piece a second plan together.

He ran through all his possible contacts in his head, then he dug through ones Julian might know. He needed someone with enough power to not only take them seriously but also act swiftly as well, and preferably without contacting the media. He wanted this part of the takedown to go under the radar. The time to put Murkoff in the spotlight would come when this potential threat had been taken care of. Finally Miles said slowly, “I know someone in the military. When I was stationed overseas as a reporter I got real close to some of the commanders, nothing as high as like a General, but high enough. We kept in touch after the war and I’ve contacted him a few times recently for help on articles.”

“And?” Waylon pressed.

“If you really think going ahead without the full story is a good idea, I can phone him tomorrow morning,” Miles said. “He’s currently serving as the commanding officer of a military research base in Arizona.” He pulled out his phone and plugged some locations into Google Maps. “It’s about a nine hour drive from here to there. If he’s available for and agrees to a meeting we could be there by four or five in the afternoon.”

Waylon was quickly doing the math in his head, “Wait, that means we leave at eight in the morning, we could get there a lot earlier if we left at six.”

“We could,” Miles said and yawned flashing his sharp teeth. “But I’m dead tired, you’re exhausted, even though you probably won’t admit it, and I’ve been driving nearly all day. I would really prefer the extra two hours of sleep.” He glanced at the bedside alarm clock which read three forty. “That’s the best I can offer you. I don’t think my other contacts would be suitable for this sort of information.”

“And you think he is?”

Miles nodded. “He’s military, high-ish ranking, I’m not sure I can do better. Murkoff is making top secret weapons and he’s running a base that develops weapons among other things. I don’t know if I can come up with a better fit.”

“Alright,” Waylon said after a moment to think it over. He had stopped pacing. “That’ll do, thank you.”

“Sure,” Miles said and stood up and stretched. “I’m going back to bed; you try to get some rest too, no more reading.” He shut the door behind him and glanced out at the still dark parking lot. “Fucking hell…” he muttered.

“We do not like this.”

“What part of “this” don’t you like?” Miles opened the Jeep door and climbed back into his sleeping bag. It had lost all its warmth. “The part where we deviate from our well concocted plan on day fucking one, or the part where we’re already obsolete as a murder monster?”

“We do not like how upset you are, and We do not like thinking about others of Us in this world so soon.”

“You did say that they’d make more of you, I remember that. We both came to that conclusion.”

“Correct, but we both thought that it would take years to replicate Billy and possibly years more to get you.”

Miles put a hand under his pillow and tried to let his mind rest. He needed the sleep. “Maybe,” he said, “the other hosts are like Billy and not like me. Maybe they can’t host off of life-support.”

“We hope that is correct. For both of our sakes.”

Miles drifted off to sleep that night uneasy and nervous. He wasn’t sure this was the right plan of action and he didn’t like thinking about the potential other weapons. It was especially scary to think that Murkoff might send the new weapons after them. Miles and R were confident in their abilities to fight humans and he was sure he could heal most injuries, but they had never fought other nanites. He didn’t even know where to begin. All he could do was hope that those three subject numbers would turn out to be failures, or that they stayed hidden for the rest of their lives.

There was a soft but steady knock on his window. “Host the human is-”

“I know, I know,” Miles groaned. “I have ears.” He rolled over in his sleeping and debated giving Waylon the finger. The knocking continued until Miles sat up, blurry eyed and exhausted. He used the swarm to unlock the door and kicked it open with his foot. “What time is it?”

“Six fifty.”

“Jesus…ok. Ok.” He tried to rub the sleep from his eyes and wake up. “I’ll keep my promise, we’ll leave by eight. I just need to shower and eat then I’ll call down to the base.” Miles looked up at Waylon who wasn’t really looking at him, but somewhere else off in the distance. “Hey,” he said, which caused Waylon to look at him. “Did you sleep?”

The other man didn’t seem to enjoy holding eye contact. Maybe it was because Miles was still shaking the nanites from his skin or maybe it was because Waylon wasn’t a very confrontation person, Miles couldn’t say. “I…yes, I got some sleep,” it wasn’t a lie, he did finally sleep about two hours ago, but it wasn’t enough to be considered restful. “The shower is all yours, what did you want for breakfast?”

Miles got out of the Jeep and looked around for the first time. It was dark when they had arrived and now in the pale morning light he could see some surrounding building. He was certain they were safe at the moment, and that no one had followed them. “If you’re up to it, you can take the Jeep down to that gas station and see if they’re open. Get a box or two of doughnuts, some breakfast sandwiches if they have any, stuff like that. Get whatever you want.” Miles tossed him his wallet. “Just bring that back,” he said with a smile and grabbed his jeans off the floor and a shirt from his bag. “I’ll be quick, R follow Mr. Park but do it invisibly, silently.”

Waylon was about to protest but Miles had already tossed him the car keys and disappeared through the motel door. He looked from the wallet in his hand to the keys then finally to the Walrider hovering beside him. “No funny business alright?” R gave him an exaggerated eye roll and dissipated into the Jeep. He had to squint to see the shimmery distortion the Walrider left behind. With that Waylon slid behind the wheel and started the car.

There weren’t too many times in recent memory where Miles had time to be truly alone. Even then it was only in body, in his mind he always had a roommate, and it would be like this until he finally died. But right now the Walrider wasn’t present in his head and physically he was a half a block away so this was as alone as it was going to get. Miles tossed his clothes onto the toilet seat cover and turned on the water for the shower. His reflection in the mirror was human by now. He usually woke up pretty quickly and threw his human disguise on not long after waking up.

The water was still cold when he stepped in and he wondered if it ever was warm to begin with. It didn’t matter much and it actually helped to wake him up a bit more. He had pulled all-nighters before and had worked on less sleep but if this kept up he wasn’t sure he’d make it. The past few days have been a whirlwind of activity and he had so much more to worry about. His safety, protecting the Parks, and the human interaction was wearing him out more than he thought, and it was only the second day. He still had a month of this to go. Provided things didn’t blow up later today, which they could.

He groaned and pressed his head into the tile. “Why can’t Park just take things slow? Stick to the plan?” The new information about Murkoff’s second program that was similar to Project Walrider did disturb and strike a bit of fear into Miles, but there wasn’t anything they could presently do to stop it. Miles thought that the original plan to expose Murkoff would be enough to shut down the second project. If Mr. Park wanted to escalate it then they’d try, but Miles was still worried.

Miles trusted the army source he was calling. Richard Brown was a longtime friend and he knew he could count on him to keep this low profile. The detour to Arizona would delay progress on the report and he was worried that Brown wouldn’t take him seriously without the full story. Miles knew he had enough evidence he just had to make Brown believe him without anything being official.

The only problem was that Miles was known to be a bit of a paranoiac regarding Murkoff. It was well known public knowledge that he followed the corporation and wrote a few articles on them. He’d been -successful at uncovering their bullshit once before, but the other leads he had never panned out. Among his circle of friends he was starting to look obsessive. He hoped this wouldn’t cloud Richard’s judgment when he presented their story to him.

The water had finally warmed up by the time Miles had finished washing himself, but he lingered in the shower for a few more moments. He tried to soak up some relaxation and delay making the call for as long as possible. There was a halfhearted hope that Waylon would decide to rethink his idea and Miles could just go back to sleep. But the way that he woke Miles up extra early was pretty hard evidence that the other man was still very serious. But he still held onto a shred of hope. He couldn’t wait to get back to his apartment and to his bed. He was pretty certain that he’d sleep forever if R let him.

Miles heard the motel door open and the steady stream of static filtered back into his mind. One of the perks of sending R with Waylon was that he could tell instantly if they were back or if someone had just broken in. While he was always connected to the Walrider, the static in his mind wasn’t strong at all times, it ebbed and flowed with their distance from each other and their emotions. He’d gotten really good at ignoring the constant buzzing and humming that came with being the Host. Sometimes he forgot what true silence was actually like.

Waylon was sitting nervously on his bed when Miles came out of the bathroom. He half expected him to be pacing again. “I got some food,” Waylon said and gestured to the stack on the table. “I didn’t know how much to get, so I just bought a lot. The cashier must have thought I was crazy.”

“Nah,” Miles said and picked up a breakfast sandwich. “Cashiers don’t give a single shit. They just ring up what you got and take your money. I guarantee it.” This morning his cravings weren’t as bad, but he still felt like ripping into the sandwich paper and all. He had to focus on chewing slowly and taking normal human bites. It was so strange to have his instincts kick in over a piece of soggy bread and an egg.

“If you say so…”

“I worked retail, I say so,” Miles said and sat down on the other bed. He reached for another sandwich and said, “One time a guy went through my line at four in the morning with three large jars of mayonnaise, five boxes of condoms, a plastic shovel and an apple.”

“What did you say?”

“Your total is going to be ninety-six fifty-five, would you like your receipt with you or in the bag?”

Waylon stared at him for a moment before he cracked a smile and started laughing. “That’s so gross, three jars?”

“Yup.”

“What do you think the shovel was for?”

“Who knows?” Miles said while reaching for a doughnut. “Maybe he was just doing it to be weird, but he spent like fifty dollars on condoms. That’s some dedication for a joke.” He had half a doughnut in his mouth as he reached for another sandwich and said, “So I doubt you buying out their stock of shitty breakfast food is going to register in their minds as anything strange.”

Waylon nodded and took a doughnut for himself before Miles inhaled them all. “It’s just hard for me, I guess. To see you purchase in one go what we struggled to buy for months.”

“Believe me when I say I wish I could just have some coffee and a bagel and be good.” Miles stood up and took three more sandwiches with him and grabbed his phone. “I’m going to make that phone call now, I’ll be back in when it’s done, then we’ll go.”

Waylon waited patiently in the room. He had already packed his bag and was ready to go. He could see the shimmery outline of the Walrider in the corner. It was holding up one of the wrappers from the breakfast sandwich, possibly reading it, Waylon thought. It confirmed that it could write and read so it wouldn’t be that unbelievable. Maybe it cared about what its host put in his body? It crumpled up the wrapper and tossed it in the bin, Waylon was a bit disturbed with how human it acted.

Over fifteen minutes past before Miles returned to the room. “Well?” Waylon asked, hopeful.

“I got us in for a half hour meeting with him at six thirty. I had to do some arguing with a secretary and try to make my credentials seem far more important than they actually were, but we’re in. Grab your stuff and we can hit the road.”

“Host these things you’ve been eating are terrible for you.”

“Everything is terrible for me, according to you,” Miles shot back. “I already told you to get used to it for a while. When we’re not on the road we can eat better.”

“So it was thinking about your health…” Waylon muttered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nothing.” Waylon threw his pack into the back and climbed in the passenger seat next to Miles. The man had the left over doughnuts sitting in the small space between the gear shift and armrest. “Are you ok to drive?”

“I will be after some coffee,” Miles said and looked over at Waylon. He couldn’t tell if the dark bags under the man’s eyes were new or leftover from weeks of sleeping issues. “Doesn’t matter though, you’re not touching this wheel until you’ve slept at least six full hours.” He added, “In a row.”

“Guess I won’t be driving then,” Waylon said and stared out the window. He couldn’t remember the last time he got a full night’s sleep. It had to have been before he was exposed to the Engine Therapy. Maybe it was before even that, his mind was still fuzzy sometimes when he tried to remember certain events that took place before his employment at Murkoff. At first he feared that he was losing all his memories and that he wouldn’t be able to recall his marriage or the day his sons were born. But thankfully the moments of clarity far outnumbered the ones of confusion and darkness.

The Jeep was filled with an awkward silence broken only by the radio and the faint buzz of static. While Miles was great at talking he just didn’t know what to bring up with Waylon. The other man seemed distracted; his eyes were blank and staring off into the distance. Miles thought it would be best if he let the other think. Miles was also pretty sure that the high tension in vehicle was mostly his fault. Not just because he was the Host and that made Waylon uncomfortable, but also because it was clear from his body language and tone that he didn’t want to go to Arizona. He was certain that Waylon knew he only gave in because he didn’t want to fight.

He didn’t want to fight…just like how he gave in and slept in the Jeep. Miles was suddenly aware that his actions would be mostly dictated by Waylon’s will. He really didn’t wish to push fear into the other and that meant most arguments would end with Miles losing. However he was also aware that the time spent with Waylon would most likely be short. Even if the military or the government got involved with tracking down Murkoff they’d still have to write their report and hide from their goons. Murkoff wasn’t going to let them get away so easily.

“You could always put the human in his place.”

“No, R,” Miles said.

”Why not? You must be with him for the next few weeks, why not make things easier for you? For Us?”

“Because,” Miles tried to explain, “it might seem better for us, but in the long run we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s just not worth it.”

“You go on and on about ‘feelings’ yet you toss yours aside. You don’t make any sense Host.”

Miles chuckled. “Hey, the world doesn’t revolve around me ok? You win some and you lose some, that’s life.”

“You sure make it sound like the world revolves around you,” R said.

“No you make the world revolve around me, there’s a difference.”

“Is all you two do is bicker?” Waylon cut in.

“Nah,” Miles turned to him to give a hopefully reassuring smile. “Sometimes we have full on arguments and fights. But mostly we just grumble. He doesn’t like how humans run things sometimes. I tell him to suck it up.”

“How can you even hear it?”

“Him,” Miles corrected, though he supposed it didn’t really matter what pronoun was used on R, he sure as shit didn’t care. “I can hear him through the static, it’s hard to explain unless you’ve felt it yourself. There’s like…a voice that starts off as a whisper in your ear but then it moves to something that surrounds you. He’s in my mind and all around me at once, his voice comes through the static that I hear every moment of my life.”

“Sounds annoying,” Waylon commented.

Miles agreed, “It is. But I got used to it a while ago, the first few days were rough though, I’ll admit. Now it’s like having another person talk to me.”

Waylon was quiet for a moment before he offered up a single statement. “I can hear it too.”

“The Walrider?” Miles asked, surprised. R had been shit talking him for a while now. “I’m sorry.”

“No, the static,” Waylon clarified. “I…I see it too, sometimes. Images burned into my eyes, like ink blots or television static.”

“Remnants of the Engine,” Miles said. “It’ll go away.”

Waylon frowned and looked away. “I doubt it. How do you know?”

Miles chuckled. “You’re asking someone who is currently linked to the Walrider. But if that’s not enough for you I’ve talked with several patients back at Mount Massive. They all used to struggle with seeing the Engine but it cleared up after a bit. I know mine did.”

“You were never in the machines, you weren’t hooked up.”

“No,” Miles agreed. “But I saw the Engine sequences same as you. I had it embedded in my eyes and brain same as you. I blinked and saw Rorschach tests and I could feel the static vibrating through my bones. And that was all before I was the host. If anything, what you’re experiencing got worse for me before it got better.” 

“But you’re the host,” Waylon argued, “maybe that means you’re designed to overcome it.”

“Maybe,” Miles said. “I don’t think anyone really knows. Most hosts went catatonic, very few were able to speak so the data is sorta thin.” He shrugged. “Anyways, if you’re like the others I was with then your mind should clear up soon enough. You’re still fresh; most of the prisoners hadn’t been tested for weeks before the riot. If you’re not compatible with the Engine and your therapy is getting you nowhere you’re just stuffed in a cell and observed until you rot.”

“If you say so,” Waylon muttered.

“Unless you’re special, do you think you’re special Park?”

“What is this? Kindergarten?”

Miles elbowed him, “Come on, are you special Park? Are you a special little boy?”

“Stop that, focus on the road,” Waylon said, but Miles could see he was smiling. “For my sake, lets pray I’m not special in this scenario.”

---

The town that housed the military base wasn’t anything special. It was small, like Leadville, with only a few streets that made up a downtown area and a few rings of suburban housing. Miles figured that most of the people that lived here worked to support the base. They passed by a university and a state park on their drive so perhaps there were people living there for them too. It didn’t matter, they had an abundance of motels, gas stations and fast food, everything Miles deemed they needed.

They arrived with plenty of time to spare before the meeting so Miles excused himself to go inhale some food beforehand. He didn’t need to get the shakes while explaining things to his contact. When he returned to the motel he gathered up Waylon and changed clothes. He had never been one for dress up, but he wanted to be wearing something that wasn’t a t-shirt that said “Cryptozologist”. That wouldn’t help a military man believe his story that sounded far more science fiction than fact. He pulled together the files that contained emails and signed research reports. He didn’t want to bring everything they had, just enough to prove the project was real and who was involved. Waylon tossed in the emails about the new project and Miles copied some of his footage over to a flash-drive that could be reviewed remotely. He had already backed up his footage twice, once to a secure online storage facility and the other was on his drives. He didn’t worry about the online one, it was the type of place that journalists frequent for sensitive information, the chances of it getting hacked were slim to none. There were some places even Murkoff couldn’t touch.

Then he grabbed his press badge and proper identification and his secondary badge. That one he handed to Waylon. “What’s this for?” He asked.

“I don’t… I don’t normally work with a partner, in fact I’m known for my lone wolf persona while working a case, but they issue a second badge anyways. We all have at least two, so you’ll be my partner today. My cameraman, actually.” Miles tossed him an older beat up camera too. “The front desk only cleared me for the interview but they’ll let you in too, as long as you have my badge.”

“Is this thing really that important? Are you really that important?”

“Ordinarily? No. But I’m not really an average journalist and I have history with the commanding officer of this base. Independent journalism has come a hell of a long way recently, and we’re pretty respectable. I made a name for myself and that name will get us both inside.”

Waylon took the pass and put it around his neck, like he saw Miles do. He’d just have to trust him on this. A lot of things he was just taking on trust. He hoped it wouldn’t backfire on him. Together they climbed in the Jeep; R was already in the back. It wasn’t a long drive from the motel to the base and Waylon fiddled with camera in his lap. It was older than the one he snuck out of Mount Massive, but it was just as powerful despite its age. When he looked up he saw the sign and entrance gate of the base pass by the Jeep. “Uh, Miles?”

“Yeah Park?”

“You just passed the base.”

“I’m aware,” Miles said and turned into the parking lot of a nearby park. It had a small wooded forest surrounding the parking lot in a half circle. Public parking, perfect for ditching a vehicle. He jumped out and did a once over of his car. He had long ago taken down his vehicles press pass, he didn’t need that visible right now, it was more trouble than it was worth. Waylon followed him around to the back of the Jeep where Miles pulled out a screw driver and a license plate.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking an extra precaution,” Miles said and unscrewed his plate.

Waylon watched him swap the plates out for ones of a completely different state. “Isn’t this illegal?”

“Yup,” Miles replied.

“I don’t get it, why do this?”

“Like I said, a precaution.” Miles did the same to his front plate and put the screwdriver and old plates in the hidden compartment. “My plates were on that video that went viral, if Murkoff is looking for it, looking for you, it’s best they don’t match. There’s a million red Jeeps in the world, mine should go unnoticed now.”

Miles started walking down the road towards the base, Waylon followed behind. “Why are we walking?”

“Another precaution,” Miles said. “I don’t know how deep this rabbit hole goes, I’m being cautious, paranoid. It’s best my Jeep doesn’t get spotted on any important cameras and it’s equally important that our ride be outside the tall, electric, barbed fences. Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“Just…in case.”

“I thought you trusted this guy.”

“I do but you can never be too careful. When dealing with Murkoff there’s no such thing as too much.”

Waylon grumbled beside him. “Fine, but some of us have leg injuries and walking isn’t high on their list.”

“Oh,” Miles had completely forgotten. “Are you ok? I didn’t know how bad it was, you’ve never shown-”

“Fine,” Waylon said curtly. “I’m fine. Let’s just get this over with.”

When they reached the gates Miles took the lead and showed his ID and passes. The gates swung open and they were let into the base. It wasn’t the first time he’d been here but a few things had changed. There were a couple of new buildings and it looked like the landing strip was longer. “Oh yeah, while we’re here your name is going to be Wayde Parker ok?”

“Fake name, job, and license plates…is anything real?”

“Our story and my di-” Miles cut himself off. “Our story,” he said again. This wasn’t a time for a jokes, he had to be serious. “We’re telling the truth here but we need to keep you a secret for as long as we can. Murkoff wants you and you need to be not found. So that means we lie a little. It doesn’t matter, you’re my cameraman, nobody is going to care what your name is.”

“Won’t they check the badge?”

Miles shook his head. “It just has my name on it. As long as my name matches the identification I present we’ll be golden.”

“Hold on,” Waylon said. “Weren’t you planning on hiding until the story was done too?”

Miles sighed and said, “Well, that’s just a risk I’ll have to take. Since I’m the one with the connections it was me who has to come out of hiding. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” But with each step closer to the main building dread was creeping in. This was going so far off of the plan and Miles had no way to steer it back onto course. The whole plan hinged on Murkoff believing he was dead; reaching out so soon could put everything in jeopardy. But they had no choice; they needed his credentials to get inside.

There was a receptionist at the front desk who took Miles’ ID and press passes, including the one around Waylon’s neck. They asked a few questions to which Miles hastily and professionally answered. Waylon was a little surprised to hear just how professional Miles could sound. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; he did have an impressive portfolio. The Miles that was all jokes and pop music transformed in front of him. He wasn’t screwing around.

They were led through a set of double doors and down a hallway that made Miles shiver. The building was made of stark white walls and steel doors and Miles wasn’t the only one who was uneasy. R grew agitated with each turn. “We do not like this Host. It makes Us uncomfortable to be here.”

“Then go wait in the car,” Miles said. He really didn’t want to be focusing on having a conversation with R in his head and the guard who was talking with them as they walked. “I know you don’t like it but you have to relax,” He said, cutting off R’s protest to leaving his side. “Right now you’re making me anxious.”

“We forgot that somehow We are seeping into you.”

“Yeah, it’s not just you who feeds off of me but the other way around now too. So knock it off.”

”This place just reminds Us of the labs We were kept in for many years. It is a response that is hard to ignore.” He didn’t like the sterile walls, scents of cleaning supplies and metal and the uniformed men and women. If he was in charge he would have bolted straight away, but he could do nothing but follow.

Sympathy flooded through Miles but he still had to insist. “Well please work on calming yourself down. I can’t deal with you and the others at the same time and you’re going to make me panic at this rate.”

R understood and a bit of the static receded from Miles’ mind. That was good because it didn’t take much to make his disguise drop and his true form take over when he was stressed. They both understood that if he broke now it would be a disaster. Instead of focusing on their surroundings R decided to pour his efforts into keeping Miles looking human. He didn’t have control over his host’s features but he could help keep Miles calm and monitor his body and give him quiet reminders and updates if anything shifted. That, he decided, would be a better use of his energy than worrying about how many armed guards there were and how little exits he could spot.

Brown’s office was in the main building along with some of the engineering labs and other administrative offices. Miles could pick up the faint smell of chicken from down the hall so the cafeteria must also be inside this building. It was a big complex and most of the structures Miles could only guess at the function of. He had been given a short tour of a few of them, but that was years ago, after Brown had first gotten his promotion. They were both fresh out of the war but on opposite standings, Miles had just been fired and Richard found himself heavily decorated. Despite that they remained in contact and Miles had probed him for information before for various stories. He hoped that this would appear to just be another routine meeting between the two of them.

The guard stopped just outside of Brown’s office and knocked on the door. “Sir, your six-thirty is here.”

“Upshur? Send him in.”

Waylon followed closely behind Miles when they entered the room. It was a small office, with a single desk, no windows, three chairs and a plastic plant in the corner. A large man stepped out from behind the desk to grasp Miles’ hand and shake it. “Pleasure to see you again Upshur! Keeping out of trouble I hope?”

Miles smiled, “Hardly, you know me.”

“Sit down sit down,” then he noticed Waylon. “Who’s this?”

“Trying something new,” Miles said and sat down in one of the chairs and motioned for Waylon to follow. “This is my cameraman, Wayde Parker, he’s been shadowing me for a few of my new stories.”

“Really? That’s unlike you,” Richard commented.

He laughed. “Well, sometimes you gotta try new things. My camera work is ok, but it’s not great and I’ve gotten some comments saying it’s amateurish.” Miles pulled the stack of files out from the envelope on his lap and laid them on the desk. “Unfortunately I’m not here for pleasant small talk.”

“Yes,” Richard said and sat down on the other side of the desk. “You said over the phone that you might have discovered something that could be a threat to the safety of the United States? I’m not sure why you’re bringing it to my attention and not someone else but I will listen.”

“Thank you,” Miles said and pushed the papers over to him. “I went to you because the situation is uh… delicate and complicated and I trust you.”

Richard eyed the papers and saw the Murkoff stamps on some of them; he raised an eyebrow and asked, “Murkoff? Miles do you take me for a fool?”

He shook his head. “No. No I do not. Which is another reason why I’m here. I know you’re a smart man, and you know I don’t fool around.” Miles pressed on. “I know what they’ve said, that the recent leaked footage of their asylum on Mount Massive was just a promotion, but tell me, do you honestly believe that?”

“I believe that you have a history with this company, Upshur.”

Miles rolled his eyes and said, “Give me a break. I’m far more professional than that, this isn’t a grudge I’m settling. They were working on something, a weapon, and I’m afraid of its deadly capabilities.”

“A weapon?” Miles nodded. “And that’s another reason why you came to me?”

“Yes. If there was anyone who would know about experimental weapons tech it would be you.” Miles placed a flash drive on the desk as well. “That footage that was leaked is genuine,” he said. “I was there.”

Richard leaned forward; he was more than a little interested now. “You were? What’s on this flash-drive?”

“Footage that I recorded myself on their grounds during the riot. It’s of the weapon, they called it Project Walrider.”

Richard looked from Miles over to Waylon. “And were you there by chance Mr. Parker?”

“I uh, I wasn’t, no,” Waylon stumbled awkwardly. He wasn’t good at lying straight to people’s faces.

“He wasn’t on my team yet,” Miles said, saving him. “I didn’t start recruiting until after I discovered I was in over my head.”

“But you trusted him with this information? After such a short time of knowing him? That seems odd.”

Miles chuckled but internally he was screaming. “He came highly recommended from associates of mine. After I tell you what I know you wouldn’t judge my decision to reach out for some help.” He scooted forward and spread some of the papers out so he could point out key parts. “Now, if you look here you’ll see that these are research reports written by various scientists involved in this project. These are real documents, you can get their authenticity verified I’m sure. The signatures alone should be able to prove most of this, but I want you to notice that some of these go as far back as the early fifties, just after World War Two. The head of this project was a man named Rudolph Wernicke, he was a doctor and scientist that served for the German side during the war. He was granted asylum into the US via Operation Paperclip.”

Richard turned towards his computer and typed a few things real quick. “It says here he worked with Alan Turing? Is that the same man?”

“Yes.”

“He died in 2009.”

“Not true,” Miles said and pulled out some papers containing photos and more signatures from the good doctor. “And if that’s not enough, this email clearly states that they are planning to phase out Wernicke from the company and experiments, take special attention to note that they even admit that his death was faked years ago. “

Richard took the email and read it several times. “This mentions other subjects,” he said finally. “What’s that all about?”

“That’s why we’re here. But first lets discuss Project Walrider, it’s the base for all of this.” Miles gestured towards the flash-drive and said, “Please, I want you to load those files and give them a look. They’re uh, graphic as all hell but I think you have the stomach for it.”

“What am I about to watch?”

“I have recorded proof of Project Walrider and shots of it in action.” Miles watched as Richard placed the flash-drive into his computer.

“There better not be any bugs in this Upshur, you know I’m breaking a few rules for you.”

“Because I’m your favorite journalist?” Richard shot him a glance. “There’s uh, no bugs on it. I promise. Now the first file is a compilation of shots of the Walrider itself, in various environments, outside in the rain, in the halls and down in the basement labs. Oh yeah, the labs were real too, none of that leaked footage was faked.”

“What the hell is that thing?”

“It’s a uh, collection of nanites that can be controlled remotely by a human. You’ll see it take the form of a black mist I called The Swarm, as well as a skeletal human form, probably what the human was most comfortable with picturing.” 

There was silence as Richard replayed the clips over and over. “And it’s dangerous?” He asked.

“Very,” Miles said. Waylon looked over at him, he didn’t expect Miles to vilify the Walrider, he was basically painting himself in a bad light if his true nature was every discovered. “Project Walrider has the potential to be one of the most deadly weapons known to humans. It’s not as destructive as say the atomic bomb, but it’s dangerous in other ways. Please open up and play the second file. This is footage of the Walrider attacking and ripping apart a large Variant.”

“Variant?”

“That’s what the Murkoff scientists called humans that came out of the Engine with results that varied from the normal. They were labeled Variants and studied further. The one is this clip is named Chris Walker, ex-military; he was being treated for severe PTSD and schizophrenia. His patient reports state that he had issues with self-mutilation but that’s not important now. Chris was the largest Variant I had encountered in that asylum and the Walrider tore him to pieces like he was wet paper.”

He opened the file and watched it. Then replayed it three more times. By the second time he had placed his hand over his mouth. “Incredible,” he murmured. “This creature is…what synthetic?”

“A blend of synthetic parts and natural. From what I’ve read it’s an advanced form of nanotechnology, it uses an organic host to create more of its own cells, like a parasite.”

“Do you know how strong it is? Can it go through say metal or armor plating? Or just flesh?”

“I don’t know how strong it is, I didn’t witness it doing anything like that,” Miles lied. “I did watch it slide under a door, so I know it can’t go through solid matter. The reports I’ve read haven’t mentioned its strength.”

“What is this last clip?”

“That’s uh, that’s its current host dying, thus killing the parasite.”

Richard played it and then asked, “So if it’s dead why is it an issue?”

“Because like I said, Project Walrider was just the start. You noticed the other patients, subjects 14306-8, 14279-1, and 14868-1, mentioned in this email.” Miles pulled the paper back out. “This is what I called you about. Project Walrider is dead, but it seems that Murkoff had gone ahead and moved past Project Walrider in favor of something else. Honestly, I don’t know anything about these subjects beyond this email and some other scraps of documents I found. If I were to guess they’re also humans with bionanite parasites inside of them.”

“And you think the pose a significant threat? What about Project Walrider is that still a threat too?”

Miles shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know if Murkoff is still actively supporting Project Walrider. It sounds like they’ve moved a considerable amount of assets to this new project. I suppose they could resurrect Project Walrider but it would take a considerable amount of time and effort.” Miles leaned back in his chair. “I think the focus should be on threat that this new project holds. If they are anywhere near as deadly that Project Walrider was I think the way war is played could shift dramatically.”

“I think I agree with you there.” Richard looked up as someone knocked and entered his office. It was a younger solider holding a small tablet device. They handed it over wordlessly to Richard and stepped out of the room. Richard flicked through something that Miles couldn’t see and looked up at his guests. Then he placed the tablet to the side and took out a notebook. “From what you’ve shown me this Project Walrider and any like projects could become serious threats to the American people and the world.”

Miles and Waylon both sighed with relief. “That’s great,” Miles said. “I mean,” he added quickly, “not the part about a threat to America, the part where you agree with me.” He looked from Richard to Waylon and grinned. “For a minute there I thought you’d toss me out for being crazy.”

“Nonsense, Upshur. You’ve proved that you have a solid head on your shoulder. The least I could do is hear you out.”

“So,” Waylon finally spoke up, breaking his run of silence. “Do you think you can do anything about this? We were led to believe that Murkoff could be moving these patients out of America and into a different country, perhaps back to Germany where this project originally started. Is there anything you can do stop that? Any actions that can be done?”

“Well first we have to prove that Murkoff has these experiments. This footage is great, but while I believe you the world might not.”

“But that’s why Miles brought the emails! The documents!”

“Which could also be fake,” Richard pointed out. “Before I can commit to doing anything I’m going to have to verify this and talk with my superiors.”

“But that might be too late!” Waylon protested.

“It might already be too late,” Richard said gravely. “But I am not authorized to take any action myself. You might be oversimplifying the situation Mr. Parker.”

“Relax,” Miles said. “We informed someone, that’s what matters.” He looked back over at Richard. “So,” Miles asked, “is this something that’s up your alley?” Richard nodded. “I thought so. Once a weapons nut, always a weapons nut, am I right?” Miles looked over at Waylon. “Everything will be fine, have a little faith Park…er. Now we can go back to writing the original story.”

“What was your original story, if I may ask?”

Miles laughed. “It was a simple case of massive human rights violations. It got a little out of hand.”

“I can see that,” Richard said. He picked up a phone and dialed a number. “Yes, my office. Two should be fine. Thank you.” He looked over at Miles as he hung up and said, “I have to thank you Miles. You’ve brought a few important things to my attention. The first being this potential new threat.”

“You’re uh, welcome. You know, it wasn’t even my idea to start with, it was Parker here that discovered the second set of experiments. He was the one who urged me to reach out and tell someone.”

“Well then, I’ll have to extend my thanks to you too Waylon,” he said with a smile. Miles’ blood ran cold. He didn’t need to exchange glances to know that Waylon had paled. “The second thing I have to thank you for is that you brought my precious property back to me after reports said it had been destroyed. You saved me a lot of money, Mr. Upshur, or should I say, Walrider?”

“How’d you know?” Miles asked, his mind was spinning with all the different things this meant.

“You’re a very good actor,” Richard said, “but you can’t fool the security cameras.” He lifted the tablet that had been brought in earlier. On the screen was a live feed of the office they were currently sitting in. There were two figures that were clearly human and two that were distinctly not.

Miles lifted his eyes to the corner of the room where he spotted a tiny camera. He snarled. Surveillance was something he should have expected and it was no surprise that an office like this would have a night vision filter. He lowered his gaze to focus on Richard once more. The door opened behind him and he knew by the way Waylon twisted around and said his name in a panicked voice that more soldiers had entered. Miles didn’t stop looking at Richard. “Your property? Since when did Murkoff share?”

“Since it was my department footing the bill for this whole thing. You whistle blowing wretch really delayed this project. If it wasn’t for you we’d be moving on and not trying to sweep up the mess you made.” He addressed Miles next. “And I really do thank you,” he said in a voice filled with mock sincerity. “When we lost Hope in the riot we thought we lost our precious Walrider. But I see it lives on in you.”

Miles ignored the jab at him and pressed on. “You paid for it? Why would Murkoff need outside donors? They have enough money to fund something like this for ages.”

“There’s no real harm in sharing this information, you are after all, government property and the whistleblower will be dead. Project Walrider wasn’t something Murkoff started, the US Government decided long before I put on my first uniform that Dr. Wernicke’s work was worth investing in. Did you think it a coincidence that he was on the list of scientists granted asylum? I inherited the responsibility, Project Walrider is a commissioned item, we just hired Murkoff like a contractor. But what’s even more interesting is the claim that they were working on something behind our backs. That, is something I will personally look into. Can’t have market competition.” Richard reached under his desk and pulled out a gun. “Now then, Mr. Upshur, it’s time for you to take a nap.”

Everything happened so quickly it was like a blur to Waylon. One moment he was sitting in a chair and the next he was grabbed roughly and pulled behind Miles. He heard several gunshots but saw nothing but a cloud of black surrounding them.

“He has control outside of lucid dreaming!” They heard Richard shout out. “It can block bullets! Incredible!” Besides the shouting of the commanding officer the room was quiet enough to hear the bullets hit the floor.

Then it was a blur again. “Now! R!” Miles commanded and the swarm dissipated into the form of the Walrider. He slammed one soldier against the wall while Miles took out the other with sharp claws. He swept his papers back into the folder and grabbed Waylon’s arm in one fluid motion. “We gotta go!” He said and pulled him out of the room.

Waylon stumbled behind Miles and caught sight of blood dripping off of the claws on Miles’ hand. “Did you kill that soldier?”

“No,” Miles said between breaths. “A scratch that shallow isn’t fatal.”

“And the Walrider?”

“Is on strict orders not to kill, but I don’t think soldiers feel the same way about us.” As he said those words a siren sounded and a message was broadcasted throughout the speaker system.

“This is a lockdown situation,” the voice said, “this is not a drill. There are two intruders in the main building. They are considered armed and dangerous, use of lethal force authorized.”

“Shit,” Miles swore.

“What do we do?” Waylon asked as he ran alongside Miles.

“There’s going to be a few moments of confusion as they try to figure out who the intruders are, we’ll take advantage of that and try to get as close to the exit as possible.”

“But they said they were on lockdown! Won’t that mean the doors will be locked?”

Miles looked behind him and tried to give Waylon a reassuring smile, it made him flinch instead. “I’m the Walrider; a locked door isn’t going to stop me.”

Military personnel around the building started to wise up and figure out that it was Miles and Waylon who were the dangerous men mentioned over the intercom. They heard gunshots but none appeared to hit Miles and he had covered Waylon in a brief shield of nanites before using the swarm to push the men and women back against the wall.

Waylon was amazed that Miles didn’t even break stride while doing any of this. In fact he just seemed to run faster. He had to push himself to keep up.

They sprinted down the hallway with Miles in the lead before he skidded to a stop at the intersection of halls. “Shit,” he said under his breath. He had been too distracted on their way in to remember which direction to. Having the conversation with R had broken his concentration and he’d have to remember that for later. Waylon must have seen him hesitate because he heard his voice call out to take a left. Miles did and took off down the hall. He was scanning for any other people and possible threats. He really didn’t want to hurt anyone inside, these people were not his enemies, but blood coated his claws anyways. Waylon told him to take a right at the next fork, but his voice was growing more distant and exhausted. Miles glanced behind him and saw that he was struggling to keep up.

Quickly he doubled back for his partner and grabbed his arm. “We need to hurry,” he said urgently. Waylon nodded and tried to move faster. His breath came out in long gasps, it was clear that he wasn’t in the same shape as he had been during the riot. “When we make it out of here we’ll run for the fences, don’t worry I’ll take care of the rest.”

They heard more gunshots and a bullet embedded itself into the wall in front of them. Miles swore and commanded the swarm to cover their backs. Then he heard strangled gasps as the Walrider pushed them against the wall with great force. Miles prayed they would only be knocked out. He gave the order not to kill but sometimes in these situations the stress made his control waver and gave R a bit too much freedom.

“Miles,” he heard Waylon gasp. “Miles I can’t-” His voice and body dropped on the concrete floor. Miles stopped immediately and looked at Waylon. “I’m sorry,” he choked out. “My leg hurts so much, I think I reopened it.”

There was a large blood stain quickly spreading around Waylon’s right leg. It left behind a steady trail of blood drops. “Shit,” Miles said again. “You can’t walk?” Waylon shook his head. “Ok,” Miles said and turned around. “Climb on.”

“What?”

“Well you can’t walk or run, and we need to get the hell out of here so either you climb on my back or I carry you bridal style.”

The word bridal still made Waylon shudder and he climbed up on Miles back. Then Miles started running at an impossible speed. There were still moments were it was easy to forget that the man he was traveling with wasn’t human.

“Which way?”

“Another right!” Waylon said. Miles dashed down that hall then paused. Waylon wondered if he was out of breath. Then he was set down and Miles jumped for what looked an air vent. “What are you doing?”

Miles hauled the grate out of the way and climbed in, he motioned for Waylon to give him his arm and he pulled him up as well, and then replaced the grate with the swarm. He placed a finger to his lips and said, “Shhh.” Waylon was across from him with his legs drawn up to fit inside comfortably. “Just like old times huh?” He whispered with a smirk.

“Shut up,” Waylon said and looked out the grate. “Why are we up here? We should still be running.”

“I wanted to take a look at your leg and wait for R to catch up.” He pulled up Waylon’s pant leg without asking and ripped it at the wound. Waylon was about to protest when Miles cut him off. “We need something to wrap around it and stop the bleeding; these jeans are wrecked anyways, not much point in saving them.” He carefully tried to clear away as much blood as he could to get a better look at the wound. It was large, he could tell that much, it looked like the stiches or staples gave way. Miles assumed the injury would be more healed by now. Weeks had passed since he obtained it, but that wasn’t the case. Miles’ nose picked up the distinct smell of infection and rot coming from the gash. He decided not to comment on that now. He ripped the piece of jean into a makeshift wrap and tied it tightly around the wound. It wouldn’t stop everything, but it was better than letting it flow freely. “That’s as best as I can do until we get back to the motel.”

“If we get back to the motel,” Waylon said.

“Hey,” Miles put a hand on Waylon’s knee and squeezed. “I said I’d protect you right? I promised you I’d get you back to your wife and kids. We’ll make it out of here, trust me.” They waited in the vent for a few more minutes while R made his way to their location. It gave Waylon some time to catch his breath and for Miles to get his racing mind under control.

R dissipated into particles small enough to fit through the vent half formed by his host’s side. “Why are we waiting?”

Miles replied, “For your slow ass to catch up, and also Park’s hurt, I had to make sure he wasn’t going to bleed out.”

“Oh what a pity that would be.”

“Shut up,” Miles said. He didn’t need R’s snark right now. The view from the vent wasn’t the best but only a few groups of people ran past. Miles thought the whole base would be crawling by now, but they must be more professional than that. They’re probably systematically checking rooms and halls and once an area is clear they move on. Thankfully none of them thought to look up, or none of them bothered to notice the blood trail that disappeared just before the vent. “Ok, I’m going to drop down first,” Miles said. “Then R, you catch Park, watch his right leg.”

“Why not stay in the vent and get out that way?” Waylon suggested.

“Because I don’t know where any of these lead and I don’t want to corner or trap ourselves. I can move faster on the ground and the more time we spend here the more danger we put ourselves in.” He popped the grate out and caught it with the Swarm. Then silently dropped onto the floor. There wasn’t a soul to be seen in this hallway. Waylon took a few experimental steps forward to join Miles by the wall but the way he winced and limped made it clear to Miles that he wouldn’t be walking or running out of here. Miles knelt down and motioned for Waylon to climb back on.

“What should We do Host?”

“You’re going to run a distraction. They’ve never seen anything like you, I want you to be fully visible to the human eye and I want you to run or fly around the halls. Push people out of the way, let them dump ammunition into you, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t kill alright? I can repair any damage you sustain.”

“And you Host? Where will you go?”

Miles started jogging off down the hall. “I’m going to get the hell out of here and make for the trees, follow when you hear my command.” The Walrider nodded and went the opposite direction. A cloud of nanites followed like a black sandstorm.

“I don’t remember this place being so big,” Miles commented after they turned another corner. He ran right past a group of soldiers instructing him to stop and grunted when they shot at him. It was an easy fix, just summon more nanites to form a shield and push the people aside.

Waylon was holding on tightly to Miles and couldn’t figure out where the nanites were coming from exactly. They didn’t come out of his mouth or ears or nose…but they had to come from somewhere. Maybe it was best that he didn’t know and just focused on what was coming next. He made a mental note to ask about it later.

Finally Miles burst through the main lobby doors and nearly scared the receptionist to death. They were hiding behind their desk and while they had a gun they didn’t seem too keen on using it. “Are you the one the lockdown is about?”

Miles rolled his eyes. “If I’m not then I have to question the frequency of monsters you get here.” He didn’t wait for her reply before he ran for the front door. While the exit was indeed locked, it didn’t take much effort from Miles’ part to power through the locks and push the door open. He had pulled apart prison cell doors in the past, this was nothing. Once outside he scanned the grounds quickly. It didn’t seem like there were many people outside and there were none between him and the fence. So he went for it.

Waylon was still gripping tightly to Miles; he thought for sure that once they were out in the open they’d be ripped to pieces by bullets. But to his surprise, he felt no pain. There were shouts off in the distance, people running to and from buildings, but no one seemed to be checking the front, perhaps they all thought they wouldn’t make it that far? One thing he knew for certain was that they underestimated Miles and Walrider. It was also clear that had Miles wanted to, he could have easily slaughtered many of the people inside. But he didn’t, and that had to count for something.

They were approaching the fence at a dizzying speed. “Miles how are we going to climb that?”

“We’re not,” he replied.

Waylon was confused but trusted Miles. He tensed when he felt Miles shift his grip on him and speed up. The fence had to be at least fifteen feet high, maybe more with a good three feet of barbed wire at the top. He was willing to bet that it was electrified as well. Waylon shivered at the memory of the electric fencing back at the asylum. How the air would crackle and sizzle if you got too close. That fence wasn’t meant to stun but kill, he was certain the same could be said for this one.

Waylon briefly wondered if they’d be going under the fence, but that thought was ripped from him as Miles leaped. He shut his eyes and readied himself for the feeling of being electrocuted. When he was a kid, he remembered sticking a paperclip in the socket at his home. He would never forget the sharp sting and terrible numbness that stayed with him for hours after. But never felt Miles hit the fence. Instead he felt a sensation not all that different from swinging up on a swing. He opened his eyes and looked down, and then he almost screamed. They were a good thirty feet in the air and rising still as Miles was somehow going over the fence. Then his stomach seemed to drop as Miles started to fall. By this time they were clear of the fence by at least five feet.

Miles feet touched the ground and he dashed up the hill in front of the fence before knelling down and dropping Waylon on the other side of the hill. Then he motioned for Waylon to lie in the tall grass and remain still. Miles slid down beside him and waited. “I think we’re clear,” he said.

“How…How did you?”

Miles just smiled. “We’ll lie low for a few minutes, I don’t think anyone saw us go over the fence and they won’t ever expect something like that to happen. Then we’ll slowly make our way into the woods and cut through to that park where I ditched the Jeep.”

Waylon nodded and stayed low to the ground. He didn’t even bother looking up. Lying still was something he had a lot of practice with back at Mount Massive. He was a master at imitating corpses. When he did glace to the side at Miles he could see the slight light distortion that meant the Walrider was back. Miles must have been talking with it silently.

“The humans are in chaos,” R reported. “They have no clue where we went.”

“Good, and did you have any issues?”

“No. The distraction worked perfectly. They were far too busy chasing and trying to capture Us, they didn’t even realize you slipped out with that other human.”

Miles nodded. This was good, perfect. For now they had the upper hand. The world, even Murkoff, doesn’t know the extent of what a compatible Host can do. As long as they continued to keep themselves secret they could maintain that upper hand. He heard the sound of a chopper start up from the landing strip. “Not, good,” Miles said out loud. “We gotta move.” A few moments before the helicopter started he heard a group of soldiers run past the fence. They didn’t even slow down or consider that someone had gone over; they were looking for someone trying to cut through, go under, or climb over. Or a corpse, that was always an option too.

He helped Waylon up and together they moved slowly into the woods. It was nearing night now, and much of the small clearing they had been hiding in was covered in deep shadows from the hill. “I’m worried that the helicopter will start searching the areas outside of the base. If that happens we might be in trouble.”

“Why?” Waylon looked up at the thick canopy of leaves. It was still too early in the year; the trees hadn’t dropped their leaves yet.

“There’s a good chance that they’re equipped with a night vision camera and an even better bet that they have a thermal filter too. So no matter what they’d be able to spot us.” They moved through the trees slowly. Waylon’s leg was still sore and it was hard to put full pressure on it. He ended up using Miles for support.

Darkness and fully descended on them by the time they immerged onto a hiking trail in the park and wandered back to the Jeep. There weren’t many people at the park in this hour, just a jogger who didn’t give them a second look. Miles unlocked the Jeep and got in, Waylon followed close behind. “Well,” Miles said. “That sucked.”

“I’m sorry-”

“Don’t be,” Miles cut him off. “How were you supposed to know the damn military commissioned Project Walrider?” He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “Shit fuck.” Miles took a deep breath and started the engine. “This just makes things a bit more… complicated.”

“Are they going to come for us?”

“Yes, but not right away.” Miles turned onto the main road and went the opposite direction of the base. They’d have to take a roundabout way back to the motel. “They won’t risk doing a recapture in public, too many witnesses and too much potential for things to go wrong. They also need time to come up with a plan and figure out what their next move is. The trick is that we have to guess what they’ll do and be one step ahead.”

Miles could tell Waylon was in some serious pain by the time they got back. The adrenaline must have worn off and the pain started to seep back in. He was familiar with that feeling. He helped Waylon out of the Jeep and instructed R to grab the first aid kit he kept in the back. He let Waylon put his full weight on Miles as they walked slowly to their room.

“Ah,” Waylon gasped as he was set gently down on the bed. “This hurts worse than when I got the injury.” He bit his lip as Miles undid the soiled scrap of jean.

“It’s infected, Host.”

“I’m aware of that R, thanks for your commentary.”

“What’d he say?”

“That your leg is infected. Have you been running a fever?”

Waylon shrugged. “I don’t know, I’ve been feeling the same as I always have, shitty.”

A sigh escaped Miles lips. “We need to get this cleaned up; we’re going to the bathroom.” Waylon didn’t protest or disagree when Miles helped him into the bathroom and set him on the toilet seat. Miles began to run water over the injury; he ignored Waylon who hissed in pain. “It looks like there’s two parts to this wound; did that piece of metal go all the way through?”

Waylon groaned. “Y-Yeah it did. The smaller exit hole should be mostly healed up though; it’s the entry wound that keeps acting up.”

As carefully as Miles could he pulled the old stiches from the long jagged gash and threw them away. “I’m going to need to re-stich this shut, but…”

“But what?”

“There’s a lot of dead flesh around the wound. This has to be cut away. Jesus, how did it get so bad? Did the doctors give you any medication?”

“They did,” Waylon admitted. “I was given antibiotics to help combat any infections I picked up in the asylum, but the bottle ran out a while ago.”

“And you didn’t get it filled?”

“I…No I didn’t.” Waylon turned is head from Miles. “There was no way we could afford it. We hardly had enough money to put food on the table. I chose to make sure my sons went to bed without an empty stomach instead of my stupid leg.”

Miles sighed again and stood up. “I’m not going to judge you for that, Park. You did what you thought was right. But if we don’t do something that leg is going to go septic and you’ll lose it.” Waylon went a little pale. “Unless you die of blood poisoning first.” He disappeared from the bathroom and returned shortly after with the first aid kit. He handed Waylon two small pills.

“What are these?”

“Painkillers, the good shit. Trust me you’re going to need them.” He watched Waylon swallow them dry before he knelt down and looked at the leg again. It was so bruised and swollen he had a hard time telling what was dead and what wasn’t. He swore and placed his hand on Waylon’s leg. He concentrated and urged the nanites out like he had once back on the mountain. Waylon jerked away but Miles held his leg tightly with the other hand. “Relax Park; I’m not going to hurt you.” He wanted to see if he could use the nanites to sense which parts were dead and which parts weren’t, it worked before with searching out cardio muscle and stopping the heart, why not now?

“Interesting Host,” R murmured in the static.

With a careful and steady hand Miles began to strip away any flesh that the nanites reported as dead or dying. Waylon tried holding it in but he ended up shouting in pain. Thankfully the motel was rather deserted and he doubted anyone would hear or care. He dabbed at the wound with a cloth and gave everything a quick rinse with alcohol. “Normally I’d avoid using alcohol like this, it actually has a tendency to kill cells faster, but there’s a lot of bad stuff in there Park.” Then he flushed the whole thing with water again before patting it dry with a spare bathroom towel.

Waylon eyed the needle and thread that Miles produced from the kit. “You’re going to redo the stiches?”

“Yup. Don’t worry I’ve been briefed in field dressing and basic first aid,” he tried to reassure Waylon. “Doesn’t mean it won’t sting.” He quickly and skillfully stitched together what he could. Then he smeared antiseptic gel around the injury and wrapped it in a few layers of gauze before wrapping the bandage around it and fastening it closed. Miles stood up and helped Waylon back to the bed. “Ok, do you have that prescription information by chance?”

“I…do…why?”

“Because I’m going to call down to a pharmacy three towns over and get it filled.”

“No! You don’t have to, there’s no need for-”

“Do you want your leg to fall off?” That shut Waylon up. “I’ll cover the costs, don’t worry.” Reluctantly Waylon handed over the information; he kept a small folder with his medical information on hand in case an emergency happened. Miles did a quick google search and then dialed a number. “Hello? Yes I’d like to phone in a prescription refill. Yeah it’s for a Mr. Waylon Park, that’s correct,” Miles started to list off the information and names from the paper Waylon had given him. “I’ll pay in cash, full. Yes. Pick it up anytime tomorrow after two? Got it, thanks.” He tossed the cell to the side and said, “We’re all set. We’ll drive to this town tomorrow, pick up the prescription and head towards my apartment.”

“Won’t this put us in danger? Using my name on the prescription and going to your apartment? They do know about you.”

Miles just said, “Well that’s a risk we’re going to have to take. You need medication or you’ll die, and I need stuff from my apartment. Besides, they don’t have any concrete thing to charge me with, they can’t send the police to my place nor can they just mobilize soldiers and send them out to a residential.” Miles did a bit of pacing before he picked a spot on the wobbly table to sit. “Murkoff doesn’t like big public scenes either. If Richard is in contact with them it’ll take them a little while to come up with a plan, or to hand the reigns over to Murkoff completely. So they know my name? Oh well. They know Project Walrider is alive, that sucks but it’s not the end of this.”

“How can you be so positive?”

“If I’m not, all I’ll have is fear and anger, and I really don’t want to have fear and anger as my only emotions right now.”

They were both quiet for a while; Miles was on his phone doing searches of local news. The base hadn’t reported anything which was good and he had yet to see police or obvious patrols through the motel window. The chances were very high that they weren’t being looked for tonight. That still didn’t mean Miles would sleep easy tonight. He’d put R on watch, but he’d need help falling asleep, he knew that for sure.

Waylon finally stood up and mentioned something about going to get a few things from the vending machines outside. Miles watched him stand and noticed only a slight limp in his step. The pain killers must be kicking in. “If you get into any trouble,” Miles said as Waylon hit the door, “call out, either myself or R will be there in seconds. What do you want for dinner?”

The suddenly subject change caught Waylon off guard. “I uh, I don’t know.”

“We had pizza two days in a row, so how ‘bout Chinese? There’s a place that delivers.”

“Uh, sure.” Miles tossed him a menu. “Give that a look while you’re out and let me know what you want, I’ll phone the order in when you get back.”

Waylon slipped outside and took a breath of the cooler night air. He couldn’t believe this; the military was working with Murkoff? He should have seen it coming, he should have picked up on it, should have been more observant when he worked for the bastards. But he didn’t and now look where they were. Miles might keep a positive outlook but that didn’t mean he had to. The reality of their situation was that things were going to very messy very fast.

He had to walk slowly down the covered hall that separated the parking lot from the motel room doorways. He could see the Jeep parked outside and a few other cars that must belong to staff or another guest. There wasn’t much in terms of vending but he needed a snack, he hadn’t noticed how hungry he’d gotten. The day’s activities must have been enough to spark a bit of apatite in him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a few ones, change from he purchased the breakfast food earlier today. None of the money was his, it was all Miles. The other man was single handedly footing the bill for this whole doomed project. Part of him felt bad, guilty even, but another part was thankful that he didn’t have to pay for anything. Even if he had money he would much rather be spending it on his family, on his boys. He didn’t realize how much he was going to miss Alex and Lee…and Lisa. He thumped a hand against the pop machine and swore softly. He was never one for swearing, even before the birth of his sons.

It had only been two days and he already missed Lisa, it was like Mount Massive all over again. When he worked for Murkoff they had a strict no communication policy. No calls in or out on private lines, that meant no cell phones. All computers were connected to their system and had to abide by their tight firewall. No emails, little news, and very little in the form of entertainment was let through. If he hadn’t been constantly working down in the basement he would have found it boring and isolating.

The only good thing about working for that place was the view from the Administration Block. The mountain was beautiful and his dorm room had a spectacular view of the sunset. That didn’t ease the pain of loneliness any, but it helped to relax him.

He wondered what Lisa and the boys were up to, were they missing him too? He knew Lisa must be. She was so damn strong and he was counting on her be even stronger for their sons. He hoped they were doing ok, staying with one of Lisa’s friends; maybe his boys were making a little movie with the camera Miles had given him. Most of all he hoped and prayed they’d be spared from all this. Today he was shot at, multiple times. Today he watched a man switch out his license plates, give him a fake name, and jump over a twenty foot high electric fence. The danger that Miles said could follow them had already appeared and he was thankful his wife wasn’t in the crosshair.

Waylon smoothed out a crumpled one dollar bill and fed it into the machine. He wasn’t sure what he wanted so he just pushed whatever button his hand landed on. The soda dispensed from the machine and he picked it up. It was lemon lime flavored. He shrugged and twisted the cap off. Then he looked at the snacks in the machine next to it. Most were candy bars, chocolate, a few things like chips or bagged cookies. He forced another few bills into the slot and got a bag of chips and a chocolate bar. That’d do for now.

He wondered if he should get something for Miles, but he figured the man could probably eat the whole contents of the machine and not even put a dent in his hunger. So he skipped it, besides he was going to order Chinese in a few moments. Waylon paused in his walk and leaned against the wall, he had forgotten to take a look at the menu he was handed. He rested against the wall and took the weight off of his bad leg. Nothing really seemed to stand out, so he figured he’d just order chow mein. If he didn’t like it he was sure Miles would eat any left overs. That man’s stomach was a bottomless pit.

Waylon opened the door to their room and nudged it open with his shoulder. “Oh, shit,” he heard Miles say from the bathroom. “I thought we’d be done before you got back. Just close the door and don’t panic, I’m alright.”

“What?” Waylon said more confused than ever. When he stepped further into the room and peaked inside the bathroom he nearly dropped his soda. “Oh my god, Miles are you ok?” The other man was sitting cross-legged in the bathtub and leaning forward. The Walrider was behind him, sharp claws deep in his hosts back. Blood was running in read streams down his back and sides.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Miles waved a hand casually. “R’s just digging a few bullets out of me.”

“Bullets? You were shot?” Waylon set his drink down and hobbled into the bathroom. “Do you need me to call an ambulance? How long ago? Oh my god that’s a lot of blood.”

“Calm down Park. Please, take a breath. This isn’t the first time I’ve been shot before remember?” He pointed to one of the previous scars from his run in with the assault rifles back on Mount Massive. “I was shot while we were in the base-”

“How didn’t I notice? Wait…” Waylon paused then his eyes grew wide. “You mean to tell me you treated and bandaged my leg while you had bullets inside of you?”

Miles nodded. “Yup. You didn’t notice because I healed over them almost instantly after being shot. With the blood from my claws and your leg already on my shirt you didn’t notice. It’s ok, it’s fine. R’ll get ‘em out and that’ll be the end of it.”

The Walrider sliced another patch of skin open and shoved two clawed fingers deep inside. Miles winced. “Doesn’t that hurt?”

“A little bit, yeah,” he admitted. “R usually cuts off the nerves in the area, numbs it so I don’t have to feel it, but sometimes he misses a spot.” R dug in a bit harder. “Or does it on purpose,” he grumbled.

Waylon sat down on the toilet seat beside the tub. “How many times were you shot?”

Miles shrugged, which hurt so he stopped. “At least twice, possibly three times. It happed right at the start of the chase, before I got quick at popping up those shields.”

“Did you two do this…you know…last time?” He gestured at the scars.

“Nah, most of those bullets ripped right through me. The ones that didn’t were dissolved in my body by R. We decided not to do that this time because it wastes a lot of energy and it’s rather uncomfortable to walk around with metal lodged where it shouldn’t be.” He ground his teeth when R cut through another layer of muscle.

“Found it Host.” R grabbed the bullet firmly between his claws and wiggled it free of the flesh. He pulled it the rest of the way out of the wound quickly and dropped the smashed bullet on a paper towel. There was already one other sitting there. He used the nanites to clear out the smaller metal fragments and then started closing the cut tissues and mending the broken connections with nanites. R was getting reports from inside his Host that there was indeed one more bullet. It appeared to be lodged near his stomach, stuck in the muscle and fat that surrounded the soft organs. He heard Miles hiss in pain as R dug a new hole to get at the bullet. “Stop being such an infant Host. You are beyond such things.”

“Stop being such an infant Host,” Miles mocked. “You’re not the one with a fucking bullet in your gut and a- Ow! Fuck! R!” Miles doubled over and squeezed his eyes shut. “You don’t have to be such an ass about this!”

“You’re right. But We are having such fun. As you human are so fond of saying, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

“Oooooo I hate you,” Miles said through gritted teeth.

Waylon leaned forward. “Are you ok?”

“Just fucking peachy,” Miles said. “Right as rain, fine and dandy, I think everything’s coming up dais- Ow! Ow! Fuck be more careful shit.”

R let his laughter ripple through the static and continued on with his work. His nanites touched the tip of the bullet and began to dig the metal out from the lining where it was embedded. It seemed to have nicked several folds of the small intestine on its way through his host’s body, but it would seem Miles’ own body with the help of the nanites were swiftly repairing that damage without any input from R. He pulled the last bullet free after a bit of a struggle and placed it with the others. Then he rubbed the blood off his claws onto his host and got up to leave. “We are finished here; We know you can heal yourself from here.”

“Thanks R, hey,” he called after the Walrider before it left the room. “Hand me my phone so I can order dinner.”

“I can’t believe you can think about eating after that,” Waylon said as Miles took the phone from the Walrider’s outstretched hand.

“Hunger can’t be ignored, especially not mine. Now then, what did you want?” Miles placed the order and Waylon left him to shower and clean up. He’d seen enough blood for the day. Surviving the riot meant that he had seen enough blood and guts to last him several lifetimes, but sometimes you can’t escape certain things.

Miles came out of the bathroom freshly showered and looking like a man who hadn’t just been shot three times. “Hey,” he said. “Do you uh, want me to sleep out in the Jeep again? I won’t feel bad if you say yes, that’s sorta why I got a single this time.”

Waylon looked at Miles and felt bad about what he was going to say next. “Yeah, I’d like that actually. I’m really sorry about this, you did just you know…save my life and all.”

“No worries,” Miles dismissed it. “You can’t fight fears or uncomfortableness. At least, not in one go. Don’t worry about it.”

Miles answered the door and paid for the Chinese and they ate in relative silence. The TV was on in the background and they watched it halfheartedly. Still no news reports on their little military base adventure, which Miles found extremely wonderful. He finished the last of his carton of food and waved Waylon goodnight. He unlocked the Jeep and set his sleeping bag up in the backseat again. Sleeping in the back like this reminded him of the days when he was too poor to afford motel rooms when he was out on a job. He laughed at the memory.

That all seemed so long ago, but it wasn’t, not really. This year just felt like a million, and it was only October. He still had two more months to go. They didn’t talk much about what the military being involved with Project Walrider meant. Miles didn’t want the situation to seem too hopeless. He plugged his phone into one of the car charges and fluffed up his pillow. Too much talk about the bad would just bring them down at this point. But he knew that everything got far more complicated now.

His original plan was to break the story to military or federal government himself. But now there was a good chance that the people he was going to tell were the very same ones who signed the checks to Murkoff. Of course, he didn’t have proof. None of the records he grabbed from Murkoff’s profit reports showed any evidence of outside funding. He’d have to go through them again, double check everything. And he’d have to think of a new way to break the story. If Murkoff wanted to play the leaked footage off as a viral campaign, then he’d just have to go viral too. He’d break the story on his own site, he decided. Go public and post everything. It will take a lot of scanning, a lot of editing, and a lot of storage space, but he figured that this was now the best way to go. Let the people see everything, give them information and let them bring the hammer down on those responsible.  

He was nearly asleep when he heard a knock at his door. Miles sat up and groaned. Waylon was outside again.

“Host the human is-”

“I know, I know, here.” He opened the door. “What’s up Park? Nothing bad I hope.”

“No, no. It’s not. I just…” He held out the carton of chow mein he was eating. “I couldn’t finish this, and we don’t have a refrigerator so I figured instead of throwing it out, maybe you’d like it?”

Miles smiled. He couldn’t turn down a bedtime snack. He took the leftover food and thanked him. “Hey Park?” He said before Waylon could too far away.

“Yeah?”

“Everything’s going to be alright ok? It can’t get much worse than this right?”

He gave Miles a half smile. “Right.”

Chapter Text

The sound of his phone buzzing on the jeep floor woke Miles from his dreams. He groaned and groped around blindly for his cell. Eventually his fingers touched the vibrating device and he lifted it to his ear. “‘Lo,” Miles said groggily. “What do you want Jules?” There weren’t many options for who would call him on this line so he felt his guess was well founded.

“So you’re a terrorist now?” The voice on the other line said with barely restricted anger.

“Wha? I’m a what now? No, Julian start talking sense here.”

There was an audible and slightly exaggerated sigh on the other line. “Fucking turn on a TV Miles. You’re on every news station, top story.”

“Oh hell, hold on I gotta get to the motel room.”

There was a pause then a question. “Wait, where are you now?”

“The Jeep,” Miles said with a yawn. He kicked open the door and shuffled outside. The sun hadn’t even fully risen yet. “I’ve been sleeping in the Jeep.”

“Why? There’s no way you don’t have the funds for a double.”

“Oh I do,” Miles replied. “Park is just uncomfortable sleeping around me.” He slid his key into the door and gently pushed it open.

“Oh don’t tell me he’s-”

“No, hush. I’ll call you back as soon as I know more.”

Julian swore. “Do not hang up on me Upsh-” Miles hung up.

“He’ll be pissed that I did that,” Miles said more to himself than to Waylon who was sitting straight up in bed, a look of surprise and shock on his face. “Oh,” Miles said apologetically, “sorry I should have knocked; I didn’t mean to startle you.” He grabbed the remote off of the nightstand and sat on the bed while Waylon ran a hand over his face and rubbed his eyes.

“Why are you in here?” He asked.

“Needed the TV,” he said, “Julian just called, said I needed to check the news, something just happened.”

“…Julian? That a friend of yours?”

“Yeah, good one.”

Miles turned on the TV and flipped to a local news station. Like Julian said, there was definitely something going on. Big white letters scrolled the bottom of a newscast that read, INDEPENDANT JOURNALIST MILES UPSHUR WANTED FOR TERRORIST ATTACK ON ARIZONA MILITARY BASE.

“At approximately six-thirty, yesterday evening, a journalist by the name of Miles Upshur entered a military base in Arizona to conduct an interview with the Commanding Officer of the base,” a newscaster said. “The reason for the interview wasn’t disclosed to the public and there are doubts on the legitimacy of the actual request. Shortly after Upshur met with Mr. Brown chaos erupted within the base. It is believed that Mr. Upshur had a weapon on him and attacked several personnel before fleeing the facility on foot. He was accompanied by one unnamed accomplice.”

Miles watched security footage of their escape play on repeat, they showed a section where he was not using nanites, and the poor quality of the footage conveniently covered his claws yet allowed for his face to be unmistakably clear. He swore when a current picture of his face flashed on the screen. “Miles Upshur and the accomplice are said to be armed and dangerous. If you see him you are encouraged to call local authorities and not to approach.”

He changed the channel to a different news station. “Domestic Terrorist Within Our Borders” was the running headline on that station. There was a heated discussion about him between a panel of people consisting of the newscaster, a military expert, and another journalist. They had less than favorable things to say about him. The other journalist said, “Oh yes, I’m very familiar with Mr. Upshur’s work. We all are. While he’s done some remarkable journalism there’s no denying his loose cannon nature and unstable mental condition.”

“Unstable my left fucking testicle you asshole.” Miles growled, low and animal like. “I helped co-write your most popular article you backstabbing coward. When this is over you’ll regret throwing me under the bus for a few extra hits to your site.”

“Would you say that this type of behavior is typical of Mr. Upshur? Has he done something like this before?”

“No, not like this. He has been arrested several times for trespassing and-”

“So this man is already a criminal?”

Miles groaned and leaned forward to press his head into the comforter. “Oh my god I cannot believe they’re reaching this fucking hard.”

“I’m unsure if charges were actually filed in any of those cases or not,” the other reporter replied. “But he was fired from his formal journalism job over a dispute on releasing classified military information, so this move isn’t all that surprising. It’s clear that he isn’t concerned with the safety of the United States.”

Miles swore again, the bed muffling his voice.

“What kind of information is stored at that base?” The newscaster asked the military representative.

“Well, I’m not at total liberty to say what is inside that base. It is a weapons testing facility. The report I was given from the Commanding Officer states that Mr. Upshur had come requesting knowledge on a project rumored to exist. When he was told such a project did not exist he turned violent. It was then that security was called and the conflict escalated.”

“How many were injured in the attack? Do you know what he used as a weapon?”

“The report was unclear on that matter, but from the documented injuries…if I had to guess, a large hunting knife. Several soldiers had deep lacerations on their arms and chests.”

“Did he have time to steal any important information?”

“Well, if you look at the released security footage you can clearly see that he has an envelope clutched under one arm. I was told that it was an important update on an unrelated project at the base. It is sensitive information, but not much damage can be done with it, I’ve been told.”

Waylon watched nanites swirl around Miles; they were like a thick black cloud that curled around his arms and upper body. He could see claws manifesting as Miles gripped the blanket. He scooted away while Miles growled, “Play the damn shot of me going into the facility with the same damn envelope. I fucking hate mainstream media, purposefully distorting the story because no one can tell them otherwise!” His phone buzzed again and he answered it without hesitation. “Not now Jules!” He snarled into the phone. “I’m dealing with a fucking situation! Yes I know it’s bad! Fuck off! I’ll call you later!”

“Is it true that Miles hasn’t been seen or heard from for the past month?”

“Yes,” the journalist replied. “Now, I was never in Upshur’s close personal circle of friends, but from what I’ve been told no one has heard from him in weeks. The only thing he left behind was a blog post about uncovering some illegal business by Murkoff.”

“Murkoff? The same company that was reported to have been involved in the Mount Massive Asylum controversy?”

“One in the same, though I wouldn’t call it a controversy, as the company has publicly stated that the “leaked” footage was indeed fake and part of a promotional for an upcoming movie.” The journalist smirked. “See, Upshur has this…vendetta you could call it, for the company. Ever since he broke the water crisis story he’s been all over the corporation. A bit of a nut really, if I’m honest. I wouldn’t doubt that he thinks there was some large scale cover-up or conspiracy going on and that’s what motivated his actions at the base. Like I said, he’s not known for being stable.”

Miles turned off the broadcast cutting off the newscaster who was about to ask some other asinine question. He stood up and calmly walked to the nearest wall. “Upshur?” Waylon asked cautiously. “You ok?”

“Fuck!” Miles shouted and punched the wall, leaving a sizable hole in the drywall. He pulled his hand out and punched another hole in the wall. “Fuck!” He clenched his teeth and growled.

“Upshur you’re, you’re scaring me.”

He whipped his head around teeth bared and snarled, “I always fucking scare you! What else is new?” But then he saw how Waylon flinched and pressed against the wall, his eyes wide with fear. “Fuck…” he said again, but quieter. He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Sorry Park,” he said and collected himself. “This is just… not good.” Instead of sitting back down on the bed he grabbed a chair and sat. He ran his fingers through his hair, letting his claws scratch his scalp. “Back on the mountain I feared Murkoff would try to smear your reputation, didn’t think they’d come for me.”

“I’m sorry,” Waylon mumbled.

Miles sighed. “It ain’t your fault don’t apologize.”

“How,” he asked, “how screwed are we?”

He shrugged and said, “I don’t know yet. Just because I’m wanted doesn’t mean I’ll be found. Plenty of people escape after having their faces plastered on the TV. Things will get tricky from here on out though, don’t get me wrong. Especially in the next few days. Hopefully the media attention will die out and the public’s interest as well. We just have to survive the coming week and lie low.”

“Should we leave the country?” Waylon asked.

“Nah, nothing that drastic yet. While we’re here we have an advantage. We know the United States, if we go somewhere else we lose that, and right now it’s all we got.”

“Did you really get arrested a bunch?”

Miles raised an eyebrow. “Does it matter?”

“I guess not…”

He smirked. “To answer your question, yes. I have. I’ve spent many nights in a county jail after being caught where I shouldn’t be. What about you?” Waylon shook his head. “Figured not, you seem like the good law abiding citizen type.” He chuckled.

“How can you laugh?”

“Because if I don’t I might lose myself to the anger that’s still bubbling up,” Miles said.

Waylon was acutely aware of the nanites still swirling Miles' body, the black that was creeping up his arms from his hands, the sharp teeth and glowing silver eyes.

“I deal with shit by getting over it in record speed. Better for everyone that way.” He stood up and stretched. “Pack you stuff, shower. They don’t know we’re here or they would have knocked in this door already and not bothered contacting the media.”

“And you?”

“I have a possibly furious best friend to call back.”

“Right…” Waylon said and grabbed a set of clothes. He hesitated at the bathroom door. “Are you sure you’re ok?” The other man still looked like a human version of the Walrider and that couldn’t be good.

“As ok as I’m going to be,” he said and that response was going to have to be good enough for Waylon.

Miles picked his phone up off of the bed and hovered a claw over speed dial one. “Oh he’s going to be so pissed,” he muttered, then pressed down. The phone didn’t even ring one full time before Julian’s concerned voice flooded Miles’ ear. “Oh yeah, you’re definitely pissed.”

“With good reason! You don’t get to hang up on me like that! Especially given the situation.”

“Sorry, I was having a mental break; I’m in a bit of a mood.”

“A bit of a mood? Oh I’m so sorry; I didn’t realize a temper tantrum was worth-”

“If you’re going to be an ass I’ll hang up again. You’re not the one wanted by the entire United States. I’m allowed this mental breakdown, thank you very much.”

“So are you a terrorist?”

Miles groaned so loud he heard Julian give a nervous laugh. “Of course not, how could you even entertain the thought?”

“Just making sure I don’t have to purge you from my entire life.”

“You might have to do that anyways.” Miles sat on the bed and flopped down on his back. “This kinda got even more out of hand, if you can believe that.”

“It is hard to believe. You’ve done a lot of stupid stuff but this tops it.”

“To be fair, I had no idea the swamp of shit I was wading into yesterday when I stopped by that base.”

“So you were there?”

“Yeah, the media is great at fabricating things but not that good.” Miles stared up at the ceiling before he said, “Yes, I was there, yes they sounded the alarm, yes the footage was real if not a bit artificially blurred. No I didn’t stab anyone with a knife; I didn’t have anything on me.”

“Why were you there?”

“Visiting an old contact of mine, Richard Brown. Listen I’m only telling you this because if I die-”

“Miles,” Julian cut in.

“If I die,” Miles pressed on, “you’re inheriting this garbage pile and you need all the pieces of trash you can get. The thing Murkoff was working on was a weapon. I can’t go into specifics but it’s bad ok? Like, new age of war bad. I thought that maybe Richard could help me out, get to Murkoff in a way I couldn’t and handle the weapon better than myself. So I brought him some documents, had him go over it and then the situation went from hard to insanely complicated in a matter of seconds. Guess who commissioned Murkoff to develop the weapon?”

Julian could be heard swearing softly on the other line. “You’re in a lot of trouble.”

“No shit,” Miles said. “So Richard let slip who was really in charge and I bolted. The last thing I needed was to be another missing person’s case as Murkoff made me disappear. Richard obviously wasn’t too happy with me getting out of there, thus the whole terrorist angle they’re playing.” 

“You always told me not believe the mainstream media hook line and sinker.”

“It’s not like there aren’t journalists out there doing good work. Watergate wasn’t uncovered by freelancers after all, but sometimes money wins, clear and simple.” In his mind another Richard’s voice echoed, “Whoever’s holding the money gets to say what the truth is.” “And Murkoff currently has all the money.” That wasn’t a lie. Before Mount Massive Miles was aware that Murkoff controlled a lot of the economy, they had their fingers all over nearly every type of resource, touching it, profiting off of it. But after seeing what had happened at that asylum he realized that they held much more power than he ever thought.

“And you think that because they have a lot of wealth they can just go around breaking laws left and right?”

After a shrug that Julian couldn’t see Miles said, “Worked for them so far. I mean they already pinned crimes I never committed on me and wrote off some of the most damning evidence we have against them.”

“This is fucked up.” Miles agreed. “Are you going to address this bullshit on your website? What should I say? I’ve already gotten five emails.”

“You can say whatever you want Julian, I’m not your boss, but they won’t believe the truth right now, and saying something could put you on Murkoff’s radar. Stay quiet; say you don’t know what’s up with me. For all you know it’s true.”

“I’m not throwing you to the wolves.”

“You can’t throw a wolf to the wolves, I’ll be fine.”

Julian laughed at how cheesy that sounded. “Fine Mr. Lone Wolf, I’ll keep quiet.”

“I’m going to do the same, no matter what I say it’ll just make everything worse. When the story is done and after I post it all they’ll know the truth. Trying to convince people earlier won’t work.” Miles heard the water shut off and he knew Waylon would be out shortly. “Listen just, lay low, business as usually alright? This will probably be the last time I contact you with this line. I’ll be emailing you the numbers to some prepaid phones later. I’ll send them to your main secondary email address, not sure when, maybe in two days? I have to get a hold of the new phones first.”

“I’ll be on the lookout.”

“Thanks, I’ll be in contact.”

“Be careful Miles, I don’t want to attend your funeral.”

Miles laughed and said darkly, “Oh don’t worry, I can’t die.”

“Right Mr. Lone Wolf is also Mr. Invincible. We aren’t college freshmen anymore, watch yourself.”

He didn’t have the heart to correct him, to say that he really was so beyond death it wasn’t funny, but instead he smiled to himself and said, “Yeah, I’ll be careful Jules. Don’t worry; you won’t be attending my funeral any time soon.” Then he ended the call and sat up.

Waylon came out of the bathroom fully clothed and seemingly ready to go. “Your friend isn’t too mad is he?”

“Nah, Jules is a trooper. He’s just…angry that I’m in such deep shit, but I’ll climb out of it.”

Somehow, Waylon didn’t quite believe that. He threw his sleeping clothes in his bag and zipped it up. “I’m ready when you are,” he said.

“Great, I’m going to wash my face and then we can head out.”

“Ok. I think I’ll feel a little more comfortable once we’re on the road.”

“Me too,” Miles agreed. After a quick splash of water to the face and a bit of finagling with his human form he was ready to go. The nanites that coated his skin were extremely active and hard to suppress. He needed to watch his stress and anger levels more carefully. The nanites can’t be worked up every time things get a little rough.

Soon they were back on the road again, leaving the quiet little military town behind. Miles was really surprised at the lack of patrol cars around. He thought for sure they’d stumble across one or two, or even a check point before he was allowed to get on the freeway. But they ran into no obstacles and soon the Jeep was flying down the road. “R you’ve been far too quiet, what do you make of this?” Miles was a little unnerved by how quiet the Walrider had been.

“There is not much that We have an opinion on in this situation. The humans are lying once more. It seems to be all they are capable of. Truly a horrible species. We are thankful that We are making you different, better.”

Miles shivered and tried to ignore that statement. “It’s just not like you to be quiet is all.”

“We are observing. You told Us it was of the utmost importance that We observe and learn about humans outside of the lab. You’ve been mentally compromised and that has granted us access to your memories once more. We are trying to compare what just happened with past experiences that you’ve had.”

“I want to be mad at you, but I can’t muster up the emotion. What’d you learn?”

“That you are in deep shit. Which means We are deep shit. Which means we will need to fight.”

His grip on the steering wheel tightened. It was something he knew would come eventually, but he was trying to put off thinking about it in great detail for as long as possible. “I know. Eventually I’ll slip up and Murkoff will figure out where we’re hiding. And when that happens we’ll have to fight.”

“And?” R prompted.

“And there will be killing,” Miles said with a bit of reluctance. “There will be blood and violence and people will die. But we won’t die and that’s all that matters to you.”

“And you,” He added.

Miles swallowed and nodded. “And me.” He didn’t look over at Waylon; he didn’t want to see if this upset him. He recalled the first night how Waylon specifically asked him if he’d be able to protect him, and he told the truth. He would do everything in his power to keep them safe, but that meant he’d have to kill. “We don’t hurt bystanders though,” Miles said to R. “You promised. Only Murkoff soldiers will be targeted. No one else.”  

“Understood. We will leave normal humans alone.”

“Thanks,” Miles said. “People who don’t know what’s going on…they don’t deserve to be punished for Murkoff’s crimes.” He tried to lighten the mood and joked, “That goes for you too Waylon, no murdering of the normies.” He elbowed him but only got a small grunt in reply. “You ok?”

Waylon didn’t answer, instead he asked, “Where are we going? What’s the plan?”

“Oh, uh, that’s easy. We’re still heading into that town to pick up your prescription, then we’ll go up to my apart- Shit!” He just remembered something important. His phone was back in his hand and once more it hardly rung before Julian picked up. “How close are you to my apartment?”

“About an hour why?”

“I need you to go there and get some things for me.”

“Alright, on my way,” Miles could hear him pick up a set of keys. “What am I looking for? Anything I should be nervous about?”

“No,” Miles said, “nothing like that. You know my file cabinet next to my desk? I want you to take the bottommost drawer. It’s locked; the password is your birthday.”

“What’s in it? This won’t get me in hot water will it?”

“Not at all. It’s my contacts and sources for every article I’ve ever done; I’d rather Murkoff or the police not get it.”

“Understood,” Julian said with complete understanding. “Anything else?”

“The floor safe under my bed… if you wouldn’t mind throwing my extra hard drive in there would you? If there’s space my laptop too. There’s nothing related to this story on either of them, but I’d rather they not get taken as well. You already know the combination to get into that. The police shouldn’t be there, nor Murkoff, not yet, they know I’m still a ways out so they won’t be watching and the police won’t move unless someone from Murkoff is there. This is less an issue about national security and more an issue of them not wanting information about their illegal weapon getting out. But if you do see the authorities bail. It’s not worth putting you in danger.”

“Right, right, I won’t do anything reckless. So grab the bottom drawer and stow your main computer stuff?”

“Yup. Oh, if you have time and only if you have time, you can pre-scramble the apartment if you want. The police are going to do it anyways, might as well make their job harder,” Miles laughed. “Oh! And save James!”

“Your cactus?”

“Yeah, and Harry too, I’ve had them for sixteen years I’d hate to see them die because some officer knocks them over.”

Julian laughed on the other line. “Want me to get Heather and Henry too?”

“If they’re not dead, yes. I’m worried because it’s been over a month since I’ve been home, they might not have made it.”

“I’ll check for you buddy.”

“Thanks Jules. For doing this. Normally I would but…”

He reassured Miles. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it, you’re several states over and I know you’d do the same for me.”

“Really, thanks. I’m still going to email you the details about the new phones. Stay safe.”

“You too,” Then he hung up.

Miles set the phone down in the cup holder next to his seat and sighed. Waylon asked, “What was that about? Why is it so important that your friend get that set of files?”

“Like you probably overheard, that particular drawer holds the contact information for every single source and contact I have. Most importantly it has my sources that I as a journalist pledged would remain anonymous forever. It’s kind of the duty of a journalist to make sure that trust isn’t betrayed. I promised those people that their information would be kept safe and secret. The last thing I need is Murkoff to get their grubby hands all over these poor innocent people’s information. That’s why I sent Julian out there to get it.”

“I didn’t realize… I guess I never thought about it.”

“Yeah there’s a whole journalistic code of ethics we are supposed to follow,” Miles said. “It’s important that we do follow them because the moment the public starts to distrust us is the moment we lose.”

Waylon pointed out, “Like with how you talk about the mainstream media, they lost your trust didn’t they?”

“Sort of, yeah.” Miles gestured at the road with one hand. “There’s a wide expanse of journalism, even within the mainstream media. It’s like the freeways here. Some are well maintained while others are riddled with potholes and cracks. And others still hold themselves hostage and demand money for access.”

“Well, how else are they supposed to make money? It’s a business right?”

“Yes,” Miles admitted. “It’s difficult to justify wanting a paper for free, I mean, I sure as shit enjoy getting paid. But sometimes some information shouldn’t be behind a paywall, you feel me?”

“I guess. That’s why there’s options right?”

“Exactly. Don’t like one source then find another. The problem lies in that most people only read and trust one source.” He said, “Right now people think of us “independent” journalists as like… second rate? Second tier news. We’re only after the “clicks” or whatever. But in reality most “trusted” news sites also are after the hits. We all generate online income the same way, advertising hits or subscriptions. I run ads on my site same as anyone else. I don’t charge a subscription fee because I feel like what I discover should be for everyone to see, also I don’t update near regularly enough to justify charging people by the month.”

Waylon chuckled. “Yeah I noticed you don’t put out too many stories.”

“It’s not that news has been slow or I’m too good for the stories or whatever, it’s just that when I work on something I tend to take my time and get it right.”

“Like with what you were trying to do with this whole mess we’re in.”

“Exactly! I knew at the time that I was the only with this information, I was the only one who could report this story. So I had no competition, I just had to make sure I did it right. This whole being wanted for being a terrorist thing is going to complete things a bit,” Miles added. “But I’ll be ok, they can’t deny all the evidence.”

“Well they-”

“No, they can’t deny Project Walrider if I show myself in public. There’s no covering that up.”

“You’d do that?”

“It’s crossed my mind as a last resort,” he admitted. “R doesn’t like the plan though, neither do I. We both want to just stay hidden.”

“Sorry I messes things up so much.”

Miles dismissed him with a wave. “It doesn’t matter, it’s in the past you don’t have to apologize. You had no idea I was even alive.”

“But every screw up so far has been my fault!” Waylon argued. “It’s my fault you’re not even human anymore, it’s my fault I got caught and thrown in Engine therapy, it’s my fucking fault Murkoff knows that we know, and it’s all my fault that you’re a wanted criminal! If I could just keep a handle on my emotions and have a bit of patience none of this would have happened. I should apologize because it’s all my fault!”

There was a pause before Miles said, “Are you done?”

“What?”

“You good? Get that all out of your system?” Miles reached over and gripped Waylon’s shoulder. “Listen,” he said and tried to sound comforting, “it sounds like you’re itching to be redeemed, or have a slight complex? You’ve been real eager to have me blame or hate you. Does it bother you that I don’t?”

“I-I no? I Just thought it’d be natural that you’d…”

“I don’t, first of all. I already told you I went in there all my on my own. Secondly you can’t predict the future. How were you supposed to know they’d capture you? That they’d deny what you thought was hard evidence? There was no to see that, or the military’s involvement. Shit, that took me by surprise. And thirdly, Park, you were just doing what you thought was right. You wanted to help people, your heart was in exactly the right place and honestly we need more people like you in the world.” He gave Waylon a little shake and said, “So please, stop beating yourself up and stop apologizing. We’re alive, we survived, we’re survivors remember? And we’re going to keep surviving.”

“I…I…Right, ok.”

Miles wasn’t quite convinced that he wasn’t still criticizing himself. That would take time; no one speech would solve that.

“You forgive the human and yet you still hate Us for things We made you do in the asylum?”

“Yeah because you’re an asshole R,” Miles said with a laugh. “You don’t get my forgiveness till you earn it. Maybe a little less snark and a little more compassion.”

“You are good at jokes Host, We almost forgot to laugh.” He tossed the book at Miles’ head. “We did what We had to to ensure that you would not die. Also We grow bored of this. We finished reading this garbage book and We want to do something.”

“Oh wow too bad for you. Welcome to the concept of the road trip. We’re going to be doing this for months. Get used to it.” The static rippled with displeasure as R moaned. “Don’t fucking start with me. Go fly above the Jeep if you’re bored. I’m sure you’d have fun keeping pace with something moving eighty miles per hour.”

R crossed his arms and expressed his displeasure through the static. “The least you could do is buy Us a new book.”

“I’ll think about it,” Miles said.

“What did he want?”

“To complain that he’s bored and to ask for a new book.” Miles said. “We need to get a white board or something for you two to communicate with.”

“You assume I want to communicate with that thing.”

“Or that We would want to communicate with that waste of air.”

“Rude both of you.” Miles shrugged. “Sorry I just get tired of constantly translating. With this added… difficulty, we won’t be able to hide out at my apartment anymore. We’re going to be on the move constantly now, so maybe you two could start to get to know each other.”

“Doubtful.”

“Not going to happen,” Waylon said and crossed his arms. “That’s your nightmare monster, not mine. I’m only ok with this because you promised me it won’t hurt me.”

“And he won’t, neither of us will, no matter how much I bare my fangs. Sorry for that, by the way. I’ll work harder on not doing that.”

Waylon didn’t acknowledge the apology. “So… we’re going to be what? Motel hopping now?”

“Yeah,” Miles said with a smile. “It ain’t that bad, trust me. You’ll get used to it. When I’m less of a hot conversation topic we can even set up shop in the same one for a few days at a time. We just need to keep moving,” Miles explained. “It’ll make us harder to track by Murkoff. We will do several days of driving with little time spend resting, then spend a week in one spot working, rinse and repeat.”

“Do you have the money for that?”

Miles hesitated. “I… yeah. I think so, and if we don’t I’ll just…” Miles hated saying this but it was true, “I’ll just borrow from Julian.”

“Is the guy loaded or something? How can you be sure he’ll just give you money?”

“He’s not… exactly loaded, but he does have spare money. I’m not going to bore you with the details of our relationship but we go way back. We’ve been friends since we were kids, we protect each other, he’ll always do whatever it takes to help me. And I know I’d die for him.”

“Sounds like a good friend, I don’t think I have anyone who would die for me. Besides Lisa I guess.”

“Yeah Julian is a uh… he’s a special one. I can’t think of anyone I trust more than him. He’ll come through if we need help.”

Waylon looked out the window at the passing nothing. “I can see why you’d want him at an arm’s length with this. You don’t want him hurt, do you?”

“No. That’s the last thing I want. We’ve gotten into trouble before but nothing like this. He’s strong but this? Bio weapons, secret military dealings, soldiers and a company that not only owns a good chunk of the world but also wants you dead? No, I don’t want him involved, especially when he’s just a human.”

That made Waylon stop and think. “Just a human?” He asked. Does Upshur really think of himself as different? I always thought he was just humoring me.

“I… you know, like… you?” Miles stumbled over his words. “For a long time I thought I was you know…?” He trailed off. For a while he’d been warming up to R’s talk about how isn’t human anymore but it was a lot harder to admit it out loud. “I’ve said it before… I guess. I can do things you can’t and it makes it easier for me to slip up in thinking we are different.”

“Aren’t we?” Waylon asked. “I’m pretty sure I can’t heal bullet wounds, grow sharp teeth, and jump over fifteen foot fences.”

“Yeah,” Miles said quietly. “No you and R are right. There’s clearly an “Us and Them” type thing going on. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“What can you do?” Waylon asked, he wanted to lighten the topic a bit. He thought maybe this would get the other man’s mind off of the dark. “So you can heal injuries, what else? Can you grow back body parts?”

“I uh, I can’t do that. If you cut off say…a finger,” he wiggled his right hand so Waylon could see the stump of his pointer finger, “I can’t grow it back. Now, if you sever that finger and then put it back my body can re-attach it without much effort. Same goes for organs, slice ‘em up and that’s fine, but cut one out and I’m screwed. There’s always a limit, but so far I’ve recovered from some interesting injuries.”

“How strong are you? Back at the base you said you didn’t know how strong Project Walrider was, I assumed you were just lying right? Because you wanted to keep your cover.”

“Yup. I’m uh, you know we’re still not exactly sure how strong I am. I’ve bent metal bars and ripped through hu-” Miles cut himself off abruptly.

“I already know,” Waylon said. “I saw you uh, rip apart my boss.”

“Oh,” Miles said. “Yeah.” He hadn’t meant the Walrider but if Waylon wanted to think that that was what he was referring to then he had no problems. “My reflexes and senses are all enhanced too, but sometimes it’s a double edged sword. Like, for example, R made my low light vision better but as a result normal daylight hurts a bit.”

“Are you in pain right now?”

“Nah,” Miles said, dismissing it. “It’s more like… just uncomfortable is all. But it wasn’t like this before I became the Host, that’s for sure. I can hear better, taste better, run faster, jump higher, you name it. Project Walrider was supposed to be focused on the nanite part I’m sure, but the side effects on the Host could be a project all their own.”

“Don’t give them any ideas,” Waylon said.

“Yeah no shit,” Miles agreed. “That’s the last thing I need.”

“It uh, it was pretty cool how you got us out of the base,” Waylon admitted. “If I wasn’t so scared it might have been even a little fun.”

Miles cracked a grin. Even he had to admit that being the Host came with a few perks. Even R was ok, but he wouldn’t say that to him. He just hoped that the benefits could keep outweighing the negatives. It might prove to be difficult to balance. For now they were managing though, and that’s what mattered.

They pulled into the town by midday, it was nothing special, another small town in the middle of nowhere, but this one came with a pharmacy and a few fast food joints. Perfect, Miles was feeling a little hungry; they did skip breakfast he realized. Miles pulled out his wallet and gave Waylon a stack of cash. “Figured you should have your own money,” he said. “Not just for this prescription but for anything else you see too.”

Waylon nodded but he wasn’t about to go splurging any time soon. He opened the car door and locked it behind him. He heard Miles follow suit and he asked, “You’re coming in too?”

“Yup, need to stretch my legs.”

“Are you, are you sure that’s a good idea?” He asked. “I mean with the whole…” he dropped his voice, “…wanted thing?”

Miles laughed. “You act like I can’t go anywhere,” he kept chuckling. “I’m wanted not imprinted on every person’s brain. There’s a pretty good chance the average person isn’t going to remember me on that broadcast and if they do, you’d be surprised at how many people question what they’re seeing. Nothing worse than calling the cops on the wrong guy. Lots of people see danger and do nothing, it’s fine.”

They slipped into the store and Waylon went straight back to the pharmacy counter while Miles browsed the shelves. He wouldn’t be picking up the cell phones here but there were a few things he could grab to make their lives a little easier. A wall of hair dye stared Miles down as he looked through the different colors, debating. “Hey R, what color should I do?”

“Why would you change your hair color?”

“To help hide a bit,” he replied quietly. He grabbed a bit of the hair that fell over his eyes and looked at it. Black wasn’t the easiest to die over. “Hmmm…how about red?”

“Natural red or that?” R gestured at some blood red dye.

“What do you think?”

“Both would look stupid on you. You are already perfect with the dark color.”

Miles grinned and picked the natural red off the shelf, followed by a dark brown and three bottles of bleach. “While neon is tempting I don’t think it’ll help in this situation.” When he was in high school he dyed his hair all sorts of colors. It was fun and he missed it, being “professional” sucked sometimes. He then tried on a few pairs of sunglasses, he made sure to allow his eyes to flash silver, he had to be certain the glasses would cover it. He just wasn’t confident in some aspects of his appearance twenty-four seven.

While he was trying on shades he could hear Waylon chatting with the person behind the drug counter. He tried not to snoop but it was hard when his hearing could cover the whole store. He swung by and dropped his items on the counter. “You can cover that right?” He asked to Waylon who was busy eyeing up the items.

“Hair dye?” He questioned.

“Thought I could use a change, red could be a good look for me.”

Waylon rolled his eyes and pulled out his wallet, he counted the bills that Miles had given him and said, “Yeah I got you.”

“Cool thanks.”

Miles wandered away and disappeared back into the rows of products for sale. “Thought you were on a road trip?” The lady behind the counter asked.

“We are,” Waylon said a bit too quickly.

“Not too many people decide to change up their look while on the road.”

“Well Mil- Mike is a bit of an interesting character. He’s very spontaneous; it’s how we ended up on this trip.”

“You must have a bit of that in you too,” She said. “The spontaneous bit, I don’t know anyone would volunteer to go on a road trip when they need antibiotics as strong as yours.”

“I uh,” Waylon shrugged. “You only live once?”

“At your rate you might not live to see thirty five darlin,” she joked but Waylon froze up. “You ok sweetheart?”

He knew she was just being friendly but his heart felt like it locked up in his chest and he couldn’t speak. He nodded instead. “F-Fine,” he choked out. Dread started to creep up inside of him. He started to look for exits and was even more distressed when he could only see the one at the front of the store. This was irrational, he knew that. He clenched his hands and relaxed them and tried to take a few deep breaths. It was just a word, just a word. I’m ok. I’m safe. It’s not him, it’s clearly not him. Settle down you’re in public.

“Where are you two heading anyways?”

“I uh, I… um. I don’t uh, know? Mi- My friend has been in charge of navigation, I’m just along for the ride.” He already forgot what fake name he gave for Miles. Michael maybe? This conversation was going downhill fast.

“That friend of yours,” Waylon froze again and tried to swallow but his throat and mouth had dried up. “He seems familiar. Was he from this area originally?”

“I-I-I don’t know,” Waylon could tell he was sweating now, he could feel it run cold down his hot back. His eyes darted around and even though there were only a few people in the store it felt like hundreds. He could feel their eyes on him, examining him, seeing through him. They were all too close, the building was too close, too tight, he was being drowned. When he tried to take a breath all he could smell was sharp antiseptic and suddenly the pharmacists in their white lab coats were spattered with red blood and gore. Someone in the pharmacy dropped a glass jar and it shattered. Waylon screamed and clutched his head.

The lady laughed nervously and said, “Woah there, didn’t mean to startle you.” Waylon just shook his head vigorously and bolted for the front of the store.

He wasn’t aware that he ran right past Miles who tried to reach for him. He shoved him off and ran out the door and out of sight. “Don’t touch me!”

“Shit,” Miles said quietly. He walked calmly up to the pharmacist who was very confused and concerned. “Sorry about that,” Miles said. He noticed Waylon’s wallet on the floor and picked it up. Then he asked, “How much?”

“I’m sorry?”

“For his prescription and the hair dye, how much is the total?”

“Is he alright? He just took off…”

Miles nodded and ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah he’s fine, he just gets startled easily. A mixture of anxiety and PTSD. He ran for the car,” Miles said, at least he hoped he ran for the car. “It happens with him, I’m used to it.” He wasn’t used to it, but he figured he would be by the end of this trip.

“Poor guy,” The lady said. She told Miles the total and took his money. She gave him another good look, now that he was up close. “You look familiar, you from around here?”

“Nah,” Miles said. “I’m from the East Coast, but I have one of those faces, you know? I get mistaken for people a lot.” He smiled casually and grabbed the plastic bag containing all their purchases. After grabbing his change he said, “I better go make sure he’s ok, you have a nice day now.”

“You too Sir.”

“Thanks.” Miles waved behind him as he left the counter. Once outside he scanned the parking lot for Waylon. The Jeep doors were locked so he couldn’t have actually gotten inside like he said. But he did spot a set of sneakers by the rear tire. Miles cautiously approached and found Waylon sitting on the pavement by the bumper, his knees pulled up to his chest and his face was pressed into them. He didn’t seem to be in fight or flight mode. Miles put the bag in the car and walked around to Waylon. “Hey,” he said calmly. “You ok?”

Waylon looked up, his eyes were slightly red. “Y-Yeah.” He saw Miles extend a hand and he took it. “Sorry,” he apologized.

Miles brushed it off, “Don’t be. It’s not your fault.”

“I panicked.”

“I know.”

“There was no reason to.”

“I know.”

“I thought, I thought I was over this.”

“It’s ok,” Miles said and put a hand on his shoulder as he walked him to the passenger side seat. He dug around in the back of the Jeep and came back with a warm water bottle that he passed to Waylon. “Drink some water, relax.” Miles stood by the door until Waylon had taken a few sips. “Really, it’s ok,” he said. He wanted to say more but he knew that it would probably be best if he just dropped it. Waylon seemed really embarrassed and wanted to move on. While Miles could overhear the conversation he wasn’t quite sure what triggered the reaction. Could have been anything, he didn’t know the other man well enough to know.

Miles handed over Waylon’s wallet and was thanked. He shut the car door gently after Waylon pulled his legs inside. They were soon back on the road again, the silence in the Jeep was uncomfortable so Miles turned on the radio. Snappy pop beats chased out the silence and Miles tapped his fingers to the rhythm. His window was open and the dry air rushed in to blow his hair around. He really did need a haircut. R prevented body hair from growing in places he didn’t want, he hadn’t needed to shave in weeks, which was nice. But his hair was reaching that awkward near mullet length and he didn’t want to invest in hair ties he was certain he’d lose. “Hey R, pass me those sunglasses will you?”

The Walrider dug through the bag and passed them up. “You did not get Us a new book.” He said after examining the contents of the bag.

“There weren’t any at the-”

“You promised Us a new book.”

“No,” Miles said, “I said I’d think about it.” He could feel R about to argue. “If you don’t believe me replay the memory.” He smiled when he heard the static back down in defeat.

“So…have you thought about it?” R asked. He really did want something new to read.

“I have,” Miles said.

“And?”

Miles loved toying with R like this. “I’ve decided to keep thinking about it.”

“Host!” R protested loudly. “We are so bored. Please!”

He had to hold back laughing. “Wow the great Project Walrider is reduced to begging after only a day of car travel.”

“We were not begging,” R said and tried to regain his pride. “We were asking. There is a big difference between the two. Begging is what those worms were doing back in the asylum before We crushed their skulls and painted the walls with their intestines. Begging is what those soldiers did to you before you-”

“I get it, thanks.” He wasn’t really keen on reliving that particular memory, especially the part where he ripped into a man’s throat and drank blood like he was sucking down coffee. “Tell you what, the first big bookstore we come across I’ll get some things for you. You can also raid my bookshelf at the apartment. Does that sound fair to you?”

“It will do, Host.”

Miles turned to look at Waylon, his companion’s forehead was pressed against the window and the water bottle was clutched tightly in his hand. It was pretty clear he didn’t want to talk right now. That was fine with Miles, sometimes silence was better. After all they had days and days left to chat. No need to push it now.

The amount of conversing he still had left with R just became staggering. Miles wondered if this was like what marriage was like? Where you’re forced to talk to the same person for the rest of your life. He groaned and resigned himself to his fate of forever having a voice in his head. At least R was semi pleasant. Hopefully they wouldn’t slip back into the hatred they had for each other early on in their relationship. They were past that, he felt.

Mount Massive still felt like it was years ago to Miles. But in reality he was eating raw meat and hunting deer less than a week ago. His fingers twitched when he thought about hunting. He missed flying. He realized he hadn’t gotten a chance to fly or float for fun at all. Which, the more he thought about it, was pretty standard. Normal humans couldn’t do that, and he was playing human. Still missed it though, with the wind blowing the open window he could almost pretend he was in the sky. It was cruel that the one thing he enjoyed about being the Host was something he couldn’t do. Maybe someday he’d find a quiet place to take to the skies again, or he would have a place to himself again and he could float around without worry.

He couldn’t believe it had only been a month and he was already so used to his body. When he first became the Host he thought he’d be struggling with it for months, perhaps years. But he accepted everything in record speed; maybe the reality of his situation hit him harder than he thought. Or perhaps he was just better at adapting than he gave himself credit for. Besides his appetite everything else seemed to fall right into place. He hardly had to think about controlling the swarm and it was nearly impossible to remember how his body felt before the nanites invaded. When he stretched his muscles he could feel them in there, surging through his blood and buzzing inside his bones. It was natural, no it was right. This was how his body was supposed to feel, this was how he was meant to be.

“That’s what We like to hear Host.”

Miles flipped him off. But it wasn’t hard to think that he was meant for this. Maybe whatever forces are at work in the universe had this path chosen for him? Could anyone else do what he had done? Miles didn’t think so, certainly not anyone else at the asylum and he doubted anyone else in the world too.

“So you can see why We want to keep you safe. Why We would be in trouble if you died. Why We have done what We have done to keep you alive.”

“Yeah…” And Miles wasn’t ungrateful for his extra chances at life. He wasn’t going squander this, he decided. He reached up and touched where he knew the scars from bullets dotted his chest. The last truly human thing he remembered was the intense pain of those rounds tearing through his body, he remembered the confusion and the understanding when those soldiers raised their weapons, and he remembered the feeling of blood oozing out of his body and pooling warm under his cooling skin.

“Billy was already dead,” R said from the backseat. “We had no other options, We… We did try to evacuate your body when the first bullets hit. We had just merged with your body but it was not the first time that We have had to switch hosts in rapid succession. Sometimes in the lab We were forced to jump three to four times before finding a stable body. However there were none to be found, if We continued to search We would run risk of having your body die and then We would be stuck.” R continued, “So We decided to stay in your body and heal it the best We could. It was a gamble, you were injured far more severely than We had ever experienced before. The damage was so extensive even We doubted Our ability to fix it.”

“But you did,” Miles said. “And you know? I’m glad you did. For a long time I hated you for that, but now…” Miles looked out at the world racing by. He felt the sun on his skin and the wind in his hair. When he breathed in fresh air he felt more alive than he had in years. “Now I’m very thankful for this.”

“We are certain you will go back to hating Us soon, you always do.” R sent a ripple of amusement through the static to his Host to make sure he knew he was joking. “We do enjoy how your human emotions jump all over the place. It makes it more exciting, if not frustrating as well.”

Miles felt his stomach growl and he realized that he should probably get some food in his system before he decided to eat Waylon. ”I wouldn’t eat Park would I?”

“We would not be sad if you did.”

“R…”

“We don’t think your control is that weak that you would attack your traveling partner.”

He never ate David so he guessed that was true. He did eat things around David, other Variants, that soldier… He swallowed and tried not to remember the feeling of hot blood slipping down his throat. His hand tightened on the steering wheel and his stomach protested again. Miles turned the radio up a bit louder and tried to chase away the memories of when he would eat people with little to no protest. That was something he definitely didn’t want anyone else to ever know, he probably wouldn’t even tell Julian. Nope, definitely not telling any of this to Jules. He would never look at me the same.

He pulled off the freeway and down to a small strip of buildings, there was a gas station, a burger place, and a sub shop. They were still good on gas so Miles just pulled into the drive through of the burger joint. He was going to ask Waylon what he wanted but when he turned to ask he saw that he was asleep. It was obvious that Waylon wasn’t getting the best sleep so he let him be.

The person over the drive through speaker had to be assured that this wasn’t a prank order and that Miles did indeed have the money to buy it all. He was told to pull off to the side and wait for his order which he had no problem with. After a few minutes someone was out to deliver his bags of artery clogging goodness. He thanked the staff and pulled away to a small rest area with a few picnic tables. He got aggressive when he ate and he didn’t want to try to drive and inhale food at the same time.

Waylon groggily woke up when he felt the vehicle come to a stop again. He looked over at Miles who was getting out of the Jeep with a bag of food. He could smell the grease and salt and it made his stomach churn.

Miles caught that Waylon looked a little ill. He didn’t blame him. “Here,” Miles set a small covered cup and a straw in the cup holder near Waylon. “It’s a strawberry shake; you seemed like a strawberry shake kind of guy.”

Waylon looked from the cup to Miles who was closing the Jeep door. “Where are you going?”

Miles pointed around back of the Jeep. “I’m going to eat this away from you; I think you’ve probably seen me eat one too many times. It’s kinda gross; you don’t have to be subjected to it anymore.” He gave him a smile and disappeared around back. He sat down and could feel his teeth growing sharp and his mouth fill with saliva. He could already tell this was going to be another round of burgers he ate wrapper and all.

Inside the Jeep Waylon looked at the small shake and reached for it. He poked the straw through and hesitantly brought it to his lips. He still felt queasy from his panic attack at the pharmacy. He thought maybe the drive would help but he was still on edge. But the shake was good and sweet, just what he needed. And Miles was right; he was a strawberry kind of guy. He glanced in the side mirror and couldn’t really see Miles back there, but maybe that was for the better.

He opened the door a bit and called out, “Hey, Miles?”

“Yeah?” Came the response, Waylon could tell he had a mouth full of food.

“Just… thanks,” he said. “For the shake and stuff.”

An arm popped out from behind the Jeep with its thumb up. Waylon grinned and shut the door. 

Chapter Text

“You look awful as a redhead.”

Miles frowned first at his reflection then at Waylon who was sitting on the motel toilet with a towel wrapped around his neck and bleach setting in his hair. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up Mr. Electric Blond.”

“The red just really highlights how much non color you have.”

“Hey you try dying and see how much color you have left.” There was some truth to that though, Miles’ skin still hadn’t regained any of the color it used to have. Ever since he became the Host his skin had become so pale he nearly looked dead. The only spots of color he was able to maintain were the dark bags under his eyes, and sometimes his skin took on a more ashy complexion if the nanites were heavy in his system. Trading blue veins for black was the price he paid for his healing factor. Luckily no one ever spent too much time staring at someone’s veins so he’d be fine.

“I get why you had to dye your hair, but why me?” Waylon asked. The bleach was mildly irritating. “Don’t tell me it’s because “misery loves company”.”

“Nah,” Miles pulled out a bottle of light brown dye and started to mix it with the red. “I needed something drastic to throw people off, black to red is pretty different. We’re doing you as well in case they plaster your picture up on every news station in the county. Your light brown isn’t much different from blond, but we can go over the blond with anything, so if you need dark hair quickly we don’t have to wait and bleach out.”

“So… a precaution?”

“You got it.” Miles started to apply the brown mixture over his already red hair. He was hoping it would look more natural if he mixed another tone in with it. “As you’re learning, I’m all about precautions. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

“And precaution is why you made me toss out my phone?”

“You got it,” Miles said.

“But you didn’t destroy yours? What’s up with that?”

Miles sat down on the edge of the tub while the hair dye set in. “I did, I snapped four of mine at the last rest stop and I’ve been tossing them out the window every few miles, you just haven’t been paying attention.”

“What about the one in your pocket?”

“That’s my emergency phone. Julian has one too, we made sure the tracking is gone from them, they’re untraceable. No one else has this number besides Julian. Don’t worry I won’t be using it unless something really bad happens.”

“Why bother with it if you just use all the disposable phones? Wasn’t that the point of buying them?”

“Yes and no, the disposable phones are necessary and are what I’ll be using for any communication, this is like… a last, last, resort. Does that make sense?”

“I suppose,” Waylon said. “I just…worry I won’t be able to cope with being cut off.”

“Hey it’s not forever, you know?”

“Yeah but… I don’t know if you get it.”

Miles was quiet for a moment before he said, “I don’t know if I get it either. I don’t have a family, shit I hardly have friends. But you’re a strong person Park, I know that much.”

Waylon nodded but he wasn’t sure he quite believed that. “When do we wash this out?”

---

They were back on track to Miles’ apartment after they overnighted in a small motel off the beaten trail. “We should arrive by tomorrow if we’re lucky,” Miles said. “I’m sorry we’re going so far out of the way but I really want to grab a few things.”

“Hey, you’re entitled to a fresh change of clothes. I got to pack my valuables you should be able to too.” Waylon was staring out the window, there still wasn’t much in the way of scenery, at least the sky was blue. “Besides, I was the one who took us off track with our little military base adventure.”

“Don’t apologize for that, it gave us some valuable intel. Worth it in my eyes.”

“It also put you on several wanted lists. Was that worth it?”

Miles laughed. “Definitely could have done without that, but whatever. It’s in the past, all we can do is move forward.” And they were moving forward. Every day that they woke up was a day that was a step in the right direction. “Enjoy the vacation while it lasts,” Miles joked. “Soon I’ll be putting you to work. There are a lot of files we have to dig through, a lot of information to digest. I hope you like research and note taking.”

Waylon gave a little chuckle. “I don’t know if you know this, but I graduated cum laude from university. I’m used to research.”

“I uh, well I graduated, that’s for sure,” Miles said.  “All that mattered to me was the degree, but I’m glad you’re not opposed to some research. Of course, anything you write will be looked over by me, and probably changed. You’re a computer guy, not a word guy.”

“That’s fair, I’m not the journalist after all. You are.”

“Host play the dragon band.”

Miles sighed. “For the last time R, I cannot “play the dragon band”. The radio isn’t under my control, you’ll just have to wait for it to come on.”

“No, play it now. Play it now Host.”

“That’s not how it works!” Miles growled. “So shut up.”

Instantly R shrunk back and went quiet.

“What… what was that about?” Waylon asked. He looked back into the backseat and saw the Walrider sitting absolutely still. “What did you do?”

Miles rubbed his forehead and said, “He was getting annoying, so I commanded him to be quiet.”

“You can do that?”

“I can do that.” He glanced in the rearview mirror and saw two piercing silver orbs burning into him. “Sometimes he gets to be too much. It’s easier to just make him sit quietly for a while than argue. Saves me some sanity and a headache. Like I said, I have perfect control.”

“Except for when you don’t.”

“I said shut up.” Miles snarled. “It’s really hard to ignore someone when they’re in your head. It’s like they become infinitely more obnoxious.”

“God you’re strange.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Miles leaned back and stretched. “I’m gonna need a break soon, that ok with you?”

“Yeah, I don’t mind, we’re making pretty good time.”

Traffic was starting to get heavier, they were approaching a city center, but it wasn’t anything that would slow them down too much. Now instead of one or two vehicles sharing the road with them and a few semi-trucks there were six or seven cars around them on the two-lane highway. A sign for a rest area flashed by and Miles grinned. In five short miles he’d be able to stretch out and take a piss, perfect.

A van pulled up alongside them and Miles casually glanced over at the passenger side window, a habit he couldn’t break and many other motorists did. When he looked over he saw the windows were tinted dark and the side of the van was very nondescript and painted black. He didn’t give it too much thought until he noticed that it was keeping exact pace with the Jeep. Often times cars traveled in packs on the open road, but it was one thing to travel with a group of people it was another entirely to match them in acceleration and braking.

“Hey Miles?”

“Yeah Park?”

“Does that van behind us look suspicious to you? Or am I overacting?”

Miles checked the mirror again and noticed a similar black van following behind them. He didn’t even notice it he was too busy watching the one alongside of them. “I don’t want to sound the alarm prematurely but I would also consider packing your shit into your bag in case things get rough.”

He took another look at the vehicle at their side. This time the window was down and he could just barely see the tip of something glinting in the sunlight. “Murkoff!” Miles shouted and hit the gas. Whatever it was they were aiming at the Jeep never fired and they sped up out range.

“How can you tell?” Waylon asked, panic edging into his voice.

“I’m pretty sure the average driver doesn’t go around pointing guns at people,” Miles said. He pressed the pedal down some more and the Jeep steadily rose in speed. The two black vans wasted no time in catching up. From what Miles could tell there were only the two.

“How’d they find us?”

“I don’t know!” Miles said and changed lanes rather abruptly to slide ahead of a slower car. “I hope it was just dumb luck.”

The vans followed, one hung back while the other put the pressure on. “What are we going to do?” Waylon asked.

“Well Murkoff hates drawing attention to themselves, So I doubt they’ll open fire or anything. Chances are they’re going to tail us until they can get us alone. Right now, our best strategy is to stick close to these other cars. They won’t try anything with witnesses around.” Miles passed another car and moved back into the rightmost lane. “The nearest major city is about twenty minutes away, it’s in the wrong direction but we can lose them there far more-” His words were cut off by a loud gunshot.

“I thought you said they wouldn’t open fire?!”

Miles whipped his head around to look behind them. “I’m not fucking psychic give me a break!” He couldn’t see how many people were in the van, even the windshield was heavily tinted. There could be two people, one or twenty he didn’t know. It probably wasn’t a small number, they were hunting Project Walrider after all.

“What now?” Waylon asked.

“Stick to the plan,” Miles said and moved his Jeep closer to another car. “Maybe it was just a warning shot, but if we stay close to others we might be safe.”

“Might? I’m going to need a little better than might!”

“What do you want me to do?” Mile said, tearing his eyes from the road to look at Waylon. “Materialize the Walrider in public? Jump out of the Jeep and fight them claws and teeth bared? I don’t have a lot of options here!” He stabbed the gas again and sped far ahead of the lingering traffic. The black vans were hot on their tail. Another gunshot rang out through the air.

“Miles you have to do something!”

“Again, what do you want me to do?” Miles shouted.

This time a bullet clearly hit the Jeep and ricocheted off. “Miles!”

Miles just swore and told Waylon to duck down. The other man covered his head with hands and bent down. “I’m thinking of something,” Miles said. The static behind his eyes crackled and pulsed. One of the vans pulled up alongside of them and tried to push them off the road. “Oh like hell you are,” Miles swore and pushed the Jeep even faster. The van was forced to slow down or else it would plow into the vehicle in front of it.

“Host We should just kill the humans in the van.”

“R no it’s too risky.”

“What’d he say?”

“He wants me to tell him to kill the people in the van.”

“Sounds like a good solution to me!” Waylon said and flinched at the sound of another gunshot.

Miles shook his head and looked behind them, the two vans were still in hot pursuit. “No, I can’t risk using the Walrider when I’m under this much stress. Something could go wrong.”

“What could possibly go wrong?” Waylon asked. “You said you had perfect control.”

A snarl ripped its way out of Miles’ throat. “I do but sometimes I… I…”

“You what?!” Waylon glanced over at Miles who was losing the fight to look human. The nanites were swirling his skin like black dust. Sharp teeth poked out from thin lips and his eyes were pitch black. “You what Miles?”

“It’s not him I lose control of but myself!” Miles said finally. “I don’t want that to happen!”

Another bullet whizzed by, Waylon couldn’t see it but Miles could, suddenly his senses were heightened to a frightening degree. R was back in his head. “Host We do not think now is the time to be scared of yourself. If you do not act someone in this Jeep will die and it will not be you.”

“Miles!” Waylon said again, he was more afraid than anything else. The military base was one thing, this was something way different. They were in a Jeep, confined and going very fast while people shot at them. If Miles was hit he could lose control of the car and Waylon knew he would die in the crash for sure. During their escape at the base he had felt an odd sense of comfort knowing that Miles had the clear upper hand. He was the Walrider after all, and to Waylon it looked like none of the bullets had found their marks. This time it was clear that Miles was not in his element.

“Host please, let Us take care of this! We can easily kill those humans.”

Miles’ hands gripped the steering wheel tighter.

“Miles!”

“Host!”

“Do something!”

The static was starting to build up inside Miles’ head. It felt like his brain was under attack. He could feel R pushing him and pushing him. Waylon wasn’t making things any easier, he was also growing increasingly frantic. It was getting hard to focus on the road and his vision was starting to blur. “Fucking shut the hell up! Both of you!” Miles gripped his head with one hand while the other remained glued to the steering wheel. “I can’t-” He gasped, he could feel his teeth against his lips, his tongue, the static in his head was telling him to attack and he was so close to leaping out of the Jeep in a flurry of nanites.

“I can’t fucking…” Miles groaned.

R could feel his host’s control shift, the normal barriers that kept him in check were breaking down, invisible chains shattering. But he didn’t move. He stayed still in the back seat. This was a moment of trust, R realized. He could act on his own, while his Host was weak, or he could wait for the inevitable order to kill these people. Waiting would cause less problems down the road, he decided. So he didn’t do anything, instead he probed his hosts mind and suggested the orders he wanted his host to give him. He knew his host was weakening too, that soon he’d be given the order to kill.

“Are you ok?” Waylon asked. He remembered how Miles looked before when he was in his car, how monstrous he looked. Miles looked like that now.

Miles forced himself to focus on the road, he swerved and the Jeep’s tires touched the shoulder and vibrations were sent through the vehicle as it ran over the rumble strips. He jerked the wheel back and the Jeep violently got back on course. He steadied the Jeep and kept going, pouring on speed.

“Miles you’re scaring me!”

He ignored him and drove straight ahead. The static was pounding in his head and he could feel R practically begging to be set free. “We will only harm the bad humans, We promise. You will harm everyone in your condition. Let Us help. Let Us hunt. Let Us kill.”

One of the Vans dropped back, while the other pulled up behind them. There were more gunshots and suddenly the driver’s side mirror exploded in a blast of glass, plastic and metal. Waylon screamed Miles name again while Miles swore loudly and swerved.

“Host they are going to shoot again,” R said directly into Miles’ head. “We need to do something now, We believe they will not miss this time.”

Waylon was near a full on panic attack. He screamed for Miles again before Miles said suddenly, “Take the wheel.”

“What?”

“Take the fucking wheel!” Miles barked and turned for the backseat.

Waylon scrambled for the wheel and Miles could hear him swear and he struggled into the seat. The Jeep swerved violently until Waylon could get a better handle on the situation. “A-Are you ok?” Waylon asked and glanced into the rearview mirror. Miles was sitting with his head between his legs, both hands on his head. It’s then that Waylon noticed that he couldn’t see the Walrider anywhere in the Jeep, not even the distortion of its outline was visible.

Seconds later Waylon saw the black van behind them skid across the two lanes of traffic. It rammed against the center barrier and crashed over it and continued across into oncoming traffic. Waylon winced when he heard the sound of metal crashing against metal. The other van screamed to a halt and pulled over. “Miles?”

“Keep driving,” he choked out.

“W-Where?”

They heard more tires screeching and more cars crash into each other. “Take the first exit,” Mile said, “drive as fast as you can without going over the speed limit and just go.

“O-Ok.” He checked on Miles again who was still bent over with his hands over his head. “Are you ok?” He asked again. The Murkoff van wasn’t following them anymore.

Miles didn’t respond. In his mind he was reliving the experience of killing the men in the van. R decided to share with him every detail and he could feel the heavy door as he tore it off and he could see the panic of the men inside. The first man was exploded, much like most of the security force down in the basement. Organs rained down on several others in the back of the van. A few screamed, one tried to shoot. R ripped into them like they were made of wet paper. He tore them apart, sending organs, limbs and blood everywhere. With the ones in the back finished he dissipated to fit through the thin cracks in the glass that separated the back of the van from the front. It was surely bullet proof but that was useless when your body was made of nanite particles that could go between the space of the screws or the paneling itself. Blood splattered against the windshield as the bodies of the driver and passenger exploded in a spray of gore. A limb landed across the gas pedal and pinned it down. After the van was void of life, R exited through the window invisible to the naked eye and regrouped inside the Jeep. He was very proud of his performance but his Host just seemed sick.

“How did We do Host?” He asked. “We think we performed Our duties excellently. Perhaps We could have been faster with the men in the back, but it has been so long since We have been able to kill, We wanted to enjoy it.”

“Please,” Miles said weakly, “pleas shut up and leave me alone.”

R folded his arms and scoffed, “You act like this is your first time ordering Us to kill. Stop acting like an infant. You are much more than that.”

“No, R really. Not right now, I feel sick.”

“Pathetic.”

But Miles didn’t really care what the Walrider said or felt. He wanted so desperately to leave death behind him when he walked out of Mount Massive’s doors. Speaking so freely about it was something he could do in the asylum, there nothing felt real, it was all a different world, he was a different person in there. He wasn’t a human, he was a monster born in blood and bullets. But out here he desperately wanted to be human, or as human as he could be. Miles knew that he couldn’t avoid Murkoff for long or their hired soldiers. Eventually he’d have to fight, but he was hoping that it wouldn’t so quickly.

He groaned and tried to clear his head. R was ignoring him now and Waylon looked just sick as he felt. The other man’s face was white with what could be terror, panic, anxiety or both. But he was proud of how well he was doing. He put him in a stressful situation and he hadn’t broken, that was good to know. He would be relying on Park more and more in the coming days. He knew the other man struggled with PTSD and other issues that came from surviving hell on earth, but he’d need him to be strong.

The Jeep sped down random country roads, Waylon was taking turns and exits at every opportunity and changing the direction they were heading. He kept at this for two hours until Miles finally crawled into the front passenger seat. “Hey,” Waylon said.

“You did good Park,” was Miles only comment. “Sorry for bailing like that. I put you in a position that wasn’t fair.”

“I was surprised,” he admitted, “and scared. But I’m glad we didn’t crash or die.”

“Same,” Miles said with a small laugh. “Getting shot again would have been not great.”

When Waylon looked over he noticed that Miles was pretty much back to normal. His teeth were still slightly pointed and there was a touch of silver in his grey eyes but nothing too startling. “You, uh, you hungry?”

“Starving,” he said and quickly added, “but not that starving, it’s ok.” He held his hand out and it wasn’t shaking. “Any idea where we are?”

“Uh, no, not really. I’ve been taking random turns and driving away from the interstate.”

Miles sat forward a bit and said, “Right, well we should start heading for it again. Try to take a left up ahead, we need to be going west to line back up with any major road.”

“How do you know?”

He pulled out a phone, “GPS, man’s new best friend,” he smiled and put the phone away. “We don’t want to get back on, just ride parallel to it, find a motel and crash for the day.” There wouldn’t be much of the day left however, he sun was dipping behind the horizon line. “You did good Park,” Miles said, “thanks.”

“You’re the one that saved us again. I just steered the car.”

“Hey, that’s pretty important,” Miles said. “Considering I can survive a high impact car crash and you can’t. Though digging glass and gravel out of my body isn’t something I would look forward to.”

Waylon was quiet for a few moments, he was debating asking this. “So uh, Miles, what do you think they’ll do with you if they catch you?”

“I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “I don’t like thinking about it. R’s a weapon, shit I’m a weapon. We just took out a van of trained soldiers, and that’s not even scratching the surface of what we can do.” Miles leaned back in the chair and rubbed his eyes. “We’d be taken and used for what we were made for probably, if not that then we’d be experimented on for the rest of our lives. Not a fate I want.”

“Couldn’t you just…” Waylon didn’t finish the question. Miles was thankful for that, he didn’t want to give Waylon the answer, not right now. “What should we get for dinner tonight?”

“Pizza?” Miles shrugged. “We don’t have many options, whatever will deliver.”

“I’m going to put on so much weight,” Waylon joked. He wasn’t actually too upset by the prospect of gaining some weight. He lost so much working for Murkoff and being their experiment. His appetite never came back in the weeks after his escape and it still hadn’t returned so far on the road. He was hoping that the high fat content of their takeout meals would help.

“I wish I could put on weight,” Miles said with a laugh. “Being the Host has stripped me of nearly all of my body fat, R says it’s could become dangerous if I can’t gain any back. I’ll show you if you want, it’s kinda scary. I have like… muscle so it’s not like looking at skeleton but it’s off putting.”

“But you eat so much… you mean to tell me all of that energy gets used right away?”

“Yup. I have to feed a few million tiny machines, I get nothing back,” he paused, “Well… besides the increased healing, strength boost, and improved senses… maybe it is a good tradeoff.”

“You said the Walrider thinks it could be a problem, are you going to die from this?”

“Probably not,” Miles said. “As long as I can keep the machines fed and my body nourished I’ll be fine, I just won’t have any stores for if I miss a meal. And R’s worried that I’ll burn through the small amount of fat I have left and start digesting muscle next, but he also thinks it won’t be an issue after we’re done being on the road. He believes that the extra stress and action is causing my appetite spike and energy use.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Were you about to lose control back there? When you dove for the backseat?”

Miles didn’t answer right away. “I was,” he struggled to find the words. “I was overwhelmed,” he settled on finally. “You were yelling, the static was screaming, and R was prodding me. The chaos of being shot at while also being yelled at from inside and out was a bit too much. I knew that I had to let R take care of that van, but I also knew he might take it too far and I didn’t want to be driving if he did. So I bailed.” He rested his elbow on the car door and cupped his face with a hand. “I don’t think I was going to lose control of myself, I felt in control, just sick and overwhelmed. I would have removed myself from the Jeep if I was afraid of losing control. I’d want to get as far away as I could from people until I calmed down.”

Waylon seemed to find that answer acceptable. “It’s hard to know with you, you know? You look like a demon half the time and I can’t tell if you’re you or something else.”

“Trust me, I had several identity crises in the asylum,” Miles said. “I think I’ve nearly figured myself out though. I’ve… accepted what happened to me for the most part.”

“If you had the choice would you get rid of the Walrider? Like if there was a way for you to be normal again?”

Miles flinched at the word normal but shrugged. “I don’t know. Yes?”

“Host!”

“Oh come on R, we’ve been through this. I want to be a human again and if presented with the option… well I mean I already tried in the asylum to separate. I… We’ll talk later ok? It’s not that I hate you anymore it’s just…”

“We understand. We are still a parasite to you. A nuisance. Even after all We’ve done We cannot expect that opinion to change. You are a typical human.”

“R I-”

“Don’t waste your breath Host. We know where We stand.”

Miles sighed. Waylon asked, “Is it upset?”

“He’s… We’ll work it out. Don’t worry, we’re stuck together so we sorta have to.”

“Is there really no way to be yourself again? You never really said, just that you’re stuck together.”

“The research highly suggests that a Host is bonded to the Walrider until death basically. So yeah, we’re stuck together. Like I said, I’ve made my peace. At least I won’t ever be alone again right?” He gave a sharp toothed smile and leaned back. “Take the next exit, there’s a town not too far from here, they have a motel.” He flipped through the listing on his phone. “Ooo, it even has three whole stars. Three stars Park, can you believe it?”

“Sounds like a dream,” he said and took the turn.

It was a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere, nothing to report and they’d probably forget it moments after leaving. It was the type of town you swear you see hundreds of times between corn fields and open expanses of nothing. They got a room, another single and Miles was seated against the wall on one of the beds devouring his second extra-large pizza and a two liter of soda. Waylon was sitting on one of the chairs he pulled away from the small table by the window. The news was on but Miles wasn’t really paying attention to it, he was reading through some documents that were spread out across the bed.

“Today’s major news story: A terrible motor vehicle accident claims the lives of twenty and sends ten more to the hospital when an armored van lost control and crossed into oncoming traffic earlier today on Interstate Forty.”

Waylon froze and Miles looked up. “Turn it up,” he said.

“The accident occurred around four in the afternoon when an armored vehicle lost control and smashed through the center barrier and crashed into a small car carrying a family from Nevada. According to first responders on the scene the family and the occupants in the van died on impact. Another car containing a family crashed into the wreckage of the two cars and was struck from behind by a truck. The impact from that crash killed the driver and passenger, two kids were airlifted from the scene but later died at the hospital. The passenger of the truck was not wearing a seatbelt was ejected from the truck and struck by another passing vehicle, she also died at the scene. Names of the deceased are not being released at this time. This sad incident is being called the worst motor vehicle crash in a decade for the state. A private investigation is underway to understand the cause of the crash, but early reports state that the van’s accelerator malfunctioned as well as the breaks. Witnesses of the accident claim there was a red Jeep that was also driving erratically but the crash doesn’t appear to be linked to that. For more details we join-”

Waylon could hear Miles get up from the bed and run to the bathroom. “Miles?” He could then hear the sound of the other man throwing up into the toilet. Carefully Waylon got up and went to the doorway. “You ok? Bad pizza?”

Miles continued to throw up for a while before he could respond. “Those people,” he choked out, “those people died because of me.”

“Miles… no it wasn’t-”

“Yes it was! It was our fault! All of those innocent people would still be alive if R hadn’t attacked the Murkoff people in that van.”

“But if you didn’t tell him to do that then we’d be dead as well Miles. It’s not your fault they went after us in a public space you can’t blame yourself.”

“Two dead is a lot better than twenty,” Miles said. He rested his head on the toilet seat. “My life isn’t worth several family’s. I’m not worth it.” He mumbled and flushed the toilet.

“Such a waste of food,” R commented.

Miles stood up on shaking legs and turned miserably to wipe his face and gulp down water. He felt for his keys which were in his pocket and stumbled for the door to the motel. “Where are you going?” Waylon asked. “You’re in no condition to go anywhere.”

“I need, I need some time alone,” Miles said. “And to get more food in my system. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

Waylon didn’t try to stop him as he left, it’s not like he could. He just locked the door behind Miles and nervously watched him drive away. They lost Murkoff for sure so Waylon wasn’t too concerned about being alone in the motel room. He looked back at the TV screen which was still showing overhead shots of the carnage from the day. It was a pretty nasty accident. Several mashed up cars, a semi-truck flipped trying to avoid hitting anyone, it was awful. The reporter said the road was closed and will remain closed until the investigation was over. Waylon sat back down and this time he couldn’t help but wonder if it really was their fault?

Still, he was thankful that they survived. He saw many people die in front of him at the asylum, somewhere in those dark, wet, tile halls he developed his current way of thinking. Fuck everyone, save yourself. He used think himself a real humanitarian until he had to make split second choices that would end up in either himself or someone else dying and he always chose himself. That night he put himself over anyone else and he never really abandoned that thought. Sure, he took risks, telling VIRALeaks about Murkoff was a big risk that didn’t pay off in the end. Right now he was putting his life on the line to stop Murkoff and save others, but if another situation like today happened… He looked at the screen, at all the destruction, then down at the wedding band around his finger, he was certain he’d make the exact same choice.

Waylon wondered if that made him a bad person.

---

Miles stared up at the stars. He was lying on his back on the roof of the Jeep. A cold breeze ruffled the collar of his jacket and blew his hair around. Empty burger wrappers were scattered around the Jeep and left to blow in the wind. He couldn’t be bothered to clean them up properly.

“Host you have to stop thinking like this.”

“How?” Miles asked. “I can’t just give up my empathy, that would make me like… like you.”

“We didn’t kill those people Host. We killed the men in the van, it was their actions that killed the other humans.”

“I know, if you look at things logically like that you’re right. We didn’t. But their blood is still on my claws.”

“And you think if you’d let them crash your car, kill the human you are traveling with and capture us, there would be less blood?”

“I…” Miles trailed off. R had a point. His life wasn’t a simple human life anymore.

“Murkoff would use you, use us to harm many, many more humans. You could refuse to work with them of course, but We doubt you could resist for long. In the asylum we both realized that you have a taste for killing. It would not be long before you would embrace it.”

“R I don’t… No, no you’re right. My will is strong, but after years of torture I’d break. And when I do I don’t know how many I’d kill; how many we’d kill.”

“So in this instance, prioritizing your life over the others actually saved more humans down the road, correct?” Miles reluctantly agreed. “Good. Then stop wasting thought on this. We have more important things to worry about.”

“R I… about earlier… you know what I mean right?”

“Yes. We know what We are to you. It is ok.”

“But it’s not though,” Miles said. “You have your own identity now, you have a name and you have interests and feelings. It really isn’t fair for me to make these decisions on my own. You have a right to live.”

The static chuckled and R fully materialized next to Miles. He sat cross legged beside his host. “We think you are giving Us too much credit. We think you are applying human traits to Us that do not belong.”

“And I think you’re afraid of thinking of yourself as real.”

R looked down at his host then shoved him off the roof. The static laughed when Miles got to his feet. “What the hell R?” The static just kept laughing. “Oh ha ha, yeah laugh it up, you’re a real funny guy. Keep running from your feelings buddy, see how that works.”

“Don’t be a hypocrite Host, you run from yours too.”

“Oh so you admit you have feelings?”

“Uh-We- Host that’s not fair!”

It was Miles’ turn to laugh. “Come on, get inside we’re going back to the motel. I’ve had enough of feeling sorry for myself.”

“Death is a part of life,” R said as he opened the passenger side door and sat down. “It’s going to be a big part of our life until we can destroy Murkoff.”

“Now you’re talking like me, it’s creeping me out. Be more like a computer.”

The static crackled and R said, “Make up your mind Host. Are We a computer or are We a person?”

“I think that’s for you to decide. But right now,” Miles looked at R who had even put a seat belt on, “you look pretty human.”

---

The group ran into no issues during the rest of the trip to where Miles lived They kept expecting Murkoff to pop up at any moment, but the drive was very uneventful. That was what they were all hoping for. They figured the corporation was debating how best to deal with them after their first attempt was a failure. Murkoff caused a scene and that wasn’t something they liked doing.

They pulled up on a small block of apartments. Miles drove around slowly, not just around his building but the surrounding streets as well. He was looking for unusual cars and people; he even had R searching in places that he couldn’t easily see.

“I think we’re good, looks like Murkoff moved on,” Miles said and pulled into the parking lot. His building was three stories tall and shaped like a big “C”. Along the back of the parking lot was a set of locked garages that doubled as extra storage for those who didn’t have a car. There was no inner hallway; all the apartments were accessed from an outdoor walkway and staircase. Miles handed Waylon a set of keys. “I’m number 111, second floor, confusing I know but this place didn’t feel like doing the ground floor as the one hundreds. You can head on inside if you want, I have to do some work on the Jeep,” he said and gestured at the broken driver’s side mirror.

“Sure,” Waylon took the key and started walked towards the building.

“Hey!” Miles called out. “If you see a tall, extremely handsome, African American guy with braids in a ponytail don’t scream, that’s Julian. He may or may not be waiting for me to come home, even though I told him not to. If you see anyone else, go ahead and scream, I’ll be there in seconds.”

“Got it,” Waylon replied, though he didn’t know what constituted as an extremely handsome man by Miles’ standards. He would be on the lookout nonetheless. He took to the stairs and was careful not to run his hand along the railing with chipped white paint. With the amount of money Miles had he was expecting something with a little more curb appeal, but then again Miles didn’t seem like a man to live in excess. The apartment was towards the middle of the “C” and wasn’t very hard to spot, it was the only one with police crime scene tape tacked up over the door. Waylon slid the key in and ducked under the tape.

The inside was an absolute mess, it probably wasn’t Miles’ fault though, the place had been ransacked by the police and Murkoff agents. Waylon pulled a cord to open the front blinds and let in more light. He cautiously stepped over the TV that was face down on the floor and tried not to step on any of the DVD cases scattered across the ground. Tucked into the corner of the living room was a desk with every drawer missing and a file cabinet that was overturned. Waylon moved into the kitchen and found it in a similar state of disarray. Dirty dishes were in the sink, those were probably Miles’ fault. Every cabinet door was open and they even pulled out his pots and pans. “Were they worried Miles was hoarding secret documents in with his cast iron?” There was a short hallway off of the kitchen that led to what he assumed was Miles’ bedroom.

Waylon looked around but Miles still hadn’t shown up, and he felt a little awkward going into his room, but he assumed Miles would have told him not to if he didn’t want him anywhere. So he cautiously stepped inside. His bedroom was probably torn up worse than any other room. Clothing littered the floor and a bookcase had been toppled. His mattress was flipped and sat next to a bedframe. Curiously the floor safe looked unmolested amongst all the carnage. Maybe they didn’t spot it? Seemed odd to Waylon, but then again he already knew it was there.

He shoved the mattress back onto the frame and sat down. Miles’ bedroom was covered in posters and pictures. Waylon could spot a string of lights that was taped and stapled up around the room. Another desk sat opposite the bed, this one was also torn apart, with drawers lying out in the open. He looked at a few of the posters, most of them bands he hadn’t really heard of, though some were the kind that would fluoresce under a black light. It made Waylon chuckle, the room seemed more like something a college freshmen would have, complete with pin ups on the ceiling. Though these were all well muscled topless men instead of shirtless women coated in oil.

Waylon stood up and walked over to the desk, Miles had a corkboard filled with pieces of paper tacked up with pins. The kind of thing you would see in movies, the kind that the one obsessed character would have with all the string leading to a central point. This corkboard however, while it did have string, was less for tracking down some serial killer and more filled with potential story ideas.  There were a few things pertaining to Murkoff among the clippings but none about Mount Massive. Miles had printed out a few articles; one or two were penned by a Julian Day, one in particular was circled with gold sharpie and a “fuck yeah!” written next to it.

Waylon’s foot connected with something on the floor and bent down to pick it up. It appeared to be a nice digital camera with a neck strap; he slipped it over his head and turned it on. “A miracle this didn’t get broken when they trashed the place.” The camera still seemed to work fine and he took a few practice pictures of the room. Something else caught his eye through the camera lens and he abandoned Miles’ corkboard to look at it. On the wall, not too far from the doorway were two frames with pieces of paper in them. The first thing that caught Waylon’s eyes were the big wings painted on the wall around the larger of the two frames. Waylon ran a finger across the paint and murmured, “Wow, I didn’t know Miles could paint.” At least, he assumed it was Miles who painted it. The smaller frame had a pair of wings painted by it as well, but they were tiny and had broken chains around them. It was symbolism for something, that was for sure. 

He read the two pieces of paper and realized they were diplomas. The smaller one being from when he was in high school and the larger was his college degree. “What this? That’s odd…” Waylon looked at the names on the two diplomas, they were different. “What’s up with that?” Waylon would have to ask Miles when he came up.

Carefully Waylon picked his way back to the front of the apartment and the destroyed living room. He opened the door and ducked under the tape again. He could see Miles underneath his Jeep doing some sort of maintenance. Waylon was never a car guy, so he had no clue what he was doing. If he squinted he could make out the shape of the Walrider holding the vehicle up. “Hey,” Waylon said as he approached.

“Like my sweet bachelor pad?” Miles asked and pulled himself out from under the Jeep.

Waylon laughed. “It’s a bit of a mess, but I can appreciate what it used to be.”

“Ouch, how bad is it?”

“Well, your friend and those police sure did a number, you’ll need a new TV that’s for sure.”

“It’s ok, I’m going to just move anyways.” Miles jerked his thumb towards the Jeep and said, “Almost done here. Just finished up changing out the tires and I got the new mirror on.”

“That was…fast,” Waylon said. He might not know much about cars, but he knew that was fast.

“I showed R how to do the tires and we each did a pair,” Miles explained. “I put on what are called run-flats.”

“And those are?”

“Tires that can uh, run while flat. I’ve had them in the garage for a little bit, figured after our little car chase adventure a few days ago it wouldn’t hurt to use ‘em.” Miles knelt down and ran a hand over the tires. “These are designed to keep the Jeep going even if they’re shot or shredded. It could mean the difference between us surviving an encounter and not.” He stood back up and rested a hand on the mirror. “The mirror was an easy fix. I’ve had this Jeep since I was fifteen,” he said. “I have any spare part you could ever think of for it, and some of them are even modified by me for a quick replacement. Things like the bumper, these mirrors, the door handles, shit I’m likely to break.”

“Wow, that’s a long time to have a car.”

“Yeah, I guess it is. I couldn’t really afford a new one in high school and then I put so much work and love into her I never really sold her. Just kept fixing her.” Miles walked back into the garage and came back out with a box.

“What’s in there?”

Miles set it down in the back and opened it. “License plates,” Miles said and pulled a few out. “I’ve been collecting plates for a while, started off as a hobby, now I do it for less… legal reasons. Oh!” He pointed at the camera around Waylon’s neck. “You found my old camera, nice. You can hang on to that if you want, I used to be really into photography, still am honestly. It’s a pretty good one, I’m sure you’ll find some interesting shit to photograph on the road.”

“What is it with you and giving away cameras?” Waylon asked. “You gave one to my boys, I lost that one back at the base and now this?”

“What can I say? I think it’s better they get used than not and I’m quite the charitable person. There’s no way I’ll have time to do any photography in the near future. You on the other hand, you need the distraction.” He pressed the camera to Waylon’s chest. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth Park. Just take it.”

“I… Ok, thank you.” He walked around the Jeep and looked at it before asking, “So, uh, how much is left?”

“Not much,” Miles replied. “I still have to check the fluids and load the spare tires. I should probably dismantle the tracker while I’m here. I deactivated it but it’s best not to take chances.”

“Tracker… that’s right you did mention you had one on your car, along with your laptop and phone too right?”

“Yup,” Miles lifted the hood and pulled out a long stick. “I already took the chip out of my computer and you already know what became of the phone.” Waylon nodded. Miles wiped some oil residue off on a rag and stuck the stick back in to get a reading. “The one on the Jeep isn’t hard to take out, I could also just have R fry the thing I suppose. Either way works.”

“Why’d you bother with a tracker on your car? You worried someone’s going to steal this hunk of junk?”

“Hey now, watch it,” Miles laughed. “You start calling her junk and she’ll strand us on the side of the road. Nah I installed it in case someone with a bum leg and a whole lot of ambition decided to steal it and make a daring mountain getaway.”

“I did apologize for that, how was I supposed to know you were friendly?”

Miles had his head down in his car checking the coolant levels when he said, “I’m only joking Park, don’t take it seriously.” He left the Jeep to head into the garage and grabbed a few jugs of mysterious fluid Waylon couldn’t place. “I actually installed it in case I got car jacked out on the road. Because I store a lot of valuables in the hidden hatch in the back I wanted to make sure I had a way to get it back.”

“I take it that is custom too?”

“Yup,” Miles said. “The extra key spots too. There’s the one by the driver’s side wheel, you know about that one already. I also keep a spare under the rear bumper and another in the Jeep itself, its stuck under the passenger side front seat.”

“Wow…” Waylon said, “That’s a lot of keys.” 

“Hey, I’m forgetful… and also sometimes need to get away fast. Much easier to grab the spare by the wheel than it is to wrestle a key from tight jean pockets or a pocket full of recording devices.”

“Well, I’m thankful that on your trip to Mount Massive you decided to leave them in the ignition.”

Miles rubbed the back of his head. “Yeah not my brightest moment, but hey, it saved your ass.”

“What’s uh, what’s that you’re pouring in?”

“Windshield fluid. I’ll do coolant next and it’ll be good to go.”

Waylon shifted his weight to his other leg. “Need any help with… anything?” Man he was starting to regret not knowing anything about cars.

“Nah, I got this. You can head on back inside; I’ll meet you up there soon.”

“Ok, if you’re sure.” Miles waved him away. Waylon took a step back and snapped a picture then walked back to the apartment. He once more stepped under the tape and looked around the ruined apartment. “Now what?” Without really thinking he walked over to the toppled book shelf and righted it, then he started to collect up the various books and DVD cases that were scattered across the floor.

“Cleaning… I’m good at that.” Waylon moved into the kitchen and filled one half of the sink with hot soapy water. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep my mind off of things.” While the sink filled he took the time to collect up all the pots and pans that had been pulled out and put them back into cabinets. Cleaning was always something that calmed him down. He thought back to when he was fresh out of the hospital and cleaned the house daily, sometimes multiple times a day. It didn’t take much to get him to fall into a routine.

Soon he had the dishes done and drying and was picking through the mess in Miles’ room. “Wow,” said a voice from the doorway. Waylon spun around to see Miles leaning against the doorframe. “It’s like I have my own personal maid.” He chuckled and entered the room. “You know you don’t have to clean anything, right?”

“Yeah, I just didn’t know what else to do,” Waylon said and sat down on the bed. “Hey, I have a few questions about your room.”

“Go for it,” Miles said.

“What’s with the wings? Around the diplomas?”

“Oh,” Miles said. “That. Well, things weren’t the greatest back home. I always viewed graduation as when I’d finally be free to spread my wings, you know? So when I first went off to college I made these little paper wings to stick on my high school diploma, to signify that I was out there flying. Then when I graduated again I upgraded the wings.” He ran his hand over the painted feathers. “I guess I just never stopped doing it, no matter where I moved. The symbolism is just cheesy enough for me to hang on to.”

“What about the names? Or is that too personal?”

“Nah, it’s not that personal, most people ask. Like I said before, I was never that close to my family and my home life wasn’t the best. So when I was finally a legal adult and out of the house I did the first thing that made sense to me, I changed my name. I wanted distance, I didn’t want to be associated with them, or have them have any relation to me in case I got famous.” He smirked. “So Miles North became Miles Upshur.”

“I had wondered about your last name it’s uh, rather unique.”

“Yeah, I definitely wasn’t born with it. I did it as a joke, the judge uh, didn’t think it was as funny as I did. But at the time, when I was eighteen, it seemed like it was me verses the world. The phrase “up shore without a paddle” was the main inspiration. I felt it fit at the time.”

“I think it suits you,” Waylon said from the bed.

Miles nodded. “Yeah I have to agree. I certainly haven’t stopped getting myself into trouble either, “up shit creek without a paddle” probably fits more now. But I’m quite attached to the name Upshur, not rebranding now.”

“What uh, what made you want to be a journalist? I know you said it was because you wanted to expose the truth, but what started it? Journalism isn’t what most kids want to do with their lives. Usually they pick like, firefighter or something.” Waylon smiled at the memory of his boys coming home excitedly and proclaiming that they were going to be a librarian and a lion tamer. It wasn’t hard to figure out whose dream went with which boy.

Miles walked over to the corkboard and carefully unpinned a yellow, faded article. He handed it to Waylon and said, “This was the start of it all. I was ten years old and I did a piece for the school newspaper.”

“Hopping Away: The Disappearance of Frogs and Other Amphibians by Miles North,” Waylon read aloud. “You wrote an article on the environmental impact your community had on the local frog pond? At ten? That’s impressive.”

“Yeah I was really interested in nature back then, but I wasn’t very good at catching things, so I wrote about them instead. My teacher suggested I write a little paper about how to be kinder to the environment in regards to frogs and amphibians. I spent so long sitting by the pond and stream to get a good picture for the paper.” Miles smiled fondly at the memory. “I remember rushing home and showing my father the paper. He was so damn proud of me. Kept talking about it all day and after dinner he took me out for ice cream to celebrate my first printed story. He told me, and I’ll never forget this, he told me, “Miles I’m proud of you. You did such a good job, you’re an amazing writer. Next time do something bigger and better, always go up. Frogs today, maybe the whole African Savanah tomorrow!” He then asked for a copy of the paper so he could show everyone at work. I knew then that this was what I wanted to do.”

“So… what did he say? About your next article?”

“He uh, he didn’t.” Miles said. He swallowed and looked away, back to the corkboard. “There was an ah, an accident the next day. I came home, extra paper in hand to see my grandfather waiting for me. He took me to the hospital…” He took a deep breath. “He was so happy to see me, you know… The nurse hung my stupid article up where he could see and where he could boast to everyone who’d listen, about his little man who’d-” Miles stopped and ran a hand down his face. “Who’d be a big famous reporter one day… He uh, he didn’t make it. There was an infection and it spread too quickly…”

“I’m… sorry, Miles, I really am.”

Miles turned away from Waylon. “It’s fine, it was a long time ago. But you know? I never stopped writing. The next year I joined my middle school’s newspaper club. That’s where I met Julian. We were such trouble makers, instant best friends. Here we are, seventeen years later and he’s scrambling my apartment before the feds show up.” He faced Waylon again, a much happier expression on his face. “You never know when you’ll meet someone who’ll change your life forever. To think, if I hadn’t written that dumb article about frogs I might not even be here.”

“Was your mom ever proud of you?”

“She uh… well, she’s the reason I wanted to change my name so badly. She always thought being an author would make me gay.” He cracked a smile. “I don’t think my occupation had any influences, but she always wanted me to do something more manly, more “respectful”.” Miles made air quotes with his fingers. “The last I heard from her was when she was shouting at me from the apartment window when I moved out with Julian. She said some um, unsavory things I don’t wish to repeat but boiled down to something like… “Go live with that black devil and waste your life away! See if I care!”” Miles imitated his mother’s voice in a mocking way. “Don’t come crawling back to me when you’re broke and full of sin!”

Waylon laughed. “Sorry, sorry,” he apologized. “I don’t mean to laugh but you have to admit that’s kind of funny.”

“Oh it’s downright hilarious,” Miles said and flopped down on the bed next to Waylon. “Man if only she could see me now, she’d probably finish off that poor liver of hers.”

“You literally look like an actual demon, she’d freak. So… I take it she didn’t like Julian?”

“Oh she hated him!” Miles said with a laugh. “On top of being homophobic she was racist too. Always thought he was a finger of the devil come to turn me to the dark side with a single touch. Too bad his family practically raised me. It’s thanks to Julian’s parents that I could even do little kid stuff, like go play at a park, have a vacation, watch TV and god forbid eat a full dinner.”

“They sound like good people, Julian’s parents.”

“They saved me,” Miles said. “If I didn’t meet them man… I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Do you think they uh… heard about… you know?”

Miles shrugged. “Of course but I don’t think for a moment they believe any of it. They knew I was a wild one, but I’d never do something like that. Besides I’m sure Julian already called them and explained I’m just in deep.”

“What about your mom?”

“Oh I hope she’s laughing it up. This is probably exactly what she wanted for me, I should hire someone to videotape her reaction when it’s revealed that I’ve been framed and my story goes viral. She’ll be so pissed I was on national news so much.” Miles looked up at the posters on his ceiling. “It’s not like… I want her to suffer you know? I just… I don’t care about her because she never cared about me. I always felt like no matter what I did it was never enough and that she’d be mad to know I’m happy.”

Waylon didn’t say anything; he wasn’t sure what to say. Growing up was easy for him, he never felt unloved by his parents and Lisa’s family was just as warm and accepting. Even their marriage was amazing compared to other couples he knew. What could he say to a guy who went unloved and unsupported for so long? Was there anything to say? He looked up at the posters too. “Why do they oil themselves up so much?”

Miles elbowed Waylon in the side and laughed. “You need to watch more porn,” he said and sat up. “Look at a pinup calendar or something. I can’t believe you’re in your thirties and had to ask me why oiled muscles are hot.” Waylon handed Miles back the old article about frogs which he pinned back up on the board. “Do you need any spare luggage?” Miles asked. He started to root around in his already messed up closet.

“I should be good, I have my duffle bag that’s enough.” Miles tossed him a small suitcase. “What’s this for?”

“Backup. Just put it in the Jeep. You never know what could happen from here on out,” Miles said. He was busy filling a larger suitcase with clothes from the floor. “We can always buy more stuff if we need it, but it’s better to get as much as we can for free. If you see something you like you’re welcome to it. Most of my shit’s gonna get bagged up and tossed out anyways.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’m going to stop paying rent on this building. I’ll send Jules in to pick up a few things, like that board. He knows what’s important to me, but the majority of this stuff will get tossed when they clean my place out for the next renter. So please, don’t be afraid to take a shirt or something.”

“Right,” Waylon said. He looked around but felt extremely awkward about going through Miles’ clothes while he was right there. Instead he decided to leave Miles to his packing.

Miles was aware of Waylon leaving the room, then he heard loud scream. He dropped the shirt he was sniffing and rushed to the hallway. He caught Waylon who was busy stumbling back. “Hey, you ok? What is it?” His claws were already manifested in case they were needed.

Waylon took a deep breath and steadied himself. “Sorry, it was nothing, just the Walrider.” Miles looked ahead and spotted R digging through the bookshelf, as promised. “It-He startled me. I’m not used to it. I’m still hardwired to run when I see the Walrider.”

A smile crept onto Miles’ face and he loosened his grip on Waylon’s shoulders. “Ah, I had the same problem too for a while.” He let go and walked back into his room, he was glad there wasn’t an actual threat.

“Host,” The Walrider called through the static. “These books are all garbage.”

“Wow rude,” Miles said and reached for a pair of jeans that had been tossed across a fallen picture frame. “Sorry my collection isn’t up to your impeccable standards.”

“We were promised books.”

“And you’ve been given books,” Miles tried not to look at the picture in the frame. Some memories weren’t worth bringing back. “I never said they were good books.”

“Why must they all end in reproductive intercourse?”

“Because they’re trashy romance novels, and trust me R none of those characters are reproducing any time soon.” A ripple of displeasure rode through the static and Miles almost felt sorry for the Walrider. “Tell you what, there are some of my college textbooks in here that you’re welcome to, and if you look on my desk you’ll find a couple science fiction novels and an urban fantasy. Will that work?”

“We shall see.”

Soon Miles had enough clothes stuffed into his suitcase to feel comfortable about the idea of living out of his Jeep for the next three months. I won’t be winning any awards in fashion but it’ll do. He dragged his suitcase to the living room and dropped it by the door. Then he went back and rescued his pillow and a few blankets. Nothing beat having your own pillow on trips. He raided his bathroom for shampoo, conditioner and soap. “Hey Park!”

“Yeah?”

“You need shaving cream? And razors?”

“I… I guess? Don’t you?”

“Nah I don’t have to shave anymore, I’ll pack them for you then.” He still couldn’t get used to the red hair that was reflected back at him. Gotta change that soon, it’s repulsive. This was nothing personal against people with red hair; it just was not a good color on him. Maybe I’ll go over it with brown again… He pulled a few clean towels out of the closet and stacked everything up next to his luggage. “Almost ready to go,” he said to Waylon who was sitting on the couch. Miles could tell the other man was resisting the urge to continue to tidy up his apartment. “Can you believe you almost ended up living here for a month?”

“It’s not that bad,” Waylon said and looked around. “A little small, but there would have been enough room for each of us to do our own thing. It wouldn’t have been bad… Probably a lot better than motel hopping.”

“Hey, silver lining, at least you’ll get to see lots of the country.”

“I guess.”

Miles gave him a weak smile. “It’ll be fine.” With that he disappeared back into his room to collect the electronics stashed in the floor safe. There was a spare laptop and a hard drive in there. He made sure to clean the whole thing out and put everything in a spare backpack. Then he pulled out one of the new phones. Julian didn’t answer but Miles left a voice message. “Hey Jules. I know you were at my place not too long ago, but I was just there. I took what I could for this trip but if you can would you stop by again? I want you to grab some of the important stuff, like my diplomas, the corkboard; you know… the sentimental shit. The police and Murkoff are long done with the place; we’ve been here for well over an hour and haven’t seen a single soul. As soon as you’re done email me and I’ll stop paying rent. Take whatever you want for yourself, but we both know our tastes a bit different. Talk to you soon, see ya.”

It only took one trip to the Jeep with R helping and they were all loaded up. In a small netted off section of the back Miles had stored extra jugs of fluids for the Jeep and his toolbox. He hoped he wouldn’t have to do any repairs but it was always better safe than sorry. There was the box of extra license plates as well. Miles slid his luggage and the bedding close to the backseat and put the rest of the computer stuff in the hidden hatch with the others. That still left a sizable amount of the back open for a cooler or anything else they decided to pick up along their trip. R placed a stack of old college textbooks along one side and took three novels into the backseat.

“Find something you liked?”

“They weren’t “romance” novels so they’ll do.”

“I wonder what Wernicke would say if he learned his precious Project Walrider had literary standards?”

He took the steps back up three at a time and ducked back under the police tape. He thought about tearing it down, but he wanted to make it look like no one had been here. He walked over to his freezer and grabbed a small plastic bag from under the sink. “What are you doing Miles?” Waylon asked. He had come from Miles room with the smaller suitcase trailing behind him.

“Just packing up the freezer, I’ll give it to the neighbor next door or something. We can’t use it on the road or anything and there’s no sense in wasting good food.” He looked at the lower fridge part and frowned. “I uh, I wouldn’t open that, there’s probably a new organism in there…” He shivered.

“That’s nice of you,” Waylon said.

“Find anything good while digging through my stuff?” Miles asked and pointed at the suitcase.

“I dunno,” Waylon said. “You’re style of dress isn’t what I’d normally wear… but I did find some jeans I think will fit. We’re close to the same size.”

“Cool.” Miles finished packing the freezer and said, “I’ll meet you down at the Jeep if you’re all ready to go.” Waylon nodded and headed out while Miles took one last look at his tiny home. “Well… this is goodbye,” he said to the apartment. “Drank myself through a lot of deadlines here, you’ll be missed.” He shut the door behind him and locked it for the last time. Then he walked a few doors down and knocked on the door.

“Hey, hey Louis, I know you’re in there.”

He heard some thumping around before a man in his late forties answered the door. “Ain’t you supposed t’ be a wanted criminal?”

“Eh, depends on your source.”

Miles hefted the bag of food up and handed it off to the man. “What’s all this?”

“My freezer. Figured you could use it more than me.”

 “Ya’ leaving?”

“Yup, won’t be coming back. I know you won’t call the cops, but if you were thinking about it… give me an hour head start will you?”

“Nah,” Louis said and set the bag down on the floor. “You’re a good kid Upshur, I won’t do that t’ya.”

“Thanks,” Miles smiled. “You always were the better neighbor; you never called the police on my house parties.”

“That’s because you paid me off in free booze.”

“Ah, a grand mutual benefiting relationship we had. Anyways, my buddy Julian is dropping by later to pick up some of my stuff, don’t call the cops on him either,” he laughed. “Take care of yourself Louis.”

“You too, I don’t know what ya’ did, but ya’ did it good… or bad? I never know with you.”

Miles waved and descended the stairs to meet up with Waylon in the Jeep. He took one last look at his apartment building before he drove off for good. He had moved tons of times, but the feeling was always slightly different.

“Where are we going now?” Waylon asked as they pulled out onto the main road. “What’s the plan?”

“Well,” Miles replied and rubbed the back of his head. “You aren’t going to like where we’re going next.”

Unease settled over Waylon. “And why not?” He couldn’t think of a place that would be worse than where they escaped from.

“Because we’re going back to Mount Massive.”

Chapter Text

Miles flinched at Waylon’s response. “Mount Massive? Absolutely not! You are not taking me back to that place!” He reached for the door and said “Stop the car pull over.”

“Park, calm down you’re over reacting.”

“I’m over reacting? Me?” Waylon said in disbelief. “You cannot be serious, you want to go back to the place that hurt us? Tortured us? We were prisoners there!”

Miles dragged a hand down his face. “Listen, Park, I get why you don’t want to go back but I’m not doing this for no reason. Do you think I want to go back?”

Waylon looked at him, eyebrows raised. “Yes! Yes I do! You lived there, you died there and you became a weapon there! Of course you’d want to go back!”

Miles sighed. “It was hard for me to leave Park,” he admitted. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to leave. If you hadn’t released your video when you did in the way that you did I might still be in that asylum eating raw meat holed up in an old office. Trust me, I don’t want to go back any more than you do but we have to.”

“Why?” Waylon asked. He still had a hand on the door handle. “Why would we ever need to go back there?”

“We need more documents-”

Waylon interrupted, “What about the stacks of paperwork we have in the back?”

“I don’t know what’s in those documents, not everything. We need information about the governments involvement with Murkoff and Project Walrider. I need proof to connect them, and I’m afraid we don’t have that proof in our hands. I can’t risk it.”

“Why now? Couldn’t we look through what we have then go back to look? The place is abandoned right? And wrecked far too much to be of any use to Murkoff ever again right?”

Miles shook his head and said, “No, they’re going to detonate the building soon, I don’t know when, soon. The guards weren’t exactly the most useful.”

“Detonate?”

“Yes,” Miles said and his grip on the steering wheel tightened. “They want to erase all the evidence that might have been left behind. R and I trashed the labs but they’re still there physically. Soon they won’t be.”

Waylon let go of the door and sank back into his chair. “I can’t argue with you. All the things I’ve pushed for on this trip have ended up making things worse. If you think we should do this, then we will do this.”

“Thank you, Park. Really. I just have to be sure, we’ll go through the computers and I’ll dig through the hard copy files. If there’s a connection we need to find it before they purge everything. I don’t want to do this story wrong there’s a lot riding on it. At best I want to take them both down, worst I take down neither and they win.”

“No,” R said from the backseat. “The worst is that you take nobody down and they get Us, they get you. That is the worst-case scenario. And We won’t let that happen.”

Miles nodded curtly. “R you’re right. But we won’t let that happen.”

“If they get us Host, it’s very possible that we won’t be able to fight them. They won’t kill us but we’d never be free again.”

“We could fight them,” Miles said, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Billy got close to freedom, we could too. We don’t need life support, we’re more mobile, we’re better fighters.”

“Host, just don’t get caught.”

“You’re right, that’s the safest bet.”

Waylon looked over Miles whose expression had hardened. From the context of the conversation he could tell that they were talking about if they got caught, specifically if Miles and the Walrider got caught. “You won’t though right? You’re too good, I mean you handled that base and those cars… they can’t catch you.”

“I’m confident,” Miles said. “And I… no we can do much more than what we’ve shown you. I don’t like talking about it because it’s not something I’m proud of and I don’t like bringing up those memories.”

Waylon nodded, he knew that feeling well. “You did what you had to to survive.”

“Yeah,” Miles said, but he didn’t agree with the statement. There were things he did after the riot that were not for his survival. The Prison Block slaughter came to mind. “But Murkoff won’t find us again.”

“Are you sure? We’re heading right back to them, there’s bound to be Murkoff agents at the mountain by now.”

“Maybe,” Miles said. “If there are we’ll rethink our approach.”

It was another long day of driving. They pulled over a few times to stretch their legs but a few hours after dark Miles called it. There was no reason for them to drive until neither of them could keep their eyes open. Another small motel provided a bed and address to get delivery food. Miles stretched luxuriously and went to the office to get the key and pay. He passed by Waylon who was staring at one of the disposable phones Miles had purchased. “Just call her,” Miles said. “The longer you wait, the harder it will be.”

Waylon nodded and took a deep breath while Miles walked by. He was right, Waylon learned that Miles had a habit of being right about a lot of things even though he had only met the man a week ago. Still the phone felt too heavy in his hand. But with trembling fingers he dialed a number he knew by heart and put it to his ear. It rang several times and Waylon’s heart sunk as it headed towards the voicemail. Then it picked up. Waylon hesitated a half a beat before saying, “Lisa?”

“Waylon?” Came her voice, equally as hesitant.

“Yeah, it’s me.” He said lamely. “Hey,” he added even more lamely.

There was a long stretch of silence before she spoke again. “You’re calling from a new number.”

“Yeah,” Waylon said. “It’s a safety precaution, Miles made me toss out my old phone. Listen I’m going to give you some numbers and-”

“I saw the news,” Lisa said and cut off Waylon.

“Yeah about that, I meant to call sooner but-”

Now Lisa’s voice was less controlled, less hesitant. “It’s been three days!” Waylon could hear her open a door and shut it. “What happened? Did that monster attack people?”

“No, no,” Waylon said quickly. “It’s all a lie.”

“They say he’s dangerous.”

Waylon looked over at Miles who was staring intently at a vending machine. “He’s not…” Waylon began to defend Miles but stopped. “He’s dangerous yes, but not for me, not for us. He didn’t do those things the new stations are saying. It’s all lies.”

There was a pause again, long and uncomfortable. “I was worried about you Waylon.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t say you’re sorry, tell me it won’t happen again.”

“It won’t, I promise.”

He could Lisa take a breath. “So what’s the truth, what really happened? You were supposed to be heading to that man’s apartment, how did you end up at a military base in Nevada?”

 “It’s all my fault,” Waylon said. “I learned something in the data we have, I panicked and made Upshur take us somewhere where we could tell someone. That someone was a contact of Upshur’s from his time in the military. It all went sideways Lisa, everything’s fucked.”

“How so?”

“I…” he hesitated again, the conversation he had with Miles about Julian came to the front of his mind. “I don’t know if I want to tell you.”

“Waylon.” Her voice was sharp.

“The US government commissioned Project Walrider,” he said in a quick exhale. “That’s what we learned at the base. Project Walrider is a military project, probably goes back to just after the second world war. After we found out we bolted.”

“That’s not the whole truth,” Lisa said.

“You’re right, it’s not,” Waylon admitted. “Upshur was recognized. For what he is.” He let the implication set in. “They wanted him back, obviously, and that’s why we ran, and why it’s his name and face is on the news.”

“But you’re both ok?”

“Yes, we’re fine. We’ve had some… troubles along the way, but at the moment things are calm.”

“I don’t think I want you traveling with him.”

“I know Lisa, I know. But he’s saved my life twice so far. He’s taken bullets for me.”

Lisa gasped, “He was shot?”

“Yeah, at the base, three times. But I wasn’t. I think he’s the best chance I have to survive this.”

“Then why isn’t he with us? Why aren’t we together? If he’s so damn good why isn’t he protecting all of us?”

“Because I don’t want even the slightest chance of you getting shot Lisa. And I don’t want your deaths to hang on him. We’re not his responsibility, he’s got enough on his plate, we can’t add the lives of two children to the mix and I will not allow our boys to see what I’ve seen.”

“Waylon-”

Now was his time to interrupt. “No,” he said. “No this isn’t up for discussion. You keep the boys away from us until this all blows over and everyone responsible is jailed.”

“Or you’re dead,” Lisa said.

“Or I’m dead. And then you run far, far away and never look back.”

“Bullshit I won’t let them get away with this.”

Waylon sighed, suddenly tired. “It’s not your fight to have, Miles has a friend, another reporter, he’s going to take over if we both die. I want you to take the boys and leave Lisa. Ok?”

“Oh so I’m supposed to just let some stranger get justice for my husband’s death?” Waylon didn’t respond. The other line was silent. Then she said reluctantly, “I guess if he took bullets for you he’s at least serious about keeping you alive.” She wasn’t willing to agree to run, not yet.  

“There’s a good man in there,” he found himself saying. “Now, Lisa this next thing is important. You need to throw away that phone,” she began to argue but Waylon cut her off again, “no listen, you need to throw it out. Cell phones can be tracked and they probably already know both our numbers, we’re taking a huge risk by talking on them. I’m going to read- no send you a list of numbers, each one is for a disposable phone that Upshur bought. Only call them in an emergency and in turn I’ll only call you if I need to.”

“Is this really necessary?”

“Miles seems to think so,” Waylon said.

“Oh and he’s the expert?”

Waylon shrugged out of habit before saying, “He is now. I’m way out of my league here. I’ll be sending you the numbers through one of the dummy emails we set up.” He paused before asking, “How are the boys? Are they holding up ok?”

“They’re fine. They think it’s a vacation, they’re just happy they aren’t in school. Though I think Lee might be catching on that something isn’t right, but it’s too early to tell. They miss you, they don’t understand why you aren’t here with us. I keep telling them that you’re doing some work and that you’ll be with us soon.”

“I’m sorry,” the apology was out of his lips before he could stop himself. “This will be over soon,” Waylon said, though he got the feeling that neither of them believed it. “There shouldn’t be any more road blocks and I’ll stop messing with Upshur’s plans.”

“I trust you Waylon,” Lisa said. “I’m not sure about Upshur, but I trust you. You’ll come back to us, you did before.”

“I did,” Waylon said and he had to cut the conversation before he started crying. “I’ll come back. Listen, I have to go. Tell the boys I love them. I’ll contact to you soon. Remember, ditch the cell phone.”

“Yeah, I will. I love you too Waylon. Be safe.”

Waylon hung up and pressed his fingers to his eyes. He didn’t know if he could do this. Then Miles’ voice called to him from the motel. “Hey!” He said, “Did you know this town has a place that will deliver tacos? You want tacos for dinner?”

---

They hit the city of Leadville early the next day. The Jeep drove down the empty streets silently. “Not a lot of people out huh?” Miles commented.

“No, it’s a small town, most of the people here work elsewhere. The place is near deserted during the day, there’s a few folks around but not much. It’s nice,” Waylon admitted. “I wouldn’t mind settling down here or a place like it when this is all over.”

Miles looked out at the empty streets and said, “I don’t think I could. I need action, the hustle and bustle of a city. I might lose my mind here.”

“We want to see a city. Host you will take Us to a city right?”

“Yeah of course R, you’ll see a big city, probably sooner than later. Just behave yourself and we’ll be fine.”

“Miles,” Waylon said suddenly, his attention was taken away from the empty storefronts they were driving past. “Can we drive by my house?”

“Did you forget something? I don’t think we should stop, it wouldn’t be wise for you to be seen here.”

“I just want to see.”

Miles shrugged and turned at the next light. He remembered the way pretty well for only have been there a few times. As they entered the small neighbor Miles could tell something was off immediately. “Murkoff Host?”

“No, at least, not anymore.” He stopped a few houses down but it was enough to see that there was an empty lot where the Park’s house used to stand.

Waylon stared wide eyed at the spot where his cute two-story house used to be. Now there was just a pile of burnt wood. “They… they burned it? But why?”

“It’s clear that Murkoff doesn’t intend to keep you alive,” Miles said and leaned against the steering wheel. “They want to clean up any loose ends, we already knew this was probably the case.” There was a neighbor that Miles spotted walking down their driveway to get their mail. “Stay here,” Miles said and stepped out of the Jeep.

Waylon watched him walk over and start talking with the neighbor. Then his eyes moved back to his house. He wondered briefly if anything survived the flames? Now he was glad that Lisa had their photo albums and valuables. Waylon closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Seeing this settled it, there was no where he could go but forward. He was in this till the end. Murkoff wanted him and Miles and were willing to send a van full of soldiers after them and burn his house down. If the past events didn’t make it clear, then this did.

The driver’s side door opened and Miles climbed back in. “Your neighbor says that the house caught fire the day we left. Murkoff missed us by a matter of hours, we were lucky.”

Waylon nodded and didn’t want to think about what would have happened if Miles hadn’t contacted them. Would they have been killed on the spot? Or burned alive? “I guess we’re homeless now,” Waylon said and looked out the window as Miles started the engine. “You know? Lisa and I spent every last penny we had on that place. And it’s gone, just like that.”

“If you aren’t sitting on a mountain of cash after the damages are awarded out by Murkoff then I’ll put you up at one of my places until you find a place to call your own again.”

“You don’t have to do that, you’ve already done so much.”

Miles grimaced. “Not enough, not yet. But it’s no big deal,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I told you, I had several properties its not hard to put you in one. Either Julian or myself will have somewhere. But chances are high you’ll sue the ever-loving shit out of Murkoff for this and walk away with a few million a least.”

“And you?”

“Me?”

“Yeah are you going to ask for compensation? They did uh, kill you, sort of.”

He didn’t answer right away, in truth he hadn’t thought about pursuing any sort of legal action against Murkoff. He wanted to keep much of his involvement in the dark, especially with regards to what he had become. “I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. “I think just revealing the story will be enough for me. I have to be careful, being the Walrider and all.”

“I suppose. Things could get messy for you.”

“What an understatement that is,” Miles said as they left the main part of the town and started down the road that lead up to the mountain. “I’m honestly not sure what I’m going to do if anyone turns around reveals what I’ve become. R and I meant to hide completely from them, and do this whole project solo.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Stop apologizing, you didn’t know.” Miles ran a hand through his hair and looked up at the mountain on the horizon. The asylum was there, waiting, and the hair on his arms stood up. “I’ll figure this out. If they try to say I’m some monster there’s a chance I can just deny it all.”

“But what about the video evidence? Don’t you show up on night vision?”

Miles hissed and turned the radio on. “I try not to think about all the ways I’ll be found out,” Miles said and tried to force a smile. “Makes this seem less like a suicide mission.”

The mountain rose up high against the skyline but soon vanished under the cover of the pine forest they entered. The last time Miles had driven this road it was dark, it was also dark when he fled the mountain on foot. This was the first time he was seeing it in the daylight. He never made it this far down when he lived at the asylum. Mostly he was afraid of being spotted, or worse.

When they were roughly halfway up the mountain road Miles turned off and took the Jeep down a poorly maintained logging road. “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to hide the Jeep here,” Miles explained and found a clearing now overgrown with long grass and bushes. “If there are Murkoff agents up there I don’t want them to see us coming. It’s best to hide the Jeep down here and go the rest on foot.”

Waylon gripped his pantleg and nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

Miles got out and tossed some branches he pulled off of trees onto his Jeep. It wouldn’t fool anyone on the ground, but it helped to mask the bright red vehicle from the sky, or so he hoped. “It’s not a long walk,” Miles said. “I’ve done it before, we’ll be there well before sundown, trust me.” They trudged through the tall grass until their made it back to the main road.

Waylon was about to grumble something when he saw Miles stop and stand up straight. “Upshur?” He said the other man’s name when he didn’t say anything or move. “Everything ok?” He watched curiously as Miles wordlessly took a few steps forward before his feet lifted off the ground and he started to float. “Upshur?” Waylon said a bit shaper. Nanites began to swirl around him and his skin shifted to black.

“Host.” R’s voice cut through the static that had suddenly rushed into Miles’ skull. Miles blinked and noticed he was flying. He shook his head and landed. R appeared beside him. “Are you alright?” Worry seeped into R’s static and replaced the one that Miles had been hearing. “Host what were you doing? Your mind is clouded.”

“Someone tried to restart the Engine,” Miles said quietly. He shook his head and blinked rapidly.

“Restart the Engine, what does that mean?”

“I don’t know,” Miles admitted. “R and I trashed that lab so thoroughly I doubted anyone could get anything working again. I guess we were wrong.” He turned back to the road and looked up at the asylum they could barely see above the trees. “Something pulled me,” Miles said. “I don’t know if you can feel it, like I can. This mountain, this place, it calls to me and I can’t help but listen.” He flexed his hands and coaxed claws back into nails. “Sorry if I worried you. R snapped me out of it.”

“No, I can’t feel it.” Waylon said and looked at Miles, concern written all over his face. “Are you sure we should go up there? Maybe we should just turn around now? Especially if things are… calling to you. That can’t be good.”

With a shake of the head Miles replied, “No, we came all this way for a reason, an important reason. The mountain has always had this effect on me, ever since I became the host, and maybe even before that. It’s ok, I just haven’t felt it in a while, caught me off guard. I’m fine.” He started to walk again and he could hear Waylon follow behind. Miles shook the nanites off his skin and hoped he didn’t freak out Waylon too much.

“Hey,” Waylon asked, “if they restarted the Engine will they be able to control you?”

Miles shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. The Engine just seeds the nightmares, opens up the mind to be infected. It can’t control a host, there’s never been any reports of it doing that. Project Walrider was designed to create an independent, free thinking, bio weapon, ideally one that would follow orders but was also able to think on its own in the field.”

“Someone like you?”

“Someone like me,” Miles confirmed. “Billy got really close, he was mostly in control, however he wasn’t free living, he had to be connected to life support to survive.”

“Why don’t you?” The question has hung around Waylon’s mind for a while. From what he understood of the project all the hosts needed complex life support systems to just live. He had seen the large rooms dedicated to the keeping them alive. “Why are you different?”

“That’s the million-dollar question Park. I don’t know, and neither does R. I was never put in Engine therapy, my mind wasn’t primed the normal way, and I wasn’t infected by the books either, it happened suddenly. R half expected me to die.”

“And it half didn’t?”

“We… It’s hard to explain. When I was going through the asylum that night there were… times I could feel the Walrider. He could feel me too. It wasn’t unheard of, but the connection between us was already there before I was primed.” Miles turned back to see how Waylon was reacting, the other man’s face was puzzled but not outwardly rejecting his explanation. “That connection shouldn’t have been there, normally R has only felt it between people who had been exposed to the Engine, I hadn’t at the time and as the night grew on it got stronger. By the end, when I was in those labs, the static was practically screaming inside my head. I could feel it vibrating in my bones.”

“We have often said you were born for this, for Us. We still think that this might be correct.”

Miles stretched and levitated again, gently floating along the road, there was no one to see him besides Waylon. “I really don’t like thinking that this is what I was born to do,” Miles said. “I always thought my destiny would be something… better? That I’d change the world with my writing… childish dreams I guess.”

“What did it say?”

Miles turned around so he could talk to Waylon face to face, since he was floating he didn’t have to worry about tripping. “We’ve been talking a lot about how I became his host. R thinks that I might have been born for this exact purpose.”  

“That’s an idea,” Waylon said and tried to act like seeing a man float wasn’t strange. “You don’t think there’s something inside you that makes you different right? Like you were created and-”

“Nah,” Miles interrupted with his dismissal. “Let’s not get too science fiction novel plot here. I doubt I was part of any secret program, nothing like that. There might be truth to the idea that there are certain people who are able to host the nanites easier than others naturally. If that’s the case then it’s very possible that I was just one of those people.”

“Lucky,” Waylon commented. “If you weren’t you’d be dead.”

Miles grimaced. “Yeah still on the fence about my luck level through that night. Was I lucky that the window was open? That Father Martin found me? That he recognized I was different? Was it luck that I killed Billy and in doing so was infected?”

Waylon couldn’t answer that. “You survived, that has to count for something.”

He laughed at that. “I did indeed survive. In fact, that seems like one thing I’m good at.”

“So,” Waylon started, “you can fly?”

The question caught Mile by surprise. “Yeah? How else do you think I got us over that fence back in Nevada?”

“To be honest, I had my eyes closed.”

“I can fly,” Miles confirmed. “Back when I lived up in that asylum I very rarely walked anywhere. But up there there was no one to see me and run screaming.” He shrugged. “Humans can’t fly, so I haven’t. I am little disappointed that my control was so weak and I started to moments after leaving the public eye. I thought I could hold out a bit longer.”

Miles laughed but Waylon didn’t see what was so funny. “You said before that there was a lot you haven’t shown me.” Miles nodded. “How much haven’t I seen?” A shiver went down Waylon’s spine as he watched Miles consider the question, the fly around him and land up ahead without answering it. Maybe that was for the best.

It was a long walk but eventually they could see the main gates of Mount Massive Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Miles purposefully ducked back behind the trees, he hadn’t smelled or heard anything out of the ordinary and R didn’t report finding any guards, but they couldn’t take the risk. Waylon followed behind him. “I said I’d never come back here,” he said under his breath.

“Me too,” Miles said, “funny how we end up breaking personal promises the most.” He peered around the trees and tried to get a good look into the buildings. He couldn’t see any new vehicles; the riot trucks were still sitting abandoned outside the front door. It was possible that they parked around back near the entrance to the labs. He wanted to be sure they were alone before he brought Waylon in. “I’m going to take R and go scout, you stay here, keep low and out of sight.”

Waylon nodded and watched Miles leave cover and had to hold back a gasp as black nanites swirled around Miles and he leapt into the air flanked closely by the Walrider. “The guy wasn’t lying, he really can fly.”

Miles went straight up into the air, he was hoping he was quick enough that he didn’t draw any attention. The sky was annoyingly clear which made it hard to hide. He stopped his ascent and looked down at the asylum. “R do a sweep of the labs while I fly over the main buildings, stay invisible to the eye and be quick. We’ll meet back here.”

“Understood Host.”

He watched R dissolve into a cloud and vanish down towards the entrance to the labs. Miles turned and flew down to the familiar circular arrangement of buildings. He could see from above that the courtyards were still empty and that the electric fencing hadn’t been turned back on. He dipped down lower and flew past a few of the windows to the male ward, he couldn’t hear or see anything. The female ward he didn’t bother checking, it wasn’t being used when Murkoff had control of the facility and he doubted they sent anyone there now. The prison block didn’t have many outer windows much to Miles’ annoyance. So he had to enter and do a quick sweep on his own. The smell of rot never left this part of the asylum. There was so much death here, both during the riot and after. He moved quickly, only touching the ground to bypass some blocked sections and air locks. He only checked two of the cell blocks before he found a window to bail out of. There wasn’t anything living in the building, he was sure of it. He would have smelled the faint trace of life even through the stink of death.

He also skipped the vocational block, he never explored that building while he stayed on the campus and Murkoff didn’t seem to keep anyone there so he ignored it. He looped around the courtyard and flew through an upper window of the old show ward. He never did settle on what to call this secret section of the asylum. His feet touched the clean tile floor soundlessly and he walked the empty halls looking for people. This was one of the nicer parts of the asylum, but eventually it was overrun by Variants and they couldn’t help spoiling it by spilling blood and guts. He sighed and shook his head. It was a pity; this place would have made a decent base of operations. Miles peeked into the various offices on the ground floor and found nothing, not even the lingering smell of a doctor or employee.

Miles opened the main door and took to the sky once more. The last building he had to check was the Administration Block, this was where he expected to find traces of Murkoff. Someone had to gotten in to restart the Engine. He still wasn’t sure how they managed to do that, R thoroughly trashed the labs on their way out of Mount Massive a over a week ago. He cautiously went in through a third-floor window and stalked the halls silently. There wasn’t any sign that anyone had been in there since Miles left. The second floor was when Miles finally confirmed that someone had indeed been through the building. He picked up traces of human scent that didn’t have the taint of the Engine on them, they weren’t Variants.

But the scents were old by a few days and nothing fresh hung in the stale air. He moved to the balcony and looked over. There didn’t appear to be anyone downstairs on the first floor either and he couldn’t spot anything that looked out of place from when he was living there. It was puzzling. He vaulted the ledge and fell to the ground floor. He jogged up and down the main halls and even stopped into the security room, but all the cameras were still down. Nobody had bothered to reboot them or reengage the door locks. Miles paced back into the central lobby and stood to think. They were here, but they didn’t seem to do anything other than look around.

There was a buzzing in his head, not unlike the sound of the Engine he heard on the night of the riot. It sounded different though, higher pitched, not as comforting. Perhaps R had some more news. He walked out of the main door and flew up high above the asylum to where he saw a cloud of black nanites waiting for him. “Anything?” Miles asked.

“They were down in labs a few days ago.” R reported. “There were tire tracks leading into and out of the loading bay. A few of the computer terminals were missing and the server room was picked over.”

“Luckily we tore the place to hell,” Miles said. “They did end up sending a reclamation team. The rest of the asylum is dead, there was nobody around. I caught some scents of Murkoff soldiers in the Administration Block but it was stale, at least three days old.”

“It’s strange Host,” R started. “You are clearly picking up on the Engine, but We couldn’t find any trace of it in the lab.”

Miles’ eyebrows knit together. “So the Engine really is dead?” R nodded. “Then what is causing the static? It’s not you, you sound different.”

“We do not know, it worries Us. Perhaps we should leave here. Something is wrong Host.”

Miles glanced down at the empty asylum and said, “No, we have to at least spend one day and night here picking it clean of any documents we left behind. If we don’t I’ll regret it.” He placed a hand to his head and focused on R’s static, the frequency that had been vibrating his bones for weeks, the one he had grown used to. “I can deal with the strange interference. Perhaps the Engine isn’t as broken as we think it is and it’s trying to give off some sort of signal that I’m picking up on?”

“Possible. It makes Us uneasy. Proceed with caution Host.”

“Yeah. Let’s go down and meet Park, we’ve kept him waiting long enough.” Miles leaned back and dropped the Swarm out from under him so he could free fall for a bit. It felt so good, it felt natural. He turned over on his stomach and slowed his fall so he could land lightly in front of Waylon who let out a small cry of surprise. “Shit, sorry!” Miles shook off the nanites from his skin and took a step back. “It’s just me and R, don’t panic.”

Waylon watched as Miles seemed to go from a second Walrider back to a normal looking human. He’d seen it a few times before, but it was always shocking to see. “Jesus don’t do that!”

“Sorry,” Miles apologized again. “I should have landed away from you and shifted before walking into sight. I forget… what I’m like. I’m still new to this.” And that was true, even though it felt like he had been this way his whole life in reality it’s only been a little over a month. “Anyways, the asylum is clear. There were traces of Murkoff personnel but they’ve long since cleared out. We can go in.”

“And the Variants? Any sign of them?”

“No,” Miles said.

“I can’t believe they all died.” 

“Yeah,” Miles said. He didn’t mention that he gave the kill order a few days ago. “I guess they ran out of food or finally killed each other.” He started walking back towards the front gates. “I’ll need your log in info for the computers. You had a level three security clearance, right?”

“I did… how did you know?”

“It was in your patient file. I read that a few weeks ago.”

“Why do you need it?” Waylon asked. “All that should have been deactivated.”

“Should of being the key phrase here.” Miles explained. “Murkoff is a company that seems to pride itself in the total destruction of their enemies.  If they were proper in any way shape or form they would have deleted you from the system, but they’re over confident that assumed you’d never leave their clutches alive. All your stuff is active, I guarantee it.”

“Even though I’ve been spotted with you?”

Miles thought that over. “Yeah, he said, I’m pretty sure they still haven’t taken any action. They probably have full confidence that they’ll recapture me and kill you. I still think they’re being idiots but their loss is our gain. I’ll need your clearance, chances are you had more access than they let on. The clearances went up to level five so three is pretty good.”

“I could get into the lower labs, if that’s any help.”

“Normally it would be, the none of the security doors are locked down there, R and I have been coming and going as we pleased. There’s a few areas that were put under lockdown during the riot, biohazard warnings and all that. But R and I can open most doors, we haven’t met one we couldn’t pull open.”

“Right, I should have expected that.” Waylon was a bit in awe at Miles’ strength and he hadn’t even seen it. “So what are we going to do?”

“Well, it’s still earlier enough in the day, if you wanted to walk around I won’t stop you, I have something I want to do before I dig into research, but we are here to gather info. I understand if there’s something you want to confront, you know, to help let things go.”

Waylon mulled that over and nodded. “Yeah, now that you mention it there are a few things I want to do, now that I’m back in this hell.”

“The Administration Block has full power, or at least it did a week ago, but the other buildings don’t so don’t get caught after dark unless you have a way to see, you can take a night vision camera if you’d like. I think we should stay in the Administration Block, it was my old territory.”

“Territory?” He asked.

“Yeah, the Variants carved up the asylum and divided it into territories that had a ruling Variant. Of course, being the Walrider, I could go wherever I wanted and was rarely harassed. I had my own territory too, I claimed the Administration Block and the Labs. Mostly because I didn’t want people disturbing me while I worked. Nobody challenged me because, once again, Walrider.”

They passed by the old security station and through another gate and then the full height of Mount Massive Asylum loomed before them. “I cleaned up the Administration Block while I lived there, it smells faintly of rot, but it’s a lot better than most places. Exercise caution as you walk around, there’s still piles of bodies and organs lying around.”

Upon entering the Administration Block Waylon was immediately overwhelmed by the smell. It was part rotting bodies, part stale blood, and part wood rot. “God it reeks, what do you mean this place smells better?”

Miles chuckled and said, “You should smell the other buildings. This is like a nice flowery field.”

“What’s the moldy mildew smell?”

“Probably moldy mildew? The basement where the generators are is still flooded and holding water. I never bothered trying to pump it out after the riot.” Miles leapt into the air to grab the railing and haul himself over but he heard Waylon yelp and he froze and landed instead. “Let’s uh, use the stairs. I’ll show you were I lived for a few weeks.”

“S-Sure,” Waylon said and trailed behind Miles. For Waylon this was weirder than it should have been. Not only did he have memories of this place with organs and blood scattered around but he also knew it when it was full of employees and executives in fancy suits. He followed Miles up the stairs and down a hallway that seemed relatively unmolested. “This area doesn’t seem too bad,” he managed to say to break the awkward silence.

“No, there were heavy glass doors that were locked during the riot, most of the executive offices were left well alone, especially after the staff evacuated.”

“The staff dormitories are in this building why didn’t you sleep there?”

Miles replied, “There were people already living there and I didn’t want to kick them out. Mostly followers of the Gospel of the Sand, but a few other non-hostile Variants and patients. I let them crash here because it was better than being eaten out there.”

“Eaten?”

“Yeah, cannibalism was popular, especially as the food ran out.”

“What…” Waylon almost didn’t want to ask. “What did you eat?” With his high metabolism and demand for massive amounts of food, Waylon didn’t know how Miles managed to survive without, as he put it, losing control.

He caught Miles grimace and reply, “A lot of canned food. There was a ward that hadn’t been raided by Variants in the direct days after the riot and I ate that.”

“There was enough? No offense, but you eat a lot.”

Miles shrugged. “Yeah, there was enough to feed the patients for a month so there was enough to feed me for a few weeks.” He lied easily enough and he knew Waylon bought it. There were problems he had with admitting that he ate people once, and sometimes willingly to himself, there’s no way he’d say that to another living soul. It was also a real fear that Waylon would bolt instantly if he knew. He could only push “survival” so far. Eventually there was a line where what he did was unacceptable no matter the reason or situation.

“Is it really cannibalism if you aren’t human?”

“Am I not human?” Miles asked back. “We’ve had this talk. I’m human in genes but not in anything else, that was what we agreed on right?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, R is arguing semantics on me. He asked that if I were to eat a human, god forbid, would it be cannibalism since I’m not human?”

“Odd thing to discuss.”

“We’re an odd couple of beings,” Miles said. “The jury is still out on what the hell I am. We think that my genetics haven’t been touched, so technically I’m human. But like, morphologically? I’m not so sure.” Miles stopped at the door to the office he lived in and pushed it open. “Here’s where I stayed,” Miles said and stepped inside. “It’s not much but it doesn’t smell so that’s a bonus.”

Waylon stood beside Miles and looked around. The room was filled with stacks of papers and books. “You sure were busy.”

“I was planning on staying a little longer and digging through more, but you forced my hand.” Miles walked over to the desk and pumped in the password. “Ever use your security clearance?”

“What do you mean? Of course I did, how else would I have gotten down to the labs from the dorms?” He looked over at the computer Miles was standing in front of. “Oh, you mean to access information, get into stuff on the computers. I didn’t, no,” he answered. “Level three was given to both technicians and scientists so I could have accessed certain parts I’m sure. However, each computer we were given was monitored everything from notepads that we opened to our internet history. There’s no way they wouldn’t have noticed me digging around places a software engineer wasn’t supposed to be. And with Murkoff they don’t give warnings.”

Miles thought about that for a moment then said, “Well feel free to use it now.”

“Right I guess it can’t harm me now. Shouldn’t they block access as soon as they catch me trying to get in?”

“Should is the keyword here,” Miles said and straightened up and stretched. “You see Murkoff seems to think that they cannot make mistakes. They assume that once they take a person out of the picture they remain out. And why bother removing access from a person who won’t ever breathe another free breath? They’re lazy and overconfident, a huge security flaw.” Miles reiterated again.

“That might be true, but they know about me now, they know I wasn’t disposed of. Wouldn’t they move to block me now?”

“I doubt it. They still probably think they’re going to catch us and I doubt they guessed we’d swing back to Mount Massive. Returning here was probably low on the list of things were they expecting. Just try out your passwords and login information next time you have a chance. It could save us some time.”

“Are you going to get to researching right away?”

Miles shook his head and said, “No, there’s something I have to do first, someone I have to visit.”

Waylon was going to question it, Miles said everyone here was dead, but he didn’t. If there was someone still alive Waylon sure didn’t want to meet them. “When you do start looking, try searching for the names Helen Granat and Jeremy Blaire. Blaire was my boss’ boss, one of the heads of this facility, and Granat I never met, but she was one of the leads on Project Walrider. Never saw her much on account of the facility being dangerous to women.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for their names as I search through this mess.”

Waylon looked around the room. “Mess is certainly a word.” He toed a pile. “Are these organized?”

“Yes,” Miles said and stepped away from the desk. “Basic background on nanotechnology is on the left by the fireplace, Murkoff history is in the stacks to the right of the fireplace, these four piles,” he gestured to the ones by Waylon’s feet, “are for email receipts between non-locked accounts, the three stacks to the right of them are locked accounts. Everything from here,” he divided the room in half with his arm, “to the wall is Project Walrider research notes, and the stuff on my desk is various shit I was pawing through before I left but deemed wasn’t worth it to bring.”

“Are we… bringing all of this back?”

“No, I don’t want to risk transporting that much material. I realize that whatever we leave behind we could lose, but we have to take that risk, we don’t have the luxury of spending a year on this project, we have at best, six months.”

“Why six?”

“A half a year is a good estimate, any longer and we risk not being relevant enough to spark interest or change the public’s mind. Murkoff might lay the foundation so thick and sturdy that no matter the evidence we can’t bring them down. I can’t have that happen. We have six months.”

“Six months…” Waylon thought that through. “So April…”

“At the latest,” Miles confirmed. Miles looked around at all the information still sitting in piles, all of the possible leads, the emails could prove their story or be evidence for jail time. There was so much and it killed him to know they were leaving it behind, but it just wasn’t feasible to transport so much when their car space was limited, they were on the run and had such a short timeframe to work in. “This trip is all about finding any information on that second project. Of course, I won’t be upset if we find more about Project Walrider, but R and I have that particular experiment covered. I’ll be heading down to the labs tonight to look, there has to be something we overlooked here. If R didn’t even know there was a second experiment with three Walrider like creatures in this building… well it must be hidden well.”

“I’ll be staying above ground, if you don’t mind.” He couldn’t stop the shiver. “I wouldn’t be any help anyways, I was only called in to service the Engine, I was never allowed in any of the other halls. And they only permitted us to use the elevator in the Administration Block.”

“That’s fine,” Miles said. “R and I can handle the labs, we’ve been down there enough that the unease has worn off. I might have died down there, but I’ve forced myself to move past it.”

“Move past or pack away?”

“Hush, you.” Miles frowned and moved by Waylon. “I’ll see you later tonight,” he said with a wave.

“Where are we going Host? You said you had someone to visit?”

“Yeah,” Miles said and leapt the railing, it was scary how easy it was to fall right back into the swing of living at the asylum. The movement felt fluid and natural and he didn’t stumble when he hit the floor. He looked around and frowned. “I know I said I wouldn’t miss this place but…”

“Familiarity isn’t a bad thing,” R said and moved to open the doors to the courtyard. “As long as you don’t suddenly want to stay We are ok with you feeling relaxed or happy to be here.”

“Shit R, I shouldn’t be happy to be back, that’s the fucked-up part.” He walked out into the courtyard and stretched. Once more his feet wandered off of the ground and he floated just above it. Miles let the nanites swirl around his body and move around the air around him. “I don’t even know if this is happiness or just… relief? I can be me and not have to worry about anyone seeing.”

Laughter rippled through the static, but it still sounded off, stilted. He could hear R as he spoke, “We told you that it would be hard to hide.”

“No, I seem to recall you saying I would have no problems, that you were confident I wouldn’t lose control.”

“And you haven’t. We haven’t been wrong. But you’re beginning to understand what We meant when We told you that you are different from humans. You can pretend and masquerade as one all you like, but this is waiting for you, waiting to be set free.”

Suddenly Miles blinked and saw himself through the eyes of R. He saw the way the nanites swirled and brushed his skin, and how his silver irises cut through the darkness and the stark contrast of his teeth against his nanite darkened skin. Then he blinked again and saw through his own eyes once more. “I didn’t know you-we could do that.”

“There is still much you do not know.”

Miles laughed. “I have a feeling there’s a lot you don’t know either.” R didn’t answer but he could feel some negativity float through the static. “Come on, don’t lie to me,” Miles said and elbowed the Walrider. “You’re figuring this shit out as you go, same as me.”

“If relenting would make you pleased then sure. We are “figuring things out”.” R even raised his hands to make air quotes around the phrase. Miles was so proud, his nanite monster was really growing up.

After crossing a few fences, a few were locked so they had go over, they arrived at their destination. It was then that R understood who Miles was visiting. “Hey, David,” Miles said and stood underneath the twisted branches of the tree that was his gravestone. “I uh, I came back…” He looked over at R and said, “You can go if you want, I’ll call when I’m ready.”

R hesitated in leaving his Host alone. It was this human’s death that sent his Host into a spiral and he wasn’t confident that he was stable enough not to relapse. But in the end, he did as his Host asked, and left the other man to sit on the ground and talk to a friend lost.

Miles watched R walk away, he didn’t go far, but it was enough that he felt a bit of privacy. “I called your wife, Ana, just like I said I would. I don’t go back on my promises, you’ll see.” Miles set his hand down on the dirt that he knew covered the body of his friend. Nothing had started to grow over it, it was too late in the season. “I would have brought flowers but I don’t think you’re the type to care.” He chuckled at the thought. “Besides, I’d feel bad about leaving the other graves bare. None of you deserved this.” He said the words that he knew they all would agree with. “None of you were truly bad people… some of you made mistakes, but damn you didn’t deserve what happened to you.” The only thing that calmed the thought was that they didn’t die a slow and agonizing death from tumors, both fleshy or lead.

“Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if you were still here. If you had come with me down the mountain. I think you would have liked Park. He worked down in the labs, but he wasn’t a bad guy, he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into, he was a lot like you. He was the one who blew the whistle, the one who brought me here. I wonder what you’d think of that? I wonder what your religion would have thought of that?” Miles leaned his head against the smooth bark of the tree and looked up through it’s scattered leaves to the sky above. It was a clear sunny day, so much unlike the day his friend died. “Park’s a good guy. He has a family too. I promised him I would protect them. I intend to keep that promise too. Hey David?” He paused and waited for an answer that wouldn’t come. “I think you made the right choice not to involve your family. I am… afraid for the Parks. I really am. I’m strong David, you know that, but I don’t know if I’m that strong. I don’t know if I can take on a whole army or even more than a dozen armed soldiers. Maybe I won’t die… but them? Fuck, David you humans are so weak.” Miles smiled, he knew David would have corrected him or argued that he wasn’t different. “You did right, is what I’m getting at. I’m going to try my absolute hardest to bring Murkoff to justice, so they can pay for what they did here, for what they did to you, and me, and even Park. I want to keep all of my promises, I really do.”

Miles sighed and looked back down at the grave. “Park doesn’t talk to me, not like you did. I think I scare him. Sometimes I just want someone to make me feel normal again. R doesn’t count, sometimes he makes it worse and doesn’t even know it.” He felt the static flick his mind in objection. “I think if you were here things would be better. I would be less stressed that’s for sure. Maybe you could have calmed Park down in a way I couldn’t? Maybe the military wouldn’t be hard on my ass.” He cracked a smile. “Oh yeah the military is on my ass. To be fair, it’s a fine ass.” The courtyard was quiet and still. “David I… I hope you found your peace. I’m still looking for mine, I don’t think I’ll find it until Murkoff is out of the picture. But I’m happy for you. Sometimes I’m sad, but you were my friend so of course I would be. But I don’t know… you survived a hell that only one other person on this planet has survived. If anyone deserved to find peace, it’s you.”

---

Waylon trailed Miles and R from a distance. He wasn’t spying on them, or at least, he didn’t intend to. They were just walking in similar directions. He had to hold back a gasp whenever he saw Miles fly up over a fence or just float in general. It really was like watching two Walriders haunt the grounds instead of one. Eventually Miles and R went somewhere that Waylon couldn’t follow, but he could still see them through the chain link fence. He saw Miles stop at an old gnarled tree. Then the Walrider moved away from it’s Host and Miles sat down under the tree. At first Waylon didn’t understand, Miles had said he was visiting someone.

That’s when Waylon looked harder at the courtyard. It was then he noticed the rows and rows and graves, the soil still undisturbed by plant life. There was a massive number of graves dug. Waylon understood then. The person Miles was visiting was dead, probably one of the ones he mentioned who died of cancer. It was hard to imagine that anyone could have made a friend in this hellhole, but Miles had managed somehow. He could almost see it, Miles had enough charisma that was for certain, but he wasn’t sure it was enough to override the fact that he was a monster.

Waylon turned his back to Miles and left him to his grieving so he could do some of his own. The way to the old Vocational Block wasn’t too long, but it was littered with physical barriers. Last time he was here he crossed from the Male Ward into the Administration Block but he didn’t want to travel through the inner hallways, especially with the power being on and off. He felt safer outside. Though he didn’t know what he had to be afraid of, according to Miles nobody was left alive in the whole facility.

The sun was still in the sky, but sinking lower when he finally reached the gates that emptied into the Vocational Block. The last time he was here it was dark and he was disoriented by blood loss and panic. This time his mind was clear but he still carried the limp that he received on these grounds. Waylon walked along the side of the building. He wasn’t quite sure why he was here, but he just felt like he should be. It was something he couldn’t explain and maybe never would be able to. The wall shifted brick types and Waylon knew that they had hit the part of the building that was a more recent addition. Before the asylum was purchased formally by Murkoff they had paid to put in a new gymnasium and cafeteria. Eventually the plan was to convert much of this space into a gym space for Murkoff employees and the cafeteria would serve protein shakes and other health foods. As far as Waylon knew, they hadn’t finished the conversion. Now they never would.

There was a shift in the air, Mount Massive didn’t smell great, and outside was a bit better but there was a noticeable difference when he reached the area around the gymnasium. Waylon knew why. He knew that just beyond that brick were the decaying bodies of dozens, maybe a hundred men. By now he was sure that the bodies had fallen to the floor, heads still suspended by the rope around their necks. He knew that the humming in his ears was either static of the drum of thousands of tiny wings as flies feasted on rotting flesh. He prayed it was the Engine coming back to haunt him.

His feet stopped in front of the double doors and he faced them. There was no way he would be opening those doors, he knew that. There wasn’t any amount of money in the world that could convince him to do that. However he did sit down cross-legged by those doors and think. This was the place that almost killed him. Out of all of the terrible things he experienced that night this was by far the worst. He still dreamt of that table saw, still felt the hands of that monster on his thighs, caressing his skin and burning it away with an acid touch. After he came back from the hospital he scrubbed and scrubbed but nothing could make him feel clean again. When Waylon closed his eyes he still saw flashes of mutilated men and the mockery of birth they had been subjected to. Sometimes if he wasn’t grounded he could still feel his legs lift from the ground as the rope around his neck tightened and he swung helpless like a slaughterhouse carcass.

A gentle wind blew from behind and Waylon was thankful it didn’t come from inside. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there, staring at the doors and thinking about the night of the riot. The sun hadn’t set so it couldn’t have been more than a few hours. He blinked and tried to call himself back. Somewhere an old radio still played songs about catching the perfect wife. Waylon shivered. He stood on wobbly legs and leaned against the door. Waylon knew that if he didn’t open the door at least once, if he didn’t glance inside and confirm it he wouldn’t be able sleep soundly for the rest of his life.

 But he wasn’t opening this door, no, it was locked tight with a padlock and he wasn’t going to search for the key. Instead he walked back the way he came, around the building to a side door. One that he knew lead to a broken elevator and dirty hallway. His hand was shaking when he placed it on the handle, but he steadied his nerves and pressed on, opening it up and stepping inside.

It was dark, musty, and smelled of rotting wood and flesh. He crept forward, his shoes crunching on broken glass and tile. Quickly he glanced down the elevator shaft but the elevator was waiting up at the third floor, he wanted to see if his blood was still visible on its top. Then he moved a bit faster around the corner and passed by the entrance to the cafeteria. There was a storage room to his right that he also ignored, once on that dark night he took shelter there, among the forgotten cans of beans of oil. There was a batter on the third shelf, he remembered that vividly for some reason.

Someone, or something had shut the double doors after Waylon had fled from the gymnasium that night. Waylon hoped it was a Variant who was just trying to block out the sight or smell of the slaughter. But maybe it was someone from Murkoff Tactical. He didn’t care too much. The stench of rot was now the only thing Waylon could smell. It was something he knew he would be smelling for years to come, something like this didn’t just leave the mind. This place scarred him, maybe beyond repair. But there was one scar he hoped to begin to heal over right now. He steadied himself and pushed the door open.

His eyes took in the horror around him and didn’t even flinch. Dead bodies littered the floor, bloated beyond recognition. Some of them split open down the side, stiches pulled apart by trapped gasses trying to escape. This sort of horror he had become long desensitized to. His stomach flipped and he gagged but there was nothing in his system to throw up. This place robbed him of an appetite too. On courage he didn’t know he had he bravely stepped into the gymnasium.

The Groom as the Variants had called him was still pinned in the center of the room. His body had blown up around the pipe and prevented him from sliding off. Waylon stepped over bodies and waved flies away. Many of the corpses had already started the process of liquifying and he paid special attention not to step in any fleshy soup. Maggots wiggled and writhed and the air was nearly choked him with fumes. He didn’t get sick or even gag again, maybe the man he was two months ago would have, but he wasn’t that man anymore.

He grimaced when he finally reached the wretched monster’s corpse. Even now, weeks after, he felt no remorse for this man, if he could even be called such. “Upshur is more human than you and he’s infected with the goddamn Walrider.” Waylon bent down and picked up a piece of shattered wood. With it he tipped his nightmare’s face up and laughed. He laughed long and hard, foul air entering his lungs and he didn’t even care. This. This was what had stalked his dreams and occupied his thoughts on dark nights. This bloated corpse, this face twisted and puffed beyond recognition. He laughed right at him. Then dropped the wood and walked away.

He gave the room, the place that was almost his tomb, one last look and slammed the doors shut. The clean air outside helped to filter his thoughts and he stopped chuckling like a maniac.  Waylon pulled his hands through his hair and crouched down. He was shaking again and he couldn’t tell why but he felt deep down that maybe he was going to be alright after all. Maybe.

---

“Host this is a dumb idea.”

“I am aware,” Miles said as he forced open the elevator gates and dropped down onto the stuck elevator. He slipped inside and pressed the floor for the lab. “But if we don’t figure out what this strange static is I feel like I’ll go crazy, for real.”

“We doubt that.” R said and crossed his arms. “You are not that weak. We know this to be fact.”

“Reassuring.” Miles stepped out of the elevator and swore softly as the bright walls stung his eyes. He kept them covered as they adjusted slowly and walked forward. “Not knowing the cause of this will bug me is all. We need to figure out what is wrong with the Engine and then hunt around for the other lab.”

“Perhaps it’s in a different basement?” R suggested.

Miles thought about that. “Could be, but why would they do that? And what building would they use? We’ve searched this mountain pretty thoroughly and haven’t found another entrance. They would need a large one, like the bay here,” Miles gestured out the window to large loading docks. “The kind of equipment they needed for Project Walrider was large and extensive, the life support tanks alone must have taken months to install. From the sound of that document there were not just one host but several. All that equipment, it had to go in somewhere.”

“What if they used the loading bay here and transported the equipment below ground? Would that work?”

“Again, possible. But it makes me wonder why exactly they’d have to separate the projects? Cross contamination?”

“The humans were keeping secrets.”

Miles paused, his leg mid stride. “The humans were keeping secrets… Exactly! R that’s exactly why! There were things they weren’t telling Wernicke even about Project Walrider. Murkoff was moving to have him removed from the company all together, but Wernicke couldn’t just be disposed of, he knew too much about Project Walrider, how it worked, so they had to keep him on. But he was unhappy with what his research was being used for…” Miles trailed off as they passed by the man’s office. “He was a prisoner too, in a way.” The static rippled in agreement. “But still a horrible person.”

“Human morality is so strange.”

“Sorry R your dad sucked.” They continued down the halls and Miles kept talking. “So if you never felt the other hosts or nanites, and Wernicke didn’t know about them, and neither did Brown then we have to conclude that this other project is either funded privately or by another country.”

“That makes sense.”

“But then, why house the two projects so close to each other? That’s a security flaw waiting to happen. Especially given most of the scientists down here probably had the highest level security clearance, they would have been confused if they couldn’t open every door.”

“Hidden doors? After the second laboratory was finished they could seal off the entrance and build a second one for human use only.”

“Also possible and if that’s the case, highly frustrating. We don’t have time to comb the whole facility.”

“We could do it while you sleep.” R suggested. “The plan is still to leave tomorrow morning correct?” Miles nodded. “Then if we come up with nothing here We will search the grounds while you rest.”

Miles nodded. “I’m ok with that. Unfortunately if you don’t find anything either we will have to leave. We don’t have the time to paw through the facility.” He hated admitting that, but it was truth. They couldn’t waste time searching for a lab that might not even exist. “There’s a chance that the email wasn’t talking about a laboratory here.”

“No We remember the document entirely. It was sent from Mount Massive Psychiatric Facilities in Mount Massive to a place called the Zeichner Facility. We remember this. They were here, they are not anymore. It has bothered Us to no end.”

“I believe you, it was late when I read the email.” Something was poking at the static that Miles felt daily. “Do you feel that?”

“A bit, yes. A sharp high pitched stab?” Miles nodded. “It is like something is trying to make contact but speaks a different language.”

Miles frowned. “The Engine?”

“We do not know. It feels like it.”

“Do you remember the Engine having different settings? Perhaps it’s as simple as that? The Engine might have two frequencies, yours and theirs.”

R shook his head in disagreement. “We do not think that would make sense. Surely We would have felt it before. The Engine was always on when We were alive. It was always seeding new hosts.”

They entered the large chamber where the Engine sat. It was still wrecked and the room was still in ruin. Just like before Miles began to feel nauseous as he got closer to the ruined Engine. R placed a hand on his back for support. “I’ll be fine,” Miles said. They walked around the Engine and looked for any signs of life.

“It’s not working Host. There’s nothing inside broadcasting out. The static isn’t coming from this.”

“Then why haven’t we felt this before?” Miles reached up to touch one of the broken screens then recoiled as his hand shifted to monstrous claws without his command. “The fuck?” Miles stepped back as his body suddenly dropped the human disguise and his true form emerged. He looked from either of his arms which were black and coated with nanites. The Swarm swirled around him and the static roared louder in his head. Miles tried to focus on his human form but he couldn’t call it back. “R what the hell? I can’t get back to normal.”

R resisted the urge to say that this was normal and instead asked, “How do you feel? Are you in control otherwise?”

“Yeah, I don’t feel any different there’s no like, voice, or anything if that’s what you’re asking? It just happened so suddenly…” Miles ran a careful claw through this hair. His tongue could feel the sharp teeth that accompanied this form. “There’s something going on here, something that I’m picking up on.” He turned is attention to R. “What about you? You ok?”

“Fine. We were just startled at your sudden shift. We are still under your direct control.”

That was reassuring. Miles caught his reflection in a window, it was like seeing two Walriders, only one was clothed and had hair. He looked back to the broken Engine and kept walking around it. Last time they were here the Engine was still running and it made him feel sick, gave him a headache. This time he still felt sick but there was no headache. “R what if… what the Engine was masking it the whole time?”

“Like a barrier?”

“Yeah. So the effects of this thing are pretty widespread right?” R nodded. “I mean it was affecting women up in the Administration Block and the Hospital Ward. So it’s powerful and unfiltered. So now I’m guessing there were two Engines here. This one, which is most likely older, and another, younger one.”

“That makes sense.” R looked over at his Host and said, “We are approximately sixty-six years old Host. As you know We were first created in the land you call Germany. Then We were taken by ship to the place you call America. We bounced from lab to lab during those early years. But wherever We went some form of Engine followed. This particular one is newer, but it was not originally from Mount Massive. It was moved with Us from the previous laboratory.”

“What are you getting at?”

“This Engine was moved here, it’s possible that another was transferred too. We are just guessing, but We think that the other project started elsewhere too and was moved here when We were moved here. Side by side.” R flew up the round globe structure and tore a hand through it. “In the chaos of the move We would not have been able to sense something like another Engine. It is hard for Us to be moved like that. Before you, Host, Our ability to understand the outside world was limited. Our hosts were limited. Moving Us took a great deal of planning, all of the Hosts had to be on life support and even that didn’t save them. There were many times that We were forced to jump hosts because one expired. With each jump We would become disoriented.”

“And that combined with the new location would be enough to throw you off of the trail of any new Engine.” Miles started to cross the room and was heading for a door. “We need to check down here, I know for a fact that we didn’t cover every hallway the first time.”

“It’s starting to make sense,” R said. “This Engine, Host you would not know this, but this Engine was made stronger after it arrived here. We just thought the humans were getting desperate and wanted to speed up the seeding process. But now We are starting to understand. Its power was increased to keep the seeded hosts and Ourself from detecting the other Engine.”

“We need to find it,” was all Miles said. The first hallway the picked was lined with cells, all of them empty. Miles started to jog then took off at a sprint. R flew beside him and was unwilling to leave his side even when ordered to spread out. Together they worked their way through parts of the lab that they didn’t see on their original mission to trash the place. Doors that were hidden behind recesses in the wall, obvious, yet hidden if you weren’t looking for them. But nothing in these sections seemed to have anything to do with the other project. Miles slowed to catch his breath and to paw through some of the documents. They were patient reports and experiment outcomes for Project Walrider. They knew that the other project was using security protocols that were different from Project Walrider and any documents wouldn’t be labeled with Project Walrider.

“We’re getting close,” Miles said. He had stopped in the middle of a bleached white hallway. There sterile smells were irritating his nose and the bright lights were hurting his eyes. “Wish I hadn’t left my sunglasses in the Jeep,” Miles commented dryly. The other static was still in his head, but it was stronger. He tried to follow it, but he wasn’t sure it was working. It felt stronger down one particularly bare hallway. There weren’t any signs and the rooms were unlabeled. “Were they still moving in?”

“Not that We know of, but obviously We don’t know everything.”

“Feels nice to have you knocked down a peg.”

R shoved him. “We have always been at a disadvantage and you know that.”

Miles scoffed, “You sure don’t act like it.”

“We have learned much from you but there is still much We do not know.”

After a few minutes of walking they finally hit a heavy metal door. “This is probably it,” Miles said and placed a hand on the door. It felt thick and heavy. The static was definitely stronger here. “Do you see an ID scanner or anything?” Miles asked. He started to look around but he couldn’t find anything. “It could be opened from the inside only…”

“The we will need to force it open.”

Miles looked at the door, it was pretty solid. “You think we can? What if there are steel locks on the other side?”

“Time for you to figure out just how strong you really are.”

He pressed his hands against the door and braced himself. R did the same beside him. “On three?” R nodded. “One, two…three!” Together they pressed against the door and heard it groan. Miles grit his teeth and put more effort into it. The door started to bend a bit and he took a step forward to avoid letting up. It gave way for one more step but then refused to budge any further. Miles pushed as hard as he could, his feet slipping against the concrete floor.

“This is not all you are,” R said. “You aren’t using all of you.”

“What do you…” Miles was about to question him but when opened his eyes he saw his darkened skin and the nanites. “…Good idea, I wonder…” He thought back to that first day he was the Host. On that day he summoned a blast of nanites or wind or both that was strong enough to open the gates and push his Jeep down the road. Miles wasn’t quite sure how to do it again as he pushed and threw his body against the door he could feel the nanites whip around him. With one final heave he commanded the nanites to push too and a strong wind appeared seemingly from nowhere. It was enough to snap whatever was holding the doors shut on the other side and blow Miles forward through the door.

He landed in an ungraceful heap on the floor. Miles groaned and rolled over onto his back. When he looked up R was standing over him and offered a clawed hand. An equally clawed hand reached up and grasped it so R could haul him up. “Well,” Miles said and looked at the strong set of doors that were nearly ripped off their hinges, “that sure is one way to do it.” He turned around and observed their surroundings. They were standing in another lobby, but this one was smaller and didn’t have a front desk. There was just a single map on the wall, some lighting, a bench and a set of metal letters that spelled out “Murkoff”.

“I guess if you knew how to get here you didn’t need any further instructions.” Miles approached the map and gave a look over. “Shit, this place is pretty big.”

“Not as large as the labs we just left,” R commented.

“So it looks like if we go right we’ll hit the individual labs and staff offices, but if we go left we’ll be taken to the holding cells for the patients.” He put a talon tip on the center of the map. “It’s arranged in a circle around this.” There was a label that said Engine Chamber. “Where do you want to go first?”

“We do not care, We know you will take us through all of it so it matters not where we start.”

“Then lets do the offices first. Maybe we’ll find something useful. If they leave their documents out like the others we’re almost guaranteed to pick up something useful.”

Miles pushed past the double doors separating the lobby from the labs with ease. It was locked, but compared to the door they just broke through it might as well have been open. This part of the facility looked spotless the riot couldn’t have spread here. It was probably what other labs were originally like. “Does this place give you the creeps or what?” Miles asked.

“We do not get “the creeps”.” R said.

Miles just rolled his eyes and stopped at the first door they came to. There was no nameplate outside to indicate who the office belonged to. Miles kicked the door open. “I feel like an action star when I do that,” Miles said and walked inside. The first thing he noticed was that it was completely empty, not even a computer sat on the desk. “Huh… perhaps this office wasn’t being used?”

The one next door to it was also empty, no office chair, no folders, not even a printer. “I have a bad feeling about this,” Miles said. With each door they forced open they continued to find nothing. “R, double back and check the cells. Tell me if there’s anything there.”

“As you wish Host.” R dissipated and left Miles to work.

There were no more offices left, Miles had now entered the set of labs. But those, like the offices were also cleared out. He opened refrigerators, cabinets, closets and storage containers everything was empty. There was no trace that Miles could detect of the experiments that once went on here. He growled in frustration and tasted the air. He couldn’t even pick up the faintest scent of humans. Nothing remained except the static in his head, high pitched and threatening to drill a hole through his skull. “Well, that’s one thing they left behind,” Miles muttered.

R returned shortly later and reported that there were no humans left in the cells, living or dead. “Host We don’t understand how this happened. If there were people down here while we lived above ground. How did we not notice?”

“I don’t know,” Miles shook his head. It was beyond frustrating. “We would have heard them pull up in any vehicles, you would have felt them, even if they came in around back. It’s possible… it’s very possible they did this during the riot.” Miles left the lab he was in and headed down the hall towards the Engine room on the map. “The riot lasted a good few days, it took Murkoff Tactical a while to get here and start putting the Variants down. I didn’t arrive until the last day, thank god, I don’t know if I could have survived more than a few hours. When Hope first used you to start the riot this lab must have went on lockdown. They probably have an emergency exit.” Miles stopped outside of another lab but didn’t go in, just looked in through the window. “The way this place was cleaned out, it was efficient and professional. They probably ran drills for this.” 

“Do you think the laboratory where We lived had similar protocol?”

“I’m sure of it, but I don’t think they were prepared for the full destructive force of a pissed off host.”

“Billy was only partially in control too. Think about the damage you could have done.”

“I don’t really need to think or imagine that. We’ve already seen what I can do.”

The static, R’s static, rippled with amusement. “Oh Host, I don’t think you’ve even scratched the surface of what you are capable of.”

Miles sighed. “I want that to bother me, I really do.” They approached the Engine room and Miles said, “Look sharp. We don’t know what to expect.” The static was heavy in his head. He tried to drown it out with R’s but the interference was just giving him a migraine. He opened the door and they stepped into the Engine room. It was much like the other Engine room, a big round dome shaped space with a globe in the middle. Only instead of spheres of liquid there were horizontal tanks.

Miles started to approach one but stopped when he felt R’s claw on his shirt. “Hold, Host.” He froze obediently. “It’s on. We don’t see screens it might seed through a different method.”

“Could I… I’m already bound to you, I can’t bind to another can I?”

“We… We do not know. We have been the only one for as long as We’ve known. You’re the only Host that has been able to live freely. There is much We don’t understand. Be careful.”

“Yeah, I don’t think I could deal with two of you,” he said with a shallow laugh. “So they left it on, but why? Think they forgot?” Miles stepped away from the tanks and instead went to a bank of computers along the wall. “Damn it, I don’t know what any of this means.”

“Perhaps we should grab the other human. He works with computers does he not?”

“Yeah good idea Park might know what this is. He worked with the software on the Engine used with Project Walrider. They might be similar enough that he could get it to shut down.”

He felt the static ripple in a growl. “We could shut it down just fine with claws.”

“Mmmm that we could.” Miles rested a hand on R’s arm and said, “But not right now. We don’t know if there’s any information stored on it. We should extract it if there is before we destroy it. Remember we still don’t know anything about the other hosts. With the labs cleaned out this might be our only chance.”

Once more he approached the tanks, but cautiously. He was listening to the static in his head, listening for any changes, for the high pitched one to get stronger or penetrate any deeper. But it stayed at a pretty constant rate. “It didn’t take long for me be primed to accept you.” Miles said as he cautiously peeked into the tank. “But that was probably because I had already experienced an active battlefield before coming here. My exposure to the Engine was limited, very limited.”

“You met the other requirements so it didn’t matter, once We got in that was it.”

“Can hosts fight off infection? Can they fight off you?”

“We don’t know. Maybe? It has never happened before and We will never know.”

“Right,” Miles said and went to the next tank, “because you think I’m your last Host.”

“We know you are Our last Host. There is no one left and We won’t let you die.”

“I wonder how this system works? There’s no nightmare screens for them to watch.” Miles looked around for some sort of screen but he wasn’t seeing anything. “Maybe they don’t use nightmares to open up the mind for these nanites?”

“It’s possible Host. We have no idea. The frequency is off, this static feels wrong.”

“It does feel wrong, but that’s probably because I’m used to you in my head. This feels almost like an intruder.” Miles walked from tank to tank and looked inside. They were all empty but then he spotted something floating in one. “Hey, R? I think there’s a body in that one?” He stepped a bit closer. “Yeah, R there’s totally something in there. Poor fucker, must have died ages ago.”

R was curious like his host and approached the tank. “It is odd Host. This entire facility is clean, why leave a body behind?”

“I don’t know, maybe he died and they didn’t feel like moving a single corpse? Maybe they forgot he was in there?” That seemed doubtful, the place was entirely emptied out, even the trashcans were empty. “It’s odd,” Miles breathed in the air deeply, the only thing he could scent was chemical wash and metal. “If they did leave during the riot than this body is weeks old, even in water, even in preservatives it should smell, but it doesn’t.”

They reached the tank and Miles peered inside. “The hell?” It was the body of a guard, fully clothed. “This isn’t a test subject.” He reached down to grab the ID badge hanging from a clip on the jacket. That’s when the man’s eyes opened suddenly. “Holy shit!” Miles yanked his arm back. “Fuck, scared the shit out of me, are you ok sir?” But the man didn’t reply. It was then Miles noticed something about the guard’s eyes. The irises were silver.

The guard moved to open his mouth, but all that dribbled out was a silvery white sludge. Miles took a step back and the high pitched buzzing reached a crescendo inside his head. R caught what was about to happen a moment too late. “Host move!” He shouted and reached for Miles just as a swarm of silver dust rose from the man in the tank. It swirled in a large cloud above the tank then dove for Miles. “Host! Nanites!”

Miles was stunned and quickly overwhelmed by the cloud of mechanical particles. He tried waving them away from his face but he could feel them swarm his mouth, nose, eyes and ears. In seconds he could feel them burrow into his skin and flow through his blood. A voice sounded inside his head that wasn’t R and he couldn’t figure out what it was saying.

His eyes flared open as pain shot all throughout his body. The fire in his blood was just like before, it was exactly how he felt when the Walrider first invaded his body. Miles screamed in pain and dropped to a knee. He could feel the new nanites, a sensation that was completely foreign to him. He could feel them trying to break into his marrow, trying to nest in his bones. But something else was also stirring inside him. While there were microscopic pinpricks of pain he couldn’t control, there were many more he could. The Swarm, his Swarm. “Fight,” Miles choked out. “Kill them,” he ordered.

Miles struggled to stand and felt the solid arm of the Walrider under him. “Host!” R knew what was happening and kept a firm hold on his host both in body and mind. There was something else inside that wasn’t his Host. Something that didn’t belong there. R snarled, “Mine.” He could feel his cells flood his Host’s body and tear at the intruders, engulfing them, destroying them, purging them from his Host’s system. R had the upper hand, his cells outnumbered the intruding ones by double and he had control of producing more. For each cell of his that intruders destroyed three more could be made to replace them in seconds. He also had a Host. Miles was fighting too, he had control of some of the swarm and was ordering them seek out and destroy the foreign nanites with sloppy but deadly precision. They were working together and for a moment R felt like they were truly one.

Miles shuddered and bent over to vomit up black dead nanites and bile. The next heave added silver and red to the mess on the floor. “Host?” Miles’ body had gone still, but the battle was still raging inside. R could feel the pull of his Host’s mind on the Swarm and on his cells. Miles’ eyes had gone completely black and his mouth hung open, a black mist of nanites swirled out. He choked on bile, coughed, vomited then screamed one last time before falling completely limp in R’s arms.

---

Waylon cautiously walked through the halls of the dormitory part of the Administration Block. He had passed by the old cafeteria with the beautiful view and avoided the old lounge because there was a TV on that gave him an uneasy feeling. When he first arrived at Murkoff he thought it was a dream job come true. Sure security was tight, but the facility was nice, his pay more than made up for the distance from home and his coworkers seemed like good people. Then he took his first elevator ride down to the basement and realized the horror that waited just under the surface.

He paused outside of his old room, the door wasn’t locked he forgot to do that when he left for work that day. Someone had already been inside but he expected that. Miles had said that others took up residence in the dorms. When he stepped inside he was surprised to see that the room was in fairly good shape. The bed was made with clean linens, his desk had some papers but all his possessions were still there. Even his travel case was under the bed. Waylon was honestly expecting to see blood and horrors when he opened the door so this was a welcome surprise.

His closet still held some of his clothes and he pulled a few shirts and a jacket from their hangers. Then he rooted around in his drawers until he found his old car keys. Waylon wasn’t sure if his car was still in the employee lot, or the impound lot but he’d ask to head over there tomorrow. He slipped the keys into his pocket. A sad thought crossed his mind that the house key that shared the ring would never be used again. Waylon sat on the bed and put his face in his hands. “How had things gone so wrong?” He didn’t have an answer.

On the bedside table was a framed photograph of his family. He picked it up and looked at their smiling faces. It seemed ages ago. He would get through this, he would get back to them. He survived the riot and he would survive this. Something Miles said drifted into his head, “We’re survivors Park.” “Survivors,” Waylon mumbled. It was true, they were and they would keep on surviving. He took the photograph and packed it in with the clothes he was putting in the small travel case. They had enough room in the Jeep for a few more things. “I wonder…” Waylon grabbed his keyring from his pocket and singled out a tiny key that fit in a lock on his desk, he turned and opened it. “It’s still here!” His old work laptop was still here, Murkoff hadn’t seized it. He put that in with his other things and before he left he gently tore off some of the pictures his sons had given him.

Waylon was in pretty good spirits when he reached the office Miles was using as a base. On these upper floors it was easy to forget that the riot had even happened and he could pretend it was just another abandoned office building. When he opened the office door he was surprised that Miles wasn’t there, he thought that the other man would have been back by now. Surely it couldn’t have taken that long to pay his respects?

Waylon shrugged and put his stuff down by the couch near the desk. There was another couch against the wall and Waylon assumed that he would be sleeping on that one. He debated going back and grabbing some bedding off his bed in the dorm, he also debated sleeping in there but the thought of being alone in the asylum at night didn’t sit well with him. Perhaps he would go later in the night to get blankets, and bring Upshur along too.

He figured he could get started going through emails. He grabbed a stack from the locked accounts pile and sat down on the couch. Time slipped by and he was nearly halfway done before a shadowy figure appeared in the doorway. Waylon nearly screamed but couldn’t hold back jumping. “Oh, it’s just you,” he said when he noticed it was the Walrider. However when he looked closer there was something in its arms. He almost didn’t notice because it blended in with the Walrider’s body. The Walrider crossed the room and gently placed the figure on the other couch it was then he realized it was Miles. “What happened? Are we in danger? Is he ok?”

R turned away from his host made an exaggerated sighing motion before he found a spare pad of paper and a pen. “Our Host is fine, just exhausted. We found the second laboratory. There was a nanite swarm down there. It tried to bind itself to Our Host. Our Host fought it off but is very weak. He needs rest.”

Waylon read the note and for a moment was impressed with R’s handwriting, it was very nice. But he shook those thoughts from his head and focused on what was actually written. “Is it gone? The other Walrider?” R nodded. “I mean, is it dead?” R nodded again. Waylon looked over at Miles who was out cold. The other man was breathing so that was good, but it was soft and he looked pained. It was hard to tell due to his features being obscured by nanites. “Why does he look like that? Like you?”

R took the paper back and wrote, “We don’t know. It happened suddenly down in the basement. Our Host was forced to shed his human disguise and hasn’t been able to reclaim it. We think he will be able to put it on once he recovers.”

Waylon frowned and looked back at Miles. “I hope so, there’s not too many places we can go if he looks like that.”

R took up residence on the back of couch, perched over his Host protectively even though he knew there was nothing on the mountain that could harm him. If he was being truthful with himself he was scared. He almost lost his Host today. R realized that he almost died. If the other nanites had won R would have been ejected out of his Host’s body and without another suitable human he would have ceased to exist.

It felt like a long time ago that Miles had brought up his mortality. R had argued that he wasn’t alive and thus couldn’t die. But after today he was beginning to rethink his argument. There was a chuckle in the static and out loud. “You were afraid,” Miles croaked out.

“Host,” R warned.

“I knew you were alive, I knew it and you disagreed with me, but now you know too.”

“Host,” R’s tone turned dangerous.

Miles just laughed and opened one eye to look up at him. “Hey, bright side, you didn’t die.”

“You almost did,” R reminded him. “You need to sleep. You need to rest.”

“Where am I?” He moved his head and winced, everything currently hurt. “Oh, hey Park.”

“Hey? Miles what the hell happened? You look terrible.”

“Feel terrible.” He tried to sit up but quickly abandoned that when his blood felt like fire again. “R can tell you the story,” he said and let his head rest against the cushion. “I’m going to pass out again.” He closed his eye only to open it again and say, “And stop thinking so much R, you’re making a racket.”

Miles could feel the static ripple in amusement, just one layer of static, just his static. He couldn’t feel the other Engine at all. He let the familiar buzzing sound lull him back to sleep. The time to discuss what had happened would be later, for now he needed to heal the inside of his body. Miles could feel R poking around in his head, checking to make sure there were no traces of the invading nanites. He could also feel that R was digging in deeper. “Getting protective are we?” Miles said through the static.

“We won’t lose you.”

“R?” Miles waited for the static to acknowledge his question. “Want to know something funny? I’m actually glad to have you. I felt… relieved? Safe? At peace when I came to and felt your familiar presence. I was scared that I would pass out and wake up with some new monster in my head. But it was you R, and I’m glad.”

“Sleep Host.” But R was glad too, he didn’t want this bond, this host, to end.

Chapter Text

“You’re really sure you’re ok?”

“For the last time, Park, yes,” Miles said and wanted to be exasperated, he really did. But for once Waylon’s concern seemed to be genuine. The other man eyed him carefully, he could pick out fear as well as worry. “I’m sorry if I worried you.”

“The Walrider, it just… laid you down on that couch and I thought you were dead.”

Miles chuckled, which hurt, so he stopped. “If I died R wouldn’t have been able to carry my body anywhere. Once a host dies the Swarm, the Walrider has a limited time to search out and jump hosts. We were too far from anyone down there so we both would have died.”

“It jumped to you pretty quick,” Waylon remarked.

“Hope was done for,” Miles reached for a file, winced, and pulled his arm back to read the paper. “To R the choice was clear, he could search for someone else, or pick me. He picked me.”

“What a choice that turned out to be.”

Waylon flinched as the Walrider appeared beside his Host. Miles just rolled his eyes. “Where were you?”

“We did a sweep of the facility.”

“And?”

“Nothing Host. Still nothing.” The Walrider poked Miles and asked, “And you? How are you?”

“Ugh, I’m fine, stop asking you’re as bad as Park.” Miles grimaced. “No you’re worse for sure.”

“You are still in your natural form. Are you sure you are ok? Usually you wish to put your human mask on as soon as possible.”

“Yeah still having issues with the whole “look human” thing,” Miles said and shook out his hand, it was still coated in nanites and tipped with claws. “R what happed to the Engine down there? The other Swarm?”

“Both are gone.”

“Both?” Miles pressed a hand to his face and groaned. “I told you we needed that Engine intact to mine data from it.”

“We were very upset.”

“I understand and I appreciate that you’re willing to defend me but we needed that information, it was the whole reason we came back.” Miles looked up and gestured to his bag. R retrieved it without hesitation. “Ok, so, I still can’t move well,” Miles said and dug around in the bag. He pulled out his camcorder. “But we can’t leave without some more proof that the other lab existed. So you’ll have to go down there and shoot some video.”

“Us Host?”

“No Park here,” Miles said and Waylon’s head shot up. “I’m kidding Park, yes you R.” He handed the camera over to R. “Do not break this,” Miles said. “Well, break it any more than it is. Go down to the labs then start filming from the hallway into the second lab. I want you to go through the lobby, through the abandoned offices and laboratory rooms, then around to the cells before finally heading into the Engine Chamber. I need clear shots of everything, nothing shaky, and it has to look like I filmed it, so walk don’t fly. Get good shots of the Engine, the tanks, the guard, everything. Understood?”

“Understood Host. We will do as you ask. We have no cho-”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Just go ok?” He could tell R was going to ask if he would be ok, he cut him off. “I’ll be fine. I’m not so far damaged that I couldn’t protect myself or Park. We’ll be fine.” R nodded and left the room, but Miles could feel some reluctance in the static and a small tug as he got further away.

“So…” Waylon said from his seat on a nearby chair. “Does this happen to you often?”

“You know, you’d think that based on these past couple of days. But no, I don’t typically get shot up or left for near dead all that often. It’s been a uh, an interesting month.”

“No, I mean your appearance. Do you have this problem a lot?”

“Once or twice,” Miles admitted. “Mostly when I was new to this. A few times when I was stressed.”

Waylon scooted closer. “How does that work? What am I seeing when you’re normal looking? An illusion?”

“I’ll be honest with you Park, I’m not sure. I know that the nanites are darker in color, and I know they normally rest on my skin surface, like another layer I guess. I think I pull them back in to expose the “human” skin,” Miles used air quotes around human. “The eyes I have no idea, my sclera turns black and I’m not sure what causes that, or the silver irises. My teeth are just grown out and dissolved when I shift forms, same with the claws.”

“So like, they come out of your pores right?”

“I think so? I never paid it much mind, they just appear when I need them.”

“You are so weird,” Waylon said and looked at Miles, who was basically a monster sitting on a couch. “Do you know that? You’re weird.”

“I never would have guessed,” Miles said and cracked a smile.

“Why can’t you turn back right now?”

“Well I’m still fucked up from fighting that other swarm, so that could be it. I have troubles maintaining a human appearance when I’m exhausted, hurt, stressed, asleep or flying. I was hurt pretty badly a bit ago, so I’m probably recovering. However, the transformation wasn’t voluntary on my part.”

“What do you mean?”

“Even before the fight I was like this. Something down in the labs forced me shift and I couldn’t get back. So I might be recovering from my injuries, or whatever it was that forced me to shift the first time still has a hold on me.”

“What if you can’t get back?”

Miles frowned. “I’ll be able to get back, I haven’t been unable yet.”

“What happened down there?” Waylon asked. “The Walrider explained a bit, but it wasn’t much. It just said you encountered another host.”

“Well… my memory is a bit foggy, but we found a second lab, the one they were using for the other project. We had to break in, there was this big thick steel door. The labs were deserted Park, they took everything. There wasn’t a single thing left behind…well besides the body,” Miles added.

Waylon just raised a single eyebrow and Miles continued, “You know the spheres down in the Morphogenic Engine room? Well this Engine used like… tanks. I’m not sure what they used as the priming device since there weren’t any screens. But all the tanks were empty besides one. There was the body of guard in it, I thought he was dead, but when I got close a swarm emerged from the body and tried to infect me.”

“Why was it down there?”

“I don’t know,” Miles said. “I wanted to discuss it with R when he comes back.”

“Was it on purpose? Like defense?”

“Possible? It definitely would have killed me if I didn’t have my own nanites running defense. I was barely able to fight them all off.”

Waylon nodded. “Can I ask, how it felt? To be… to have those things inside you?”

“Oh,” Miles thought on it for a moment. “When R first infected me it was hard to tell what pain was his and what was from the beating I took. But this time I could feel each nanite, each cell… it was really weird, there’s no way to describe pain in your blood. The weirdest part was feeling my cells fight other cells. That’s an odd sensation.” Miles leaned back and rested his head against the couch. “Now though? It’s a lot different. It’s like… a buzzing in my bones? You feel full of energy all the time but also exhausted. R’s pain is mostly gone. It doesn’t hurt to have him inside me anymore-” Miles snorted. “Definitely could have phrased that better.”

Miles stood up and felt the world swirl. “Oh fuck.” He steadied himself on the arm of the couch and took a few deep breaths.

“Should you be up?”

“I gotta piss,” Miles said. “And I want to wash up. I’ll just be down the hall.”

“What happened to your shirt?”

Miles looked down and lifted it up from his chest. “Oh, I uh, threw up nanites all over it. I should probably wash that.” He winced.

“Don’t bother, just take one of mine,” Waylon pulled out his travel bag and tossed a button up towards Miles. “We’re probably the same size.”

“Where’d you get this? I don’t recall you having a bag when we left.”

“I went back to my old dorm room here, to see if anything was left behind.”

Miles grabbed the shirt and said, “Thanks, I appreciate it.” Waylon waved him off and said something to the effect of “you’re already doing so much for me”. He stepped out of the room and started down the hall. It only took a few strides before he started to feel better, stronger. He figured maybe all he needed was to get his blood pumping again.

The staff restroom wasn’t far and Miles couldn’t help smiling at the familiar sink and mirror. True to his word he took a piss but he was more interested in his reflection. Miles tossed the shirt he was wearing to the floor. It landed near some others he had shed over the time, shirts and pants that had become too bloodstained or dirty to be worth washing.

Miles stretched, putting his arms behind his back and pulling. His skin was black all over which was what he expected. In these situations before it wasn’t just his arms that were coated in nanites but his whole body. In this form he couldn’t see the scars from the bullet holes he received, but he could still feel them. A curious thing he noticed was an increase in the silvery sections that ran up his arms and across his chest. Miles traced them, they looked like veins but he knew that he didn’t have any that moved in the way these lines did. At least not natural ones. He pulled up a pant leg and saw the same vein like structures twist up to his knees as well. “Odd, I’ll have to ask R about it.” The silver color made him shiver, the other nanites were silvery, but he was certain these weren’t foreign they were his. He had to admit, they did add some contrast he was digging.

 

Miles chuckled and flexed. “This summer’s hottest look just bled into fall,” he remembered the dumb comment he made that first day about his appearance. Only this time he actually didn’t mind how he looked. His body still seemed too thin, when he ran his hands down chest and sides he could feel every muscle. The protective layers of fats were long gone. He sighed. “Going to have to do something about this, maybe when we’re not on the run…” He turned the water on and glad to see it was still working. It ran cool and clean, just like before. He splashed his face and ran a hand through his hair. “This is turning into a bust,” Miles muttered. Sure they found the second lab, but they hadn’t found any new information, nothing they could use anyway. He dried his face with a hand towel and tossed on the shirt Waylon had given him. He didn’t bother buttoning it up, his claws made that a task he just didn’t care about.

He looked in the mirror again and rolled his eyes. “Ok it’s been fun but we really need to look human again,” he said to no one. When he thought about shifting nothing happened. “What is going on? I can’t be that hurt still… residual effects from that Engine?” Miles shook his right hand out and much to his surprise the nanites receded a bit. His skin cleared up to his elbow. “Hmmm…” Miles turned his hand over and examined it. “Progress…”  Before he left he drank a few mouthfuls of water from the faucet and washed the gross out of his mouth.

Waylon looked up from the papers he was reading when Miles returned. Miles said triumphantly, “Got my arm back!” He flopped back down on the couch and reached for a stack of papers.

“Just your arm?” Waylon asked.

“Baby steps Park, baby steps.” He sifted through the papers, they weren’t particularly interesting. They were food orders from the first years of the asylum’s operation. “We’ll leave tomorrow morning, early. This trip’s been for nearly nothing, sorry for dragging you back here. I know it’s hard.”

Waylon shook his head. “No it’s ok, I think maybe it was good for me to come back. Face some things I was maybe avoiding.”

“R and I will carry a few more boxes of documents I left behind. Chances are high they’re going to be filled with nothing, but it’s better safe than sorry.”

“If the US government is involved… Will any of this even matter? Will it be enough?”

“God I hope so.” Miles stretched again and said, “We can only expose as much as we can and hope the legal systems in place do their job. Or the play public so hard an outrage is inevitable, one that no one can ignore. Go so viral other nations catch wind of the stink here.”

“Murkoff is a world-wide corporation… can’t they just pay everyone off?”

“I’m not sure… I don’t think even they have the money for that. But what they can do, and will do, is break off and segment themselves. They’ll let one or two branches take the full heat for this mess. But the company itself will live on in their sister corporations and under different names or leadership. You don’t own this much and get taken out easily. We’ll be dealing with Murkoff for years to come, but hopefully in an industry that isn’t weapons.”

“Upshur they know you’re… you.”

“They do,” Miles didn’t deny it. Denial wouldn’t help him at this stage.

“Someone is going to expose you. There’s no way they’ll let you win, they’ll drag you down too.”

Miles nodded. “That’s an outcome I’ve thought about, yes.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Not sure yet.” And that was the truth. He hadn’t come up with a concrete plan. He knew R would want to fight and live free but he wasn’t sure if that’s what he wanted for the rest of their lives. The other alternatives were equally as grim. “It’s not something I want to put too much thought in. None of my options are good, and I’d rather focus on bringing Murkoff down instead.”

“It’s my fault.”

“Stop it,” Miles said sternly. “We’ve been over this. I don’t want your apologies or your pity. I agreed to do everything, from going to Mt. Massive at the very start to speaking Richard at the base. You never forced my hand. There’s no blame to assign to you.”

“But if we had stuck to your plan you never would have been found out.”

“Not true. We can’t say that for sure. There’s a chance Murkoff still would have tracked us down. Hell there’s a chance I could have blown my own cover. Shifted in public or let R become visible for a moment. I show up on night vision so if I tried to sneak in somewhere again I could be revealed as not human.” He gave Waylon a brief smile. “My life became infinitely more complicated when I was made the Host. Maybe… maybe this outcome was better. Get my secret out there from the start so I don’t have to worry about it.”

Waylon glanced at Miles who was still covered in nanites save for his right arm. “I just feel bad is all. I get to go back to my life after this, to my wife and kids. And you… you don’t get your life back.”

“Eh I didn’t want it back,” Miles lied. “I wanted to go big, that’s been my dream for years. I’ll go big, bigger than any journalist before me. That’s one dream down, I’ll just work on another. I’ll be fine Park. Let’s worry about today and not months from now.”

“Yeah I suppose the future doesn’t matter if we die now. I do feel bad about the whole Richard mess though. You have to admit, that was my idea and it backfired badly.”

“It was your idea,” Miles agreed. “But Park listen. I’m hundreds of times stronger than you. I can rip prison doors off their tracks and bend metal with my bare hands. I can fly, survive assault rifle shots at near point blank, and have control of a destructive nanite technology. If I didn’t want to do something there would be no way you could stop me. You told me what you wanted, I weighed the risks and suggested my friend in the military and that was that.”

“I guess…”

“Don’t worry about it. Let me worry about my life and my choices.”

“I hope Lisa and the boys are ok,” Waylon said.

Miles said confidently, “I’m sure they are. Your wife is made of fire she’ll be more than fine.”

“Too bad I’m the one Murkoff wants. I bet Lisa would be more helpful to you than me.”

Miles chuckled. “Hey, if things don’t go further down the shitter, I was thinking that it would be nice to you back to them for Thanksgiving dinner at least. Meet up at a restaurant somewhere. I think that would be good for you.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll hang out with R somewhere else, give you some time with your family.”

“You wouldn’t have to do that,” Waylon said.

“Hmm, no I think I would. Lisa still probably thinks I’ll snap at any point and kill forty people.” He stretched out horizontally on the couch and put one arm behind his head for support. “You’ll deserve some time away from me when Thanksgiving rolls around. Trust me the break will be needed.”

“Are you that annoying?”

“Maybe,” he said. “But close quarters with anyone gets rough after a few weeks. I’m surprised I’ve only tried to kill R once.”

Waylon looked up, an expression of surprise on his face. “You tried to kill the Walrider?”

“I guess technically I’ve tried to kill him twice, but only once since becoming the Host.” Miles flipped through the reports halfheartedly. “I think it was around two weeks into being the Host I tried to kill him. It was just after I learned that there was no way to be separated from him unless I died. I was very upset, unstable, I launched on him down in the labs and tried to tear him apart. It didn’t work. Ended up hurting myself in the process and R had to practically carry me back upstairs.”

“Takes guts to try to kill that monster. I would have run. In fact I did run. The Walrider was in the medical ward, you saw, I ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction.”

“Don’t blame you. Though I can’t relate.”

Waylon nodded. “That’s right, you were saying something earlier about how you think you were made to host the Walrider. You weren’t scared of it during your run through Mt. Massive?”

“Nope,” Miles replied. “And that’s the truly weird part of that night. Maybe I was just desensitized to all the bullshit around me? Or maybe at some level I knew not to fight R? When I try to think back to how exactly I felt during those moments, well it’s hard. Some of my memories might not be one hundred percent mine. R has memories of that night too and his emotions blur into mine sometimes, contaminating things. I just know that when I caught my first, extended, full body shot of R I was more fascinated than scared.” Miles waved a hand around him. “The great demon of the mountain, spirit in the static, the ghost, monster within, whatever you want to call him. I finally had video proof of it, I wasn’t crazy and neither were the patients. There was something here. I had to know more.”

“You really did screw yourself over,” Waylon remarked.

“I like to think of it as destiny.

“No you don’t, don’t lie.”

“Oh, R you’re back.” Miles sat up a little more and motioned for the camera. “Good, I was waiting on you for some questions.” He quickly played through the footage R shot. “This will do, good work. People might question the lack of commentary, but you can hear your footsteps so that’s a bonus. I can just say I wasn’t feeling very talkative.” 

“We followed your instructions exactly.” R replied and pushed his Host’s legs aside so he could sit down next to him.

Miles let him an adjusted so they both fit. “Ok, so something that has been bugging me since I woke up. Why was that swarm left down there? And why didn’t they turn off the second Engine? R do you have any ideas? I was thinking defense.”

“Defense of what? An empty lab?”

“That’s what doesn’t make sense. You’re expensive right? So would they leave behind one of you to guard nothing. I wonder if it was to protect the very existence of the second lab? Maybe it wasn’t meant as a defense against us, but against another Murkoff staff? A scientist from the original team that wasn’t supposed to know about Murkoff’s second experiment and other buyers of this technology?”

“Possibly.”

“R do you remember any evacuation protocol? Were hosts instructed to guard the Engine?”

Before R could answer Waylon said, “I was briefed on the emergency laboratory evacuation procedures. They spent several hours running through all of my duties. For example, I was given the instruction to completely wipe my computer and assist with the evacuation of the server rooms. If I was hired on full time I had slightly different instructions. Full time employees in my position were given a key to a program that would encrypt all the files in the lab. As long as I was given access to a computer connected to the network I could lock all the files in the whole system. It was supposed to be done at the first sign of an evacuation alarm.”

Waylon stood up and moved to the desk in front of the couch. With a few clicks he pulled open a library of files. He clicked one at random and said, “It looks like nobody did that during the riot. I’m not sure who was supposed to be on duty that day. I was locked up and still a temp worker, I was covering for one of their long-term hires who was out on vacation. The other guy I worked with was a full hire. He should have encrypted the whole system. You’re lucky he didn’t, or you wouldn’t have had access to any of the things you’ve printed.”

“Not entirely true, there are hard copies in Wernicke’s office that date back to the early forties. When the project was in its infancy. We might have lost access to the newest information and maybe some of the more boring reports, inventory, that kind of thing. But much of Project Walrider was backed up.”

“Yes, but the electronic door locks on Wernicke’s office were also supposed to be locked in place. That glass is bullet proof you never would have been able to get in.”

Miles snorted. “Oh really? I’d take you down there but it stinks so I won’t, but I ripped that door off its hinges.” Waylon looked startled. “I told you, I’m strong. I’ve yet to meet a door a I couldn’t pass through.”

“Shit… Well, never mind that then. As far as other security goes… we were told to evacuate with the scientists downstairs. There were lockdown procedures for the main elevators, patients were to be restrained, their wing was supposedly fire resistant. With the data encrypted and the main entrances sealed off they were relatively confident that no one would get in. The other entrances were to be closed and locked after the last staff got out. We never ran any drills though, I’m not sure they were expecting a disaster in the way of a renegade Host.”

“No other Host had ever tried. All had been either too weak to fully control Us, or were obedient to a fault to Murkoff.”

“R says the past hosts were too loyal to Murkoff or too weak to fight. Billy was the first to ever try.”

“And you’re the second… I don’t remember if there was any procedure for evacuating the host or host candidates. That was above my clearance. However I think the plan was to just leave them in the tanks. You said you found a man in a tank down in that other lab? Perhaps they too had a similar procedure?”

“Not left behind for protection then, but… no that doesn’t make sense either. Everything else was taken. There was no sign of life down there. They didn’t leave in a panic. The other subjects were moved out, those “three dreamers”. And I don’t think that guard was a chosen host. I think it was picked much like I was.”

“So you mean the nanites needed a host quickly and jumped to that man? Like how R jumped to you?”

“Exactly.”

“But the guard must not have been suitable so the nanites forced it into the tank to wait for something better.”

“And I was the something better.”

“Yes. It probably didn’t know when the next chance it would get to jump would come, and it was clear you were already a host so you were a desirable target. Too bad We were there, or it might have succeeded.”

Miles shook his head and disagreed. “It almost succeeded anyways, we almost lost.”

“That still leaves one question Host. Why was this swarm left behind? Why wasn’t it taken with?”

“Yeah,” Miles said, “that’s bothering me too.”

Waylon was getting frustrated with only catching half of the conversation. “Do you mind? Could you at least attempt to include me in this?”

Miles looked over and was genuinely apologetic when he said, “I’m sorry Park, sometimes I forget I’m the only one who can understand R. He’s been my only conversation partner for weeks.” He explained, “We’ve decided that the guard in the tank wasn’t a suitable host, that it was like the other hosts R was given, able to keep the cells alive but not much else. So it was waiting for a chance to infect someone new, and I was that chance. That all makes sense, what doesn’t is the fact that it was left behind in the first place.”

“You’d think Murkoff would want a swarm, right? Aren’t they expensive to make?”

“They are, the way Richard was talking about me… about us, he talked about us like one would talk about an expensive piece of equipment or machinery. That we were a product, property. They wouldn’t leave a swarm behind.”

“It was defective Host.”

“What?”

“The swarm. It was defective. It must have been. And that’s why they abandoned it.”

“Defective? R is that even possible?”

“We are half machine and half biology. Both machines and biology can fail. We do not see how this is any different. Perhaps it wasn’t good at infecting hosts? Or had a replication issue. Something that impacted it enough to be considered trash.”

“Interesting…” Miles thought that over. “So you weren’t defective, obviously, as we’re still alive as a functioning Host and Parasite…”

Waylon spoke up, “It’s possible that if it wasn’t defective it was too dangerous to transport without being attached to a host. The swarm is pretty small right? Maybe they didn’t want a containment breach?”

“So they left it down in the lab? Free floating?”

“Maybe it was contained and it broke out after most of the scientists had left and the area sealed off.”

“And what? The guard was left behind too?”

“It’s possible he was there just to monitor a few cameras and saw the broken chamber and went to investigate. Then he was infected.”

“I wish we could have asked it. I wonder if it’s even possible to talk with a swarm when it’s not anchored to a human mind…”

“We…” R trailed off and then got up and grabbed a book instead.

“R?”

“It’s nothing Host.”

Miles knew that was a lie. He could probably force R to tell him but he was more interested in keeping their relationship stable and he didn’t want to fight R or make him feel like he had to tell him everything. He hoped if he gave R space then he’d tell him what was bothering him on his own.

They spent a lot of time going through paperwork and sorting things into more piles. Most of it was useless and they would be leaving it behind when they moved the morning. But some things they decided to take with. Miles was interested in the food logs, he wanted to do a side story if they had time about the human suffering the patients at the asylum faced before everything went to hell. He had a lot of recorded footage from interviews with the survivors and from David. These supply logs would help back up the claims he had on record.

Miles was very adamant in making sure the public knew who the monsters were, who the real villains were. Because the footage alone he knew would mislead its viewers. The Variants were not the bad guys, they never were. It was Murkoff who abused them, Murkoff who pushed them to their limits, and Murkoff who twisted and mutated their bodies and already fragile minds. It should be Murkoff that gets the blame the Variants who receive the sympathy. Even if a few of them had gone for his throat a few times. He couldn’t blame them.

“R do you think those patients we sent down the hill made it? Think they’re ok?”

“We have no idea Host. Why are you thinking of them?”

“No real reason. I guess being here and looking through some of these documents reminded me of them is all.”

“Wait,” Waylon said and put down a paper he was reading, “you did what?”

Miles was quick to explain, “Not every patient and Variant was a murderer before they ended up here. Some where hospital overflow that were transferred to Murkoff, some were volunteers, and some where ex-employees like you. When I learned there was a whole wing of innocents and Variants with clean backgrounds I knew I couldn’t let them rot here. So, David and I concocted a plan to bus all the survivors down to Leadville to the local hospital where they could get real treatment. I never did find out what happened to them.”

“That was risky and nice of you. You didn’t have to do that.”

Miles shrugged. “I felt like it was my duty or something. I survived, I had the power, no the responsibility to help others who lived.”

“You just had a savior complex, or a god complex, or both,” R said from the chair across the room. “Don’t delude yourself.”

“Quiet you. That wasn’t it.”

“Wasn’t it? You weren’t keen on slaughtering them all, but it took a fair bit of convincing before you decided to help any. You sure David’s words didn’t go to your head, Host?”

“Don’t.” The static rippled with amusement but R let the topic drop.

Waylon didn’t know if he should ask what had just transpired. Miles’ voice took on that predatory tone that sent a chill down his spine. “Maybe we could look into it when we’re back on the road?”

“Yeah, maybe. Though there’s a high chance they all just got scooped up by Murkoff again after they caught wind of what happened.” It was something Miles didn’t want to think about. Originally, he had hoped to break the story faster than this and before Murkoff could harm the survivors further.

“And maybe they got away,” Waylon said, though he knew as well as Miles that you don’t just get away from Murkoff. Even if that was what they were currently doing. Those patients didn’t have a Walrider with them which was probably the only reason they’d made it this far to begin with.

The day turned to night and darkness fell around the asylum. Waylon found it hard not to be creeped out. At least the lights in this building were still working. Though some flickered and others were broken creating dark spots in the hallway. He had gone back to his room to grab some bedding to make the chair more comfortable for sleeping. Part of him wanted to sleep in his room, he had the key again and could lock it. But as much as Miles creeped him out the asylum freaked him out more. He would much rather have a restless sleep with Miles in sight than one without. It was a comfort to know that a creature that could rip a human in half was nearby. Especially when all your anxiety and nightmares stem from the place you’re currently trying to sleep in.

He was heading back with an armload of blankets when he heard something in the hall to his left. Or, at least he thought he heard something. Miles had told him this place was empty, and so far that had proved true. They hadn’t seen another soul all day. But they also opened a new area up and maybe something had snuck out that Miles and R hadn’t caught originally. Waylon quickened his steps.

It didn’t take much to get his heart racing these days, any stray thought or rotten day dream could do it. So it wasn’t a surprise to him when he noticed his breathing had increased with his pace. There was another crash behind him, like someone had knocked over a trashcan, or a locker. Waylon shook his head. He was imagining things. He chanced a glance behind him and saw nothing but an empty hallway and a fake potted plant. A light swung ominously but many of the windows were open for ventilation.

A voice sounded behind him, “Hey, need help with that?”

Waylon screamed and dropped the bundle of blankets before he turned and sprinted down the direction he come from.

Miles looked at the blankets on the floor then at Waylon’s retreating form. “Shit, didn’t mean to scare him.” He picked up the blankets and floated lazily back to their room. He would give Waylon a few minutes to recover before he went to go find him. He placed the blankets down on one of the chairs that looked the cleanest. He had dragged a foot rest out from another office so Waylon could stretch out a bit better. Miles had suggested the floor, or even moving a bed in but Waylon said he was fine with the chair. He would offer up his couch but it was soaked in his blood and while he didn’t mind, he knew anyone else would find it disgusting. “I’ll be back R, I freaked out Waylon again. I’ll bring him back.”

“Or you could leave him Host. Nothing will happen to him here, why waste the energy?”

“Because it’s important that we stick together, and I want to apologize for frightening him.”

The static buzzed, annoyed. “That stupid human is not worth the trouble. You should return it to its family and finish your mission alone.”

“Look just because you don’t like him doesn’t mean I have to too,” Miles said. “You know as well as I do that he’s dead meat without me. Without us. And I can’t let another innocent die.”

“There’s that savior complex again,” R said while the static laughed.

“Fuck off,” Miles replied and flipped him the bird while he exited the room. The Administration Block was silent as he moved down the hall. It was quiet before when he lived here, but never absolute silence. There would be a Gospel of the Sand member whispering a string of prayers, the sound of Variants using the recreation rooms, or even the distant sound of a film going on the projector. David was also a frequent companion and kept things from getting too dull, but now everyone was as dead as David and there were no voices, hushed or otherwise. Miles was glad they were leaving in the morning, this quietness bothered him in a way he couldn’t explain.

He followed Waylon’s scent, something he should have found weird but didn’t. The Walrider enhanced his senses and he would be a fool not to make use of them. They had done scent tracking exercises before so he knew how to do it. Besides it wasn’t like there was much for him to pick between, Waylon was the only clear, fresh, human scent in the whole building. The other human smells were three days stale. His nose led him to the staff dorms. Most of the doors were open but one was shut tight, it also happened to be the one that Waylon’s scent was the strongest from.

Miles approached the door and reached up to knock but paused. He could hear Waylon on the other side. There was heavy breathing and the sound of someone desperately trying to cover sobs. Gently Miles knocked on the door and heard a sharp inhale from the other side. It went deathly silent. “Park? It’s me, Miles. It’s just me, it’s ok. I didn’t mean to startle you.” There was no response from the other side. “I know you’re in there, I just wanted to apologize.” He could hear the muffled sobbing return. “I set your bedding on the chair in the office. Again, I’m sorry I scared you, I didn’t mean to.” He knew he could easily break the door down and force his way in but he understood that Waylon’s relationship to this place was different than his own. In Waylon’s eyes he was the monster that haunted his dreams turned real.

So he turned around and went back to towards the office. He ducked into another dorm room and out the window. It was finally night and the cool dark air helped him relax. There wasn’t much space to freefall from the third story window so he flew up instead. He did lazy circles around the campus. High above the stench of death wasn’t apparent. Mount Massive looked a normal complex from the sky. He stretched out and widened his circles so he could pass over the tree tops as well. Miles sighed and rolled over on his back so he could look up at the stars that hung in the sky. The light pollution was nonexistent this far away from civilization and the view was particularly stunning.

He put a clawed hand up and reached for the moon. Compared to something like the moon he felt incredibly small. It was humbling. Recently it felt like so much hinged on him, that hundreds of thousands of lives were hanging on his choices. It was enough to almost drive him to give up and hide. But before the moon and vastness of space and all the stars the night sky held he was put into his place a bit. He saw some perspective. There was much more out there than himself, Project Walrider, humans or even Earth. He was a small, small, part of something far larger. And that comforted him. He was important, sure, but not as important as the sun and his existence was just a small drop in the ocean of the universe.

“Poetic.”

Miles groaned and rolled over. R had joined him on his night flight. “I was an English major,” he retorted.

“We wish we knew what that meant.”

“It means I had a lot of practice in writing flowery speech.” Miles dipped low so he could barely pass over the pine trees. “You ok R?”

“We are as good as We will be. You?”

“I think I’m getting used to nearly dying.” Miles swung back towards the asylum and landed on the roof of a large tower. He never did figure out what it was for. From this vantage point he could see the entire campus and the forest and mountain ranges beyond. R landed beside him and followed his host’s eyes. “It’s beautiful,” Miles said.

“It is. But there’s a whole world out there right?”

“Yeah,” Miles said, “and you know? It’s plenty beautiful too.”

“We are looking forward to seeing it, by your side of course.”

“Of course,” he said and half smiled. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The static rippled and R said, “We think you would much rather have it several other ways.”

Miles disagreed, “No that’s, that’s not entirely true anymore. I mean it is, but it’s not… What happened today… It’s hard to explain or put into words.”

“Hard to explain? Or just hard to admit?”

“I hate how perceptive you are.” The static almost purred in amusement. “Yeah maybe I just don’t want to admit it. Maybe that makes it real or something.”

“You don’t have to say it.”

“Thanks.” Miles took another breath and jumped off of the roof. He angled back up towards the sky so he drop dramatically and catch himself at the last moment. The rush of free falling got his blood pumping a bit and he did another circle around the Administration Block before he flew in through the office window and touched his feet to the floor. R was waiting for him by the fireplace. He had a book in his hand and was busy reading. Miles exited the office and got a drink from the faucet in the bathroom. He splashed some water over his face and ran a clawed hand through his hair and scratched his scalp. A shower would be nice but he didn’t feel like trudging down to the laboratory showers or the prison block ones. Miles frowned at his reflection, he still couldn’t shift to a human form and it was starting to bother him more than he liked to admit. Whatever happened to him down in the labs really messed with him. He hoped it would wear off when they put some distance between the mountain and himself.

He went back to their room and sat down by the main desk. Getting attacked by foreign nanites and passing out for half the day wasn’t in his original plan, there was a lot of lost time to make up for. He debated staying up most of the night to work and have Waylon take over driving in the morning. But he had a feeling that the other man wouldn’t be sleeping well in the asylum.

“These books are far more interesting than the ones you owned Host.”

Miles laughed at that. “Take a few with you then.”

“Really?”

“Sure, we have the space. Pick whatever ones you want. It wouldn’t do any harm to have you learn more.”

R looked from the stack of books to his host then back to the books. “Which one sounds more useful? The Complete History of Nano-Technology or The Encyclopedia of Human Parasites? Or what about this comparative anatomy book? There’s a good book on advanced biological chemistry systems too… Host We think you should read this one about Nano-Biotech from two years ago, there’s some really interesting information about energy storage in nanites.”

Miles smiled and said, “Sure, sure, put it near my bag. And I think you should take all of them.”

“Are you serious?”

“Why not? You’re not hampered by weight. Stuff your bag with as much as you can fit and carry the rest in your arms. You seem really interested in this, I want to see you explore what you’re interested in.”

R looked at him and radiated joy through the static. It was a nice change the doom and gloom most of the day had held. He went back to the book stacks and started sorting through the ones he knew he wanted take. He was so absorbed in picking out new titles that he didn’t notice Waylon walk in.

But Miles did. He didn’t say anything, just watched Waylon creep in, still deathly pale and take a seat on the chair. He pulled the blankets over his lap and drew his legs up to rest his head on. Miles noted that he didn’t look terrified anymore, but he didn’t look well either. He had to resist the urge to ask him if he was alright. This was probably another thing that Waylon didn’t want to talk about.

After a few minutes of watching Miles scroll through computer files he bent down and rummaged through his bag for his laptop. He opened it and got to work too. Like Miles had suggested all his credentials still worked and he was given access to most of Murkoff’s files. Miles had sent him some stuff to dig through as well, it sat in his inbox waiting for his eyes. He was tired but he knew that sleep wouldn’t come easy, especially after his little panic attack. Things were better now; the room was peaceful and the sound of keys clicking on a keyboard and paper from a book being turned was relaxing. It reminded him of home and of college. Happier times when his future wasn’t as big of a mystery as it was now.

The hours crept by and Miles debated calling it for the night and turning off the lights. They had a long walk back to the Jeep and more driving ahead of them. Just as he was about to suggest they go to sleep Waylon exclaimed, “I got it! I got it! This is it!”

“What is?” Miles sat up straighter and asked.

Waylon looked up from the screen, his eyes alert and bright. “Emails!” He said. “Between Helen and Richard! There’s a whole set of them, I wish the dates went back further but there’s a clear correspondence between the two of them regarding Project Walrider. Mostly talks of funds and resources. Some deadlines for testing, Helen talks a lot about the progress Billy was making. They had a rough test date set for October fifteenth. On Richard’s side he asks a lot of questions about the Projects viability in military settings, he references some names I don’t recognize, I think they’re military, there are a lot of people with their hands in this mess Upshur.”

Miles moved quickly across the room to lean over the chair and see for himself. Sure enough there were legitimate email conversations between the two. They were even signed and from company emails, they didn’t use proxy accounts like Miles often did when he was doing this sort of thing. “I know Murkoff is bold but holy shit. They’re not even using private locked email clients.”

“You do?” Waylon asked.

“For some things, yes. I have a few accounts on dark web email clients, they’re particularly useful because they can be encrypted and are already difficult for the average person to access. They’re basically hack proof and when I’m doing something really secretive I’ll use one with my clients.”

“Dark web? Are you serious?”

Miles shrugged. “Yeah. It’s just places on the internet not indexed or searchable with conventional means. It’s the best place to hide in plain sight. I debated opening a news site on the dark web once, but decided running my servers normally was already too much of a hassle. It’s quite common for journalists to have servers and email clients that are out of bounds. We all network and sometimes the shit we get into can be dangerous for us.”

“You don’t say,” Waylon said with a trace of humor.

“You think this is dangerous?” Miles laughed and reached over and tapped down through some of the conversations. “These are gold, near literally. Save them, then save them again, then email them to me and I’ll back them up too. It’s the best proof of a link we’ve gotten so far.” He added, “Good work Park.”

“I can’t believe they didn’t delete anything,” Waylon said as Miles moved back to his desk.

“Murkoff as a whole are a bunch of arrogant bastards,” Miles replied. “They think they’re indestructible, they think that because they’ve doing what they’ve been doing for years unchallenged that won’t change. They don’t think to hide because they’ve never been hunted.” Miles grinned putting all his sharp teeth on display. “Well now I’m going to hunt them.”

They worked for another hour before Miles yawned and said, “We should turn in for the night. I appreciate the enthusiasm and help but if we don’t get some sleep we’ll be dead on our feet tomorrow.”

Waylon agreed and shut his laptop. He set up his blankets and a pillow and put his head down. Miles was doing the same on his couch. “Hey,” Waylon said and sat up, “can we leave a light on? In here?”

Miles looked over to the door to the hall, there was light that flooded in under the door from the hall lights he never turned off. He kept most of the lights on in the Administration Block, it used to be for the comfort of the Variants that lived in the wing with him. He glanced at Waylon who was clearly starting to show discomfort. “Sure, sure, R can keep the lamp on by the fireplace while he reads.”

“He doesn’t sleep?”

Miles shook his head. “Nope, R can’t sleep. He’s awake every moment of every day. Don’t worry he won’t leave the room either, he’ll act like a watchdog.”

That seemed to relax the other man a bit and he sunk back down to sleep. “Thanks,” he said quietly. Miles turned his back to him to try and get some rest himself. It had been a rough day and he was still feeling some of the internal injuries he sustained. “Upshur?”

“Yeah Park?”

“I’m sorry… for screaming and running from you earlier.”

“Don’t sweat it, I shouldn’t have startled you.”

Waylon went quiet and Miles thought he had fallen asleep before he heard, “You’re not as scary as I sometimes act.”

“Thanks,” Miles said sincerely.


Waylon woke to Miles leaning over him and giving him a little shake. When his eyes opened he met Miles’ glowing silver irises. He startled awake and Miles put a hand over his mouth. “Shhh,” he said and glanced towards the window. The morning sun was hardly up and the room was still quite dark. “Murkoff soldiers are on their way.”

Waylon pulled Miles’ hand away from his mouth so he could whisper, “How do you know? How far?”

“I caught their scent while taking a morning fly, they’re a good mile out still,” he said. “They’ll be here in about ten minutes. Pack your bags we need to be out of here before they show up.”

“Ten minutes… they’re on foot?” Waylon wanted to ask why Miles was out flying around at this time but he didn’t.

“From what I could tell, but it’s likely they have vans or trucks coming up behind them.” Miles walked back to the desk and started to shove papers into binders and folders and place them in his bag. “Try to carry only the essentials on you, give any excess or heavy items to R. He’s not burdened in the same way you are.”

Waylon nodded and started to put his bag together. He already knew what he was taking with him. His small duffle bag of clothes with his work laptop in it and his backpack of preselected documents and books. He put his left leg down and hissed, it was still sore and acting up, the trip up the mountain might have aggravated it.

Miles caught the way Waylon favored his leg. He forgot to bring anything to re-dress the wound, it was apparent Waylon had too. “You ok?” He asked and Waylon gave him a stiff nod. “R do you have the profit and funding reports?”

“We do.”

“Good, they’re very important,” Miles said. “We need to cross reference the dates and payments mentioned in those emails with the reports to make sure they line up. Don’t lose that bag.”

“Understood.”

Miles took one last look around the room, he had managed to transfer much more data this time around and he felt a lot better about leaving this time. “Let’s go,” Miles said and headed for the door. Waylon shouldered his packs and followed. R brought up the rear. He stuck his head out around the corner and breathed in deeply. “Shit,” Miles swore softly. “They’re here.”

“How can you-” Waylon was interrupted by the sound of the main door opening.

“Stay low,” Miles hissed and started to crouch down and follow the halls to the rails. From there he took to the air silently and landed on top of one of the light fixtures. He could see approximately ten soldiers enter the foyer. Three of them went for the elevator to the labs, the elevator Miles knew was stuck, three more started to search the lower floors and rooms while four took to the stairs. He could tell they intended to search the top floors first which was bad news for them. The soldiers had shouldered assault rifles and wore heavy vests. “Great,” Miles muttered and jumped from the light to land back on hall silently. He moved back to the others and grabbed Waylon’s arm. “We gotta go, they’re searching the upper floors first.”

Waylon followed Miles as he took them down the hall to a recreation room. “Why don’t you just carry me and we fly out the window?”

“They have guns,” Miles replied quietly but quickly. “When I take to the skies I’m very noticeable I would rather not draw fire and instead slip out undetected.” He led them into the recreation room to a hole in the wall. “In here,” Miles motioned and let Waylon go first. “The Variants tore some holes in the wall and used them for navigation. It kept them away from the more violent Variants, Chris, the Walrider, and later Murkoff Tactical when they stormed the place. After the riot many still used them, it’s an efficient way to move around between floors.” Miles explained. “This building is old; the insulation layer is wide enough to allow people to fit as well as piping. You can see a water main above us. There are also ladders that drop all the way down to the sewer level, that’s our ticket out of here.”

Waylon didn’t complain and moved along the wall silently. He had to push memories of another time he hid behind the walls out of his mind. Now as the not the time for recalling that night. “You’ll know where to go once we get to the sewers right?”

“Yeah,” Miles said. “I got real used to the place from living here.” He could hear more soldiers enter the building but his hearing wasn’t quite good enough to tell what they were saying. He informed Waylon that more had entered. “I’m not sure what they’re doing here, they could be here to data mine too. Like we are.”

“But Host the server rooms downstairs had already been picked through. The reclamation team had already been sent.”

“Then what else could they be doing?”

Waylon suggested, “Hunting for us perhaps?”

“Possible, but they had no way of knowing we would come here. There’s a lot of assumptions they would have had to make, and they sent a full team, they’d have to be certain of that assumption.”

They reached the ladder and Miles volunteered to go first. “I’ll make sure it’s safe. Best to send the guy who can survive being shot down first right?” He gripped the cold metal and started down. Personally, he had never taken the ladders, he just floated down. But he wanted to conserve energy. The reason for his morning flight was to try to find a deer to eat. He miscalculated how long he could hold off without eating. He thought he would be good for the day but the healing his body did after the run in with the other Swarm left him drained, something he hadn’t planned for. He didn’t locate a deer before he scented and sighted the soldiers. He was hiding it well, but he knew he was reaching his limit.

Miles dropped down into the sewer level with a light splash and motioned for Waylon to jump. “I’ll catch you don’t worry.” Waylon took a breath and dropped. True to his word Miles caught him and placed him the ground safely. R flowed out the tunnel and moved past them. “R I want you to guard the rear, come back.”

“We think we should scout ahead but-”

Miles cut him off. “Now is not the time to argue,” he said. “Take the back, I’ll lead.” They trudged through the sewers, Waylon started limping more as they walked. Miles slowed the pace to accommodate him. He almost asked if he wanted him to take his bags too, but he didn’t want to carry too much himself and risk being burdened down.

“How much longer?” Waylon asked when the left a part of the sewer that had water in it and entered an area with more dry ground.

“Not too much further. There should be an open room with another ladder in it. That ladder goes straight up to an access grate just outside the main wall. We hit that and it’s a short run to the fence line, I can get us over the fence no problem.”

Waylon seemed pleased to hear that. He said, “You know for a sewer I thought it would smell a lot worse than this.”

“Yeah surprisingly there wasn’t too much death down here, just a lot of blood.” Miles said, “I wouldn’t drink any of the water, and last time I was here there were leeches so check yourself when we get out.” Waylon was about to comment when Miles stopped dead in his tracks. “Waylon, hold.”

Waylon stopped too and glanced around. “What’s wrong?”

“Someone is coming,” Miles said and pointed up ahead.

“We’re being trailed from behind as well.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” Miles grabbed Waylon’s wrist and pulled him forward at a run. He could hear shouts from behind them as the soldiers heard them start to run. They entered into a small section of the sewer that had a workbench and a row of lockers. Waylon broke free of Miles’ hold and ran for one of the lockers and opened it. He stepped inside and shut the door. Miles smirked. Old habits die hard. But he didn’t have much more time to be amused. The soldiers behind them caught up.

There were four of them, all wearing heavy bullet proof vests. They came to a stop and one of them asked. “Who are you? This place is off limits.”

Miles looked at them like they were crazy. “You don’t know who I am? Or what I am?”

“You’re standing in the dark, please move into the light and identify yourself.”

Miles shook his head in disbelief. “They didn’t tell you sorry assholes? Talk about unlucky. Listen if you turn around now maybe you won’t die.”

One of the soldiers drew and pointed his weapon at Miles. “We aren’t cops,” he started. “I know you kids like to get brave when facing authority figures. Listen, you’re lucky we found you. This is a bad place for urban explorers.”

“Urban explores… that’s what you think this is?” Miles laughed and laughed hard. “God this is so sad. Fucking incredible. You have to be the worst-” he cut himself off when he heard the second team approach from the other side.

“What’s going on here?” One of them asked.

“We found some trespassers; this young man was about to tell me who he was. Then we can-”

“Hands in the air!” One of the other soldiers from the second group shouted suddenly. “Hands up and do not move!”

By the tone of his voice Miles could tell someone had finally figured it out. “Took you long enough,” Miles said casually. “Honestly I was starting to think Murkoff hired a bunch of idiots.”

The soldier grabbed a radio off of his vest and said into it, “This is squad C down in the sewers, we have visual confirmation of the Walrider. That’s right, Project Walrider is down in the sewers. Engaging.”

Waylon held his breath when he heard the gunfire start. He couldn’t see much from inside the locker. But could hear screams and the sound of flesh being ripped apart and bones snapping, as well as the sound of bullets hitting the wall. There were several rounds of quick flashes then nothing. Waylon waited a few more tense moments before he opened the door to the locker. He hesitated because he couldn’t hear Miles either.

Much to his relief the other was alive and standing in the middle of the tunnel. Waylon looked around gasped. Just like the night of the riot there were body parts thrown everywhere. A torso hung from the piping above, the organs sliding out like vines. Blood was everywhere, it glistened differently than the water already in the tunnel. Waylon stepped out and cautiously approached Miles who was standing still with nanites swirling around him. His claws were dripping blood and he didn’t look like he was focusing on much of anything. Just breathing slightly hard.

“Uphsur?” Waylon said cautiously. He couldn’t see the Walrider but he knew it had to be around. “Hey you ok? Get shot?” Miles didn’t reply but he did lift a clawed hand to his mouth. He stuck out his tongue and moved to lick a bloody talon when Waylon said sharply, “Upshur! Miles!”

His eyes seemed to snap open and he looked at Waylon. “Shit was I…” He trailed off and looked around. “Fuck me,” he muttered and put a hand over his face. “I didn’t mean… fuck this is bad.” Waylon could see Miles was visibly trembling. “I know what I am,” he said miserably, “I just didn’t mean to…”

Waylon watched him shut his eyes against the gore, then heard one of the soldier’s radios go off. He couldn’t hear all the words, there was a static interference. “We have to go,” he said. Miles didn’t move, he didn’t seem to respond. He just stood there with his eyes screwed tight. “We have to go, now.” Despite his fear he grabbed Miles’ arm and pulled him. The motion seemed to knock him back to the present and he turned around and followed. “Which way?” He asked.

“Keep going down this tunnel,” Miles replied and started to run. His senses were coming back to him. “We’re looking for an open room, half circle, the ladder is along the flat wall.”

“What happened back there? Why did you freeze up?”

“Not now,” Miles said. “I’ll tell you later, maybe,” he added quieter.

“Host We are also curious on why you behaved that way. You don’t normally react like that after a fight. It can’t be the bodies, you’ve seen those before.”

“It wasn’t,” Miles started, “it wasn’t the violence, the fight itself. It was the setting,” he said finally. The bodies in the sewers, ripped apart and mangled, it was too much like the riot. I forgot what that looked like, forgot what that felt like.”

“So you answer the Walrider and not me?”

Miles replied, “He doesn’t take no easily.” They were still running when the power cut out. The sewers didn’t have the best lighting to start with but now they were plunged into darkness. Miles’ eyes adjusted instantly to low light conditions. R had designed them to excel in this type of environment, it was like he had his night vision mode on on his camera. However, Waylon’s eyes were not tampered with and Miles heard him call out in alarm.

“I can’t see!” Waylon called out.

Miles skidded to a stop and turned back. Waylon was waiting a few paces behind him, standing still, trying to spot him in the darkness. “You’re going to have to trust me,” Miles said and stepped forward to take his hand.

“You know where we’re going? Did you memorize it?”

“No,” Miles said as he pulled Waylon further down the tunnel. “I didn’t memorize the steps or anything, but my eyes have been altered to see in near darkness. Just follow me.”

Waylon nodded and followed along behind Miles. They had to slow their pace because Waylon wasn’t as sure footed as Miles had been in total darkness. The good thing was that neither of them heard any more footsteps of soldiers following them. “I think we’re in the clear,” Waylon panted.

Miles didn’t slow to a walk or a jog. R was on alert as well. “It’s strange that they gave up so easily. There must be more than two teams of humans. They want you back, they want Us back, there should be more.”

“That’s why we’re not walking,” Miles said. They rounded a turn and Miles cautioned, “There’s a set of pipes up ahead that we’re going to jump.”

Waylon nodded, he had some practice vaulting over objects during his many near death chases on the night of the riot. Only this time he couldn’t see where the obstruction was that he had to jump. He didn’t even have a camera to look through.

Miles lengthened his stride and saw Waylon match it despite his limp. In his mind he counted out their steps to the pipes. “You ready? On zero. Five, four, three, two, one,” Miles leaned forward and pulled Waylon’s hand with him so the other man could feel the pipe, “zero!” Miles swung his legs to the opposite side that Waylon did and they both jumped the pipes. Waylon landed unsteady on feet, his bad leg buckled but Miles held him up. “You ok?”

Waylon nodded in the darkness and was tugged forward once more. He could tell Miles was starting to get worried because his grip on his arm tightened and they moved a bit faster. Something about the situation was bothering him more than it should. “You don’t think Murkoff know where we’re going to come out do they?”

“I don’t know,” Miles said truthfully. “But we’ve run past several entrance stairwells and no one has intercepted us. I’m not sure they even know where these tunnels go. Remember, this place was abandoned for years and most of the original staff are dead.”

Waylon asked, “How aren’t you out of breath?”

“I haven’t been running long enough for that.”

Waylon accepted that answer and also regretted not taking better care of himself.

Miles could see the walls open up into the room they were looking for. “I’m going to send R up the ladder first, then you and I’ll follow behind.” He led Waylon to the ladder and placed his hand on it. “Don’t worry it’s stable you’ll have no issues climbing up it.”

Up above Waylon saw a grate move and light filtered into room. He could see the steps and the grimy walls, he could also see Miles standing behind him, still shrouded in darkness, but his silver eyes glowed eerily in the gloom. He turned back to the ladder and started climbing it. He moved fast even though Miles didn’t say it was urgent that he do so. He threw one of his packs up onto the grass and hauled himself out of the hole. The Walrider was crouched, visible to the eye, near the grate. To Waylon it almost looked like it was going to help him out but thought better of it.

Miles emerged last and swore loudly and closed his eyes as the Walrider pulled him out. “What’s wrong?” Waylon asked concerned.

“It’s my damn eyes,” Miles replied. He tried opening them again but searing pain greeted him so he shut them again. “They’re over sensitive to light, I explained this before. It’s going to take a while before I can see in full sun again.” He swore. “We don’t have time for this.”

“Then I’ll lead you this time,” Waylon said and reached for Miles’ arm. It was cold, like touching dead flesh. A comparison he could actually make now in confidence, he thought darkly. Miles didn’t protest and followed close to Waylon. “I’ll let you know when we hit the fence line.”

“Thanks,” Miles said and kept easy pace beside Waylon. He wasn’t completely blind, he had the nanites giving him information about his surroundings, they didn’t paint a complete picture of the world but it was enough where he didn’t feel vulnerable. “R we’re going to have a talk about putting my eyes back when this is over.”

“We aren’t going to ruin perfectly good night vision just so you can have a faster adjustment period.”

“What the hell good does night vision do me if I’m blinded in the daylight?”

“You aren’t blind Host, stop being so dramatic. You can see using the Swarm. Or see through Our eyes.”

Miles swore again and was about to argue further when Waylon interrupted, “We’re almost at the fence.”

“Great,” Miles opened his eyes again, just enough to get a feel for where they were in the yard. They were indeed approaching the fence. He looked up and squinted against the light. It only felt like a few needles this time and not hundreds. “Bridal style or on my back?” Miles asked.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“I’m flying us over the fence, do you want me to carry you bridal style on do you want to go on my back?” Before Waylon could respond Miles heard a gunshot. Without thinking he gathered Waylon up into his arms who yelped in surprise and leapt into the air. The Swarm covered them as they rose and Miles could feel a bullet rip through the nanites and fly past them. He easily cleared the fence and kept going above the trees. When they were out of view from the towers and brick walls Miles dropped to the forest floor and set Waylon down.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that,” Waylon said and leaned heavily against a tree. He dropped one of his bags and took a few deep breaths. “Just this once I’d like to leave Mount Massive not out of breath and running for my life.”

“Host,” R said and nothing more, but he did vanish up into the tree tops.

Miles moved to follow then heard a deafening boom. “The fuck?” He sprang into the air and climbed to the top of the tree to stand with R. “What was that?”

R pointed at the asylum with a clawed hand. “It came from the asylum Host.”

“Oh shit,” his words died off as another explosion rocked the building. “Get Park.” The Walrider vanished and he heard Waylon scream in surprise as R carried him up and deposited him on a branch next to Miles. “Park look.”

They watched as more bombs detonated across the campus. The two main towers of the Administration Block crumbled in on each other and the building Miles knew as the Prison Block folded in on itself. Another round of explosions cleared out the Male Ward and Miles struggled to see past all the smoke and debris. His senses were all out of whack, his ears were ringing from the explosions and his nose couldn’t pick up any scents other than brick and gunpowder. There was another loud boom and a brick or rock flew up towards them. Miles didn’t flinch as it hurtled by. A second larger piece of building came at them and Miles deflected it with the Swarm before Waylon even knew what had happened.

“You weren’t lying,” Waylon said, “they really were going to blow up the place.”

“I don’t tend to lie,” Miles said. “It’s gone,” he said more to R and himself than Waylon. The wind blew the strong smell of smoke towards them.

“We told you not to think of this place as a home. At least now you cannot return.”

“Yeah…”

Together they watched the last bits of Mount Massive Asylum crumble to the ground. It was distressing and cathartic at the same time for Miles. “I guess we made it out just in time,” Waylon said. “If we had been any slower, or maybe chose to hide instead of run… we could be dead.”

Miles agreed, “Yeah I’m not sure I can heal from being exploded, that might be a legitimate way to kill me.”

“Lets not test that Host.”

Miles laughed. “Yeah I’d rather not as well.” He looked out across at the ruined campus. There were now people moving around, a few fires had broken out but Miles didn’t see any trucks to put them out. The road to the Jeep was on the opposite side from where they were. He followed the tree line around and sighed. “Hey Park? Got any ideas on how to get down the mountain now that Murkoff is here?”

Waylon considered the question and felt around his pockets and then looked back at the destruction in front of them. “Yeah… maybe… can you see if the vehicle impound building is still standing?”

Miles strained his eyes but the smoke was too heavy. “I can’t. R go check it out, stay invisible to the eye or masquerade as black smoke.” When R left Miles turned to Waylon and asked, “Do you have a car? Here?”

“I might,” Waylon said. He dug the keys out from his pocket and said, “I’m assuming Murkoff took my car when they imprisoned me, I heard rumors of an impound lot out back behind the cargo bay. I walked out there during a break and found it. The guy working the security there said it was just for employee parking, but I didn’t believe it.”

“Interesting… It’s there, I’ve been in there, stole a bus actually.” When Waylon raised an eyebrow he said, “It was for those patients I mentioned. I didn’t want them all to walk down the mountain and into town. That would draw more attention then they needed plus a few weren’t in any condition to walk down a mountain, road or no.” Miles stepped off the branch and dropped a few feet before he flew back up and grabbed Waylon around the waist and lifted him down.

Waylon was thankful to be back on the ground, but he did trust Miles not to drop him or let him fall. “Are you ok?” He asked Miles.

“Why do you ask?”

“You’re still… like that. And you’re shaking.”

“You’re shaking too,” Miles deflected. He stuck out his hand and it was trembling badly. It was hunger, that he was sure of. “I’m fine,” Miles dismissed Waylon’s concern. “Whenever I fly I revert back to this form and I’m still not over what happened yesterday. R thinks I’ll be back to looking human when we put some distance between us and the mountain.” He lied smoothly, the truth was neither of them was sure why he couldn’t get back, they were both guessing. Miles crossed his arms over his chest to stop the shaking from being obvious.

Waylon paced a bit, his leg was getting sore. “I hope the car is still there,” Waylon said, “I don’t know if I can walk down the mountain.”

“I can carry you,” Miles said without hesitation. But then regretted the offer. He needed to find something to eat before he attempted anything else strenuous, or anything that close to a human. He breathed in the mountain air but couldn’t scent anything like a deer or even a squirrel. His stomach growled painfully and he ignored it.

R came back not too long after that. “The building is still standing,” he reported. “There are Murkoff personnel on the scene but nothing that can’t be bypassed.”

“That’s good,” Miles said. “Hopefully they’ll be too busy with the cleanup to notice a car slip out the back.” He turned to Waylon and said, “R spotted the building, it’s still there. I’m going to carry you again, through the air, and we’ll drop down near the entrance and sneak in. Once we get to your car things might get tricky. There’s a chance they’ll give chase. If that happens I’ll bail and run interference while you drive down into town. I’ll send R to follow and then I’ll catch up in Jeep.” 

“Ok…” Waylon wasn’t sure he liked the idea of splitting up but they didn’t have much of a choice. Miles would be enough of a distraction he was sure. He did worry that Miles might freeze up like he did in the sewer. “You’ll be ok?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. Trust me.” Miles scooped up Waylon again and took to the air. He rose slowly out of the tree line and surveyed the ground below them. There were no Murkoff individuals near the outer perimeter.

“Upshur,” Waylon asked and tightened his grip on Miles, “why did they detonate when they knew you could be inside? They want you right?”

“Yeah, they want me. There’s a chance they thought I got out, or would survive the blast. I’m not sure what they were thinking. Another possibility,” Miles went a bit higher into the air to hide from eyes, he felt Waylon shift and suck in a breath. “I won’t drop you, anyways, another possibility is that the crew who started the detonations didn’t know I was even there. I made quite the mess of the team down there and I’m not sure their message went through with R running static interference.”    

As R had said, most of the people were busy picking through the rubble and tearing down walls that hadn’t fallen during the initial blasts. He heard a few more smaller explosions and the sound of a building collapse, he assumed those were the labs being destroyed. Miles touched down along one of the sides of the garage and moved swiftly to look around the corner. There were a few soldiers standing around inside. Miles could hear them talking.

“So what are we going to do with all these vehicles?”

“Orders haven’t come in yet. They’ll probably be stripped and sold for parts or something.”

“Aw man, seems a shame to waste some of the old cars the execs drove. There’s a few beauties in here.”

“Well ask upper management if you can have one instead of your bonus.”

“Think that will work?”

“No. But it’s worth a shot.”

While they were talking cars Miles had crept into the room. He ducked behind cars and moved silently through the garage. The guards had no idea he was there. R was a shadow along the ground on the opposite side. Together they coordinated their attack and each took out a guard from behind. They cleanly snapped their necks and moved the bodies out of the view. Then Miles signaled for Waylon.

He came limping in quickly. “Which car is yours?” Miles asked.

“It’s an old car, blue.”

“Make? Model? Year? Anything? Blue and old isn’t enough to go on.”

“S-Sorry you just, Upshur you snapped their necks.”

Miles rolled his eyes. “I did,” he said. “Listen they’re not our friends.”

Waylon nodded glumly and described the car again, “It’s blue, old, not as old as your Jeep, early two thousands, small Ford Explorer, there’s a uh, a car seat in the back, one of those family stickers. I’m sorry my memory is still messy in some parts I can’t recall the license plate.”

“That’s fine, we’ll narrow it down.” They started searching the rows and Miles suddenly remembered a car similar to that description. “Did it have a lot of children’s drawings on the dash?” Miles asked. “Like, taped all over?”

“Yes, it did. Did you find it?”

“No, but I remember seeing it last time we were here.” He led Waylon through the garage and they stopped at the car that Miles remembered spending time examining a few weeks ago. “Is this it?” He asked hopefully.

“I… yeah it is.” Waylon walked around it and looked inside. He didn’t jump on it in a exaggerated hug like Miles had with his Jeep, but Miles figured he was just weird. Waylon traced his hands around the car and then slid the key into the door and opened it. “And we’re in,” he said to Miles. “Listen, I’m not sure I can drive out of here, there’s too much…” he gestured around, “this.”

“I understand,” Miles said and took the keys from Waylon. “I’ll drive, you get shotgun. But remember, you’ll have to drive if things get out of hand.” Waylon agreed and took the passenger seat. Miles tossed his bags into the back and R took up residence in the back seat as well. He turned the key and thankfully the car started up. He backed it out of the parking space and drove cautiously out of the garage. Nobody stopped them or even noticed as he drove down the same bumpy side road he had taken before. “So far so good, but the real test will be driving by the front gate without being spotted. There’s bound to be more security there.”

“Quick question,” Waylon said next to him. He had his backpack out on his lap and he was taking drawings off the dash and putting them neatly inside a folder. “Why didn’t you just fly me down the mountain to the Jeep?”

“I don’t have the energy for that, the garage was probably the best I had. I’m exhausted Park, I’ve been fighting my appearance for over a day, I’ve gone out flying twice, I fought with those soldiers, carried you a few times… I haven’t eaten in what feels like forever, I’m reaching my limit.”

“Y…You’re going to be ok though right?”

Miles nodded quickly. “Yes, yes I’ll be fine, I won’t hurt you, I promise you that.”

The side road eventually merged into the main one and Miles didn’t hesitate when he pulled out onto the mountain road heading down. There were many more vehicles and armored trucks surrounding the front of the remains of Mount Massive Asylum. “Someone’s going to see us,” Waylon whispered.

“Probably,” Miles admitted through clenched teeth. Sure enough he picked up the sounds of people questioning then shouting at the car. In the rearview mirror he could see a few soldiers scramble into cars and give chase. Miles pressed the gas down harder and sped off down the mountain road. “There’s a chance we can outrun them and beat them to the clearing where I left the Jeep.

“Then what?” Waylon asked and braced himself as they bumped and jumped down the poorly maintained dirt road.

“We quickly change vehicles, the Jeep has those run flats I told you about, I feel safer in it.” Miles pushed the little Explorer far faster than it had any right going on this type of road. It clung to the ground well and handled Miles’ quick turns. “This isn’t a bad car,” Miles remarked to try to lighten the mood. “Maybe I’ll get one if the Jeep dies.”

“Aim for something a little newer maybe,” Waylon said in an attempt to joke. He gasped as they bounced through a particularly rough patch.

“Host Murkoff is closing in.”

Miles swore and looked in the mirror. Sure enough armored black vans were looming in the background and getting closer. “R get in one and make a mess,” he ordered. This time there would be no innocent bystanders to kill when this van went off the road and Miles wasn’t in a very sympathetic mood anymore. R dissipated and Miles caught sight of a door being flung off into the woods. Then the windshield went red with blood and Miles felt a sudden rush of pleasure from the static.

He turned the car sharply and the second van was still on their tail. Then Miles heard the gunshots. This time they weren’t using single shot pistols or rifles. Two of the men in van had automatic guns and were taking aim at the vehicle. “Fuck, get down Park,” Miles instructed then things spun out of control very quickly.

The steering wheel jerked out Miles’ grip as they either hit a deep rut in the road or they lost two tires. The Explorer struggled for purchase and at the high speed lurched off the dirt road. “Fuck!” Miles swore loudly the car was beyond saving and it tipped shortly after leaving the road. “Shit,” Miles braced himself the best he could as the vehicle was tossed mercilessly down into the forest below. It rolled once, twice, three and four times before slamming against a tree and coming to a stop.

Miles swore again and groaned. He could feel blood drip down his face and opened his eyes. They were upside down and Miles was disoriented for a few moments while he pulled himself together. He did a quick limb count and was relieved to feel nothing was broken. In the distance he heard another vehicle crash into the woods. Then the driver’s side door was ripped off and R stuck his head in.

“Host are you ok?”

“Yeah I’m fine, nothing damaged I can’t fix,” he said and looked over at Waylon. “Shit, Park? Park you ok?” He was unresponsive, also hanging upside down. Miles could see a large spot of blood obscuring the other man’s face. “That’s not good,” Miles cut through his seatbelt with his claws and carefully maneuvered his body until he was upright again. Then he moved to where Waylon was hanging. The other man had a pulse and was still breathing, but he wasn’t opening his eyes or responding to verbal stimuli. “Shit, shit…” Miles didn’t know what on his companion was injured and he didn’t have time to find out, he could hear more Murkoff vehicles heading in their direction. “Hope this doesn’t paralyze or kill you,” Miles muttered and cut Waylon loose too. He pulled Waylon out of the wreck and gently cradled him in his arms. “We gotta move R! Into the woods!”

He took off running into the forest and was quickly swallowed by darkness. R was right behind him, and Miles noticed he had all their bags either strapped to him or in his arms. Thankfully Miles had had plenty of experience sprinting through the forest soundlessly. He and R had run so training exercises it was second nature.  They would be able to quickly outpace any Murkoff soldiers and normal humans easily. When Miles thought they had put enough distance between them and the crash site he slowed so he could give some attention to the unconscious man in his arms.

He put the man down softly and checked again for a pulse. He didn’t need to, he could hear Waylon’s breath and heartbeat but he felt better checking. There was still no response from him which worried Miles greatly. There was a chance he was just briefly knocked out and it wasn’t something serious. He lifted up a bit of matted once blond hair to see where the source of the bleeding was. “Thank god it’s all superficial,” Miles said after inspecting the injury. He was cut near the temple and it was bleeding a good deal. Miles tore a piece of his shirt off and used it to wrap the cut and help stop the blood flow. He couldn’t tell if there was anything else wrong with Waylon’s head so he moved to the rest of his body. There were no outwardly broken bones, nothing was bending the wrong way, he was just bruised and cut up from the accident.

Miles sighed and leaned back. “I don’t think he’s going to die.”

“Pity.”

“R…”

“Joking Host. We grabbed the bags for you, you forgot them in the vehicle.”

Miles thanked R. “I just wanted to get us to safety. How far do you think we are from the Jeep? The Explorer is trashed.”

R shot up into the sky then reported through the static, “The clearing is two miles from here, to the south east.”

“I’m not sure we should move Park until he wakes up,” Miles said and stood up. Then he heard the sounds of soldiers in the woods. He looked at R and grinned. “I think it’s time to go hunting.”

“Agreed.”

The forest was a good place for this because the soldiers all stomped through it without any thought to the amount of noise they were making, but Miles moved through the bushes and trees with a predator’s silence. The soldiers had decided to split into two-man teams, each one was armed with a gun a flashlight. They were wearing the same bullet proof vests that Miles had dealt with before. It meant frontal attacks with his claws were out but the neck was still the best place to attack. He stalked one pair for a few minutes. He stayed always just out of view and low to the ground. The swarm moved around him giving an advantage in the shadows of the trees.

Finally, he made his move. Miles let the swarm carry his feet off of the ground and he tapped one of the soldiers on the shoulder with a claw. “Looking for someone?” He asked. The soldier spun around and Miles sunk his teeth deep into the man’s throat. The soldier got a few shots off in a desperate attempt to hit the monster that was latched onto his neck. But Miles wasn’t going to be shot again and grabbed the soldier’s wrist and squeezed until he heard bone snap. The gun fell to the ground and so did the soldier. He was being choked out by both his own blood and the pressure Miles had around his neck.

Miles followed him to the ground and began to tear away the vest and shirt he was wearing. “Wha- Are you… are you eating him?”

Miles looked up and saw the soldier’s partner had found them. Likely drawn in by the sound of gunfire. Miles didn’t say anything, he wasn’t sure if he was capable saying anything. He swallowed a thick chunk of meat and grinned. Right behind the soldier R had materialized and in a swift movement turned the human’s neck so his head faced backwards.

“This is surprising Host. We did not think We’d find you eating human flesh. Did you not promise Us “Never again”?”

He rolled his eyes. “Don’t get the wrong idea,” Miles said between mouthfuls of meat. “This disgusts me to no end but I didn’t have much of a choice and I’m not feeling like myself right now.” He felt fine admitting that to R. At least this time he was aware that he had slipped. “When I come back to my senses I’ll probably want to throw up, but right now… right now I feel good.

“What should We do about the other soldiers? We have counted at least five more teams.”

Miles shrugged and bit into the human in front of him again. “Have fun,” he said with his mouth full. “I’ll join you soon.” R vanished and the static radiated pleasure as the Walrider moved through the forest to do what it was designed to do.

Miles ravenously ate from the human corpse and moved onto the second one when it got too tiresome to move clothing aside. His teeth were sharp and ready to tear into flesh and the meat quelled the storm in his stomach. He licked his lips, catching the warm blood that hung from his chin. “Fuck,” Miles groaned and wiped his face with the back of his hand. He could feel blood smear up his jaw. “That was good.” He looked down at what used to be a man and was glad it wasn’t Waylon he ended up eating. Miles was very fine with viewing Murkoff hired soldiers as prey. After all they probably thought the same about him.

He rejoined R in hunting down the last soldiers. They made quick work of the teams. The forest gave them ample cover and they never thought to look up. Miles landed heavily on one man’s shoulder and knocked him to the ground. He followed the body and the force kicked all the air out of the man’s lungs. Before he could draw a breath, Miles raked both his clawed hands across his throat and ripped it out. He left without waiting for the satisfying sound of gurgling.

R jumped from body to body and exploded them from the inside out. He was well practiced in this technique having used it repeatedly under Billy’s control during the riot. It was messy and perfect for leaving a point. This time the point R was trying to leave was clear: leave us alone. He doubted Murkoff would receive it.

He rejoined his host who was pulling his hand out of a soldier’s chest cavity. “Heart meat is pretty good,” Miles commented and took a bite out of the organ like it was an apple. “I don’t understand why so many people throw it out when butchering an animal.” He tossed it to the ground and started to head back to where they left Waylon. Miles couldn’t scent any more living humans that bore the stench of Murkoff.

With his stomach full and the thrill of the hunt dying off his head was clearing. “Ugh, I made a mess,” Miles pulled the shirt off of his chest, it was thick and sticky with blood. “Park’s not getting this one back.”

“You should clean up. We’ll stand watch over the human.”

“Good idea, the last thing we want is to scare the guy even further. We don’t talk about this, ok? I killed and ate a deer, you slaughtered the pursuing soldiers. Got it?”

“Understood. You want to lie to your partner. Great plan.”

“Oh fuck off. You know as well as I do he’ll never trust us if he knew I’ve eaten humans, pleasure or no pleasure, starvation or not.” Miles frowned. “It’s not like I want to lie, but I know what I am and I know where we stand.”

“Are we going to talk about what happened back in the sewer tunnel? When you froze up? You gave Us an answer but We think there’s more. Your actions today are confusing Us. Back in the asylum you reacted like you did when we were first bonded. But right now you’re behaving like you did near the end of our stay. It confuses Us. We do not understand.”

Miles scratched his head and regretted the motion as he just put blood into his hair. He sighed and said, “I don’t know R, really. I don’t have answers right now. I might need to sort myself out again. We can talk about it later tonight, after we get away from Mount Massive and Leadville.”

“You worry Us is all.”

“I worry me too,” Miles replied, he was sincere. “I’ll catch up. If I remember right there’s a stream nearby.” He left the Walrider who went to watch over Waylon dutifully. His memory was correct and he did find a small stream, it probably fed into he fishery that was somewhere on this mountain. He dropped down splash water on his face and wash away the nightmare of blood that covered him. He ended up just holding his breath and dunking his whole head underwater to scrub. The shirt he didn’t even bother washing it was so soaked through that nothing would save it.

He looked at his reflection in moving water. It was the face of a monster. A calm monster, but a monster none the less. Miles rubbed his face and told the nanites to back off, he wanted to look human again. He’d gone long enough in his “natural” form as R liked to call it. Miles had expected the swarm to stay but all the nanites began to retreat. The talons on his hands vanished and his fangs dissolved back down to normal human teeth. “Oh thank whatever gods are out there,” Miles muttered. “I was worried I’d be like that forever. Maybe it was all hunger and nerves?” He didn’t know, and now that the labs were destroyed he might never know.

He stood up and started to walk back towards the others. Flying was a risk he didn’t want to take after he just regained his human form. R greeted him when he came back. Waylon was sitting against a tree, he looked like hell but he was awake. “What happened?” He asked when Miles came into view.

“Car accident. Flipped and rolled down the hill, don’t worry a tree caught us.”

Waylon groaned and placed a hand on his head. “What happened to you? That blood yours?”

“Not enough of it,” Miles replied. “Some soldiers followed us into the woods. R took care of them. I gored a deer while you were unconscious.”

“You did a what?”

“A deer,” he said. “I ate a deer while you were out.” Waylon was going to say something but Miles cut him off, “I was starving Park. You remember what I said about my hunger. It was either the deer or you, I picked a deer.”

“I… I see.” Waylon looked around and asked, “So what’s the plan? Is there a plan?”

“Are you good to walk?”

“I’m good to throw up,” Waylon said.

“Right,” Miles sat down and said, “lets take it easy then. Honestly, I’m just glad you’re awake. I was afraid you had gotten hurt in the accident.”

“I did get hurt in the accident.”

“Not hurt enough for no sarcasm I see.”

Waylon leaned against the tree but managed to smile. “I think I’m getting used to this whole almost dying thing. Like you.”

“Not sure you want to be like me,” Miles said and fell on his back. “You definitely don’t want to be like me.” He looked up through the forest canopy. It was still fairly early in the day. “I would love a nap,” Miles said. “I know this isn’t the most comfortable to place to bed for a bit but I could use the recharge. I’m not sure what Murkoff is doing but they haven’t sent anyone else into the forest.”

“Host we picked up one of their radios. They called off the attack, claimed we were in our element and there was no way they would win, We have to agree. All the remaining soldiers were told to report back up at the ruins. We got away.”

“Well… ain’t that some good news for once. Murkoff called it-”

“I know, I was awake for that part.”

Miles acknowledged the answer and moved on. “So I’m thinking we rest here for a bit then when it’s closer to dark make a move for the Jeep and get the hell off this mountain. We’ll crash at another motel for the night, though,” Miles sat back up and looked at Waylon, “we both look like shit so getting a room will be fun. Hopefully a change of shirt will make me look presentable and we can just sneak you into the room.”

“A shower would be nice, and a bed,” Waylon agreed. “But I can survive out in the woods for a little longer, truth be told I need to calm down too. That was a little too much excitement for me.”

“But we survived,” Miles added.

“What was it you said before? We’re survivors?”

“Yeah, and we’ll keep on surviving…after a brief nap.” Miles yawned. “R take watch, make sure we aren’t jumped.”

“Of course Host.”

“Hey, Upshur?” Miles grunted. “You made it back to looking like a person.”

“Ha, I guess I did.” However he was even more convinced that this side of him was a lie, more than ever before.

Chapter Text

The sound of helicopter blades cut through the mountain stillness. It landed beside the ruins of Murkoff Psychiatric Systems: Mount Massive in a makeshift clearing.  A woman in a suit dropped out of the helicopter moments after it touched ground. She made her way to a set of tents that were erected near the former entrance to the Administration Block. She had only been to the facilities a few times before, once to approve the buildings for purchase, again to monitor the construction process on the laboratories and new wings, and one final time when it filled with patients to observe the research. Then it became unsafe for her to be near, the Engine broke shielding and that spelled an end to female employment at Mount Massive. There were a few crazy scientists who risked it to take samples and run tests for a few hours a week but Granat wasn’t one of those women.

She had people for that.

A group of soldiers moved aside as she passed by and lifted the front flap of the ten. “Who’s in charge here? I want a full report, now.”

An older man stood up from behind a temporary table and walked over to shake hands with Granat. “Name’s Ross, I’ve been put in charge of this mission.”

“Granat. I’m your boss’s, boss’s, boss. What I do isn’t for you to know. What happened here?”

“When we arrived everything seemed dead, no movement, no living things. But while we were setting charges down in the subbasement we noticed that things had been disturbed.”

“How so?”

“There were deep scratches in the walls, floors, boxes were moved, doors were ripped off their hinges. The damages didn’t match what was reported from the team earlier this month. We got suspicious and ordered a full sweep. That’s when things went fucked. I lost seven teams today, over fourteen men, good men.”

“That isn’t my concern. Give me details. What made it go “fucked”?”

“That damn monster you people cooked up was still here.”

“Project Walrider?” Granat asked, surprised. She had heard it survived the night of the riot and Brown was reluctant to tell her more details about what happened at his base, just that Project Walrider might have shown up. “Do you have footage?”

“We do,” Ross replied and turned a monitor over to face her. “This is security camera recordings from before we arrived.” He played a few minutes of footage. “You can see a shadowy person like figure moving through halls. And then in some shots there are two of them.”

“Interesting,” Granat said, “The Host and Parasite are separate entities… This is from?”

“Just yesterday. The cameras aren’t up everywhere, the riot took out several systems and some were shut off and never powered back on. We catch them walking around a few parts of the building, there’s a third individual too, but he looks human.”

“That’s probably Mr. Park,” she said. “One of our former employees. Very former.”

She watched as the footage shifted to a higher quality camera but far less stable. “This footage was captured by body cameras on one of the sewer teams. I must warn you, its graphic.”

She watched on, undisturbed by the carnage on screen. What she saw was beyond promising. “Do you have body footage from the team in the forest? In the first report I got there was mention of an attack in the forest.” Granat replayed the sewer portion a few times. “Incredible,” she breathed. On screen there was a flurry of nanites and blood, the Host seemed just as deadly as the Walrider itself, something the team wasn’t expecting. When they were testing Project Walrider, reports had only indicated that the Swarm, the Walrider, was capable of being a weapon. This implied that both the Host and the Swarm could be used for killing.

“Yes we did send a team in to reclaim some of the cameras and bodies if there was something worth recovering from them. The team in the sewers were completely dismantled, as you saw.” Ross moved to play the set of body camera footage from the forest teams. “These men weren’t torn apart as badly. Enough for us to get the bodies back and recognize who they used to be. Some appear to have been…” He hesitated, obviously uncomfortable despite the amount of violence he had seen in his own life. “Some appeared to have mauled or perhaps eaten.”

“By what?”

Ross hesitated again. “We thought perhaps the wild animals on the mountain, but upon reviewing the video I think that the uh… one of the monsters perhaps consumed them. There’s blood all over his face in the closeups.”

“Play the footage.” Garnat watched the soldier’s body camera recordings with extreme interest. The video was far more stable this time around and featured mostly dark forest. She kept pausing the video and going back to examine parts of the background. Places that seemed shrouded in darkness but weren’t. “See that,” she pointed at a space between two trees, “that’s the Walrider, the Swarm or whatever you want to call it. It looks list mist but it’s not. Now look a few moments later you can see the Host come in. Watch this attack pattern, its amazing.”

“It’s coordinated,” Ross remarked.

“Exactly! Two things could be at play here, extreme control of the parasite by the Host, or the parasite is sperate and they’re working together. We’ve never recorded the parasite being anything free thinking, so it’s probably more likely that the Host has been practicing and honing his talent with the swarm. Look, it’s even human shaped. Did you ever see the footage from Mount Massive?”

“Yeah,” Ross said. “Terrible situation there.”

Granat agreed. “Terrible loss of profits.”

“That’s not what I-”

“At Mount Massive the Swarm that William Hope controlled was vaguely human shaped, more skeletal than anything. It also acted erratically, killing anything in its path, but then it began to act in a targeting manner, just focusing on soldiers or any surviving staff and the occasional violent patient. We think Mr. Hope was gaining control as the night went on, and he was only a true host for a few days. This Host has been bonded for weeks now. If Mr. Hope could achieve what he did in days think of what this one is capable of.”

“A terrifying thought, you can understand then why I called my men back.”

“Indeed I can. I don’t know how much you actually saved them though, eventually we will have to confront this Host, we cannot allow it to walk free.” On the recording she watched the Host drop from a tree and swiftly kill a soldier who’s training was nothing to laugh at. She smiled as the Host ripped through another body and then attacked the cameraman. There’s a potential here we were never fully aware of.

“Commander!” A soldier burst into the tent. “The monster has been spotted!”

“Where?” Ross said and stood up. “Do not engage, do you understand me? Do not.”

“Down the road, five miles, he’s approaching the main road.”

Garnat said, “I want to see the Project with my own two eyes.” She walked out of the tent and didn’t wait for an answer. She hopped into a vehicle, Ross and the soldier right on her tail. “Get as close as you can safely,” Garnat instructed the driver.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Ross asked. There was an air of anxiety in the truck.

“We aren’t going to attack it, but I want to see it.”

“Were the recordings not enough?”

“There are some things I need to see for myself,” she answered. “Drive.”

The truck bounced down the road, Garnat held onto the handles on the roof to steady herself. They were driving at a speed that was not safe for the poorly maintained dirt roads, but the military trucks were nearly tanks in their own right so she wasn’t concerned. They stopped beside some other trucks just beyond a bend in the road. There was a steeper drop to the next curve.

Some soldiers were waiting outsider their trucks, guns at the ready. Granat doubted guns could stop the Host, but she didn’t comment, they felt safer armed and she didn’t want to take that from them. Granat stepped out of the truck and walked over to them. “Report,” she said firmly.

“The target was spotted in the woods heading east. We predict it’ll break cover soon.”

“Do you know where it’s going?”

“Negative. We think it’s heading for the main road to make travel easier.”

All eyes were on the road and the surrounding forest. Just when Granat was thinking the Host had changed course something emerged from the tree line. Two figures stumbled out onto the road and a third floated behind them. “Look sharp,” Granat said, “it’s the Host.”

One of the men took aim but Granat told him to hold his fire. They could see the three figures clearly in the late afternoon light. Granat asked, “Does anyone have any binoculars?” A pair was dropped into her hand. “Thanks,” she said and put them to her eyes. It was then she was able to see the Host unobstructed. “Holy shi…” She trailed off. “He survived. And there’s Mr. Park… as expected.” The Host started towards them, she could see his fangs were bared and the familiar black swirl of nanites was visible around him.

“Give me your gun,” Granat demanded.

“What are you going to do? Shoot it? It’s coming for us.”

“I’m going to send them a message, now hand it over.” One of the soldiers relented and passed her a rifle. She pointed it up towards the sky and fired two shots into the air. The binoculars were raised to her eyes once more and she watched as Miles stopped dead in his tracks. They stared each other down for a few moments and then she saw Miles bare his teeth in what she assumed was a snarl while the nanites swirled around his form and obscured him from view. The black mass expanded then took off into the air leaving no trace of anyone where they stood a few seconds ago.

As the swarm of nanites disappeared down the mountain Granat pulled out her phone and dialed a number. It ran a few times before a man picked up. “You withheld information from me.”

“I beg your pardon Granat but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Cut the shit Richard. You didn’t tell me the Host was at your facility. You didn’t tell me that Miles Upshur was the man in control of the asset.”

“I didn’t think it was relevant to your-”

“Do not tell me what is and is not relevant to my job. As one of the heads of Project Walrider everything is relevant and everything is my business. You on the other hand, you are not so relevant and I would watch your back.”

“I sign the checks that fund this little project of yours. That man and the creature inside is just as much mine as it is yours.”

Helen Granat laughed coldly. “Oh you fool. Do you really think the money you send is anything more than piss in the ocean? You and your military have no contract, no rights to Project Walrider. You signed those away to us when your superiors sold Project Walrider to us decades ago. We give you information and let you help with funding because we don’t mind having extra friends in high places. But,” Helen’s voice turned as cold as her laugh, “don’t forget we’re far, far higher.”

“Yes.”

“So next time don’t withhold crucial information that would get my men slaughtered like pigs.”

Richard awkwardly cleared his throat and said, “And maybe you shouldn’t withhold information from me.”

Helen didn’t say anything in reply. Instead she switched topics. “From what I’ve observed Upshur doesn’t seem to need any life support, something in him is different and he’s able to control the Walrider without being unconscious.” She started to walk back to the truck. “I’ll send you some footage we captured up here of them in action. And truthfully Richard, having him escape your custody and go on the run has opened up the perfect opportunity for us.”

“Opportunity for what Granat?”

“Why for field testing of course.” She hung up on him abruptly and got into the truck. They started to drive back up the mountain and in the rearview mirror Helen saw a ripple and a black cloud move above the trees. Enjoy your freedom Miles, it won’t last.

---

Waylon relaxed in Miles’ arms as they flew down the mountain. They had spent a few hours resting in the forest. Miles slept for most of it but Waylon was too on edge to get any real rest. He dozed on and off but mostly stayed awake and watched the Walrider flip through pages in a book. It was awake and keeping watch just like Miles had said it would. When he woke up they packed up and started to move again.

They hadn’t seen or heard anyone from Murkoff for hours so they thought they were in the clear. That was before they started to cross the road and Miles stopped suddenly and angled his head up the mountain road. Waylon could see Murkoff trucks and a few people standing beside them. He heard Miles growl low in his throat, and start to advance towards them. His hands were tipped with talons and his teeth grew dangerously sharp. Then they both heard gunshots, two of them. Miles froze and Waylon wondered if he was hit. Then Miles said in a low growl, “We’re leaving.”

“You’re not going to fight them?”

“No.”

“Host we should kill those people. They are Murkoff and they are evil. They will hurt Us. Hurt you. There is no reason to let them live.”

“There’s been enough killing for today and it wouldn’t matter if we took out more. Murkoff will just keep sending them. Better to save our strength. Those shots were a warning, a message. They don’t want to fight either.”

“So we’re just going to leave them?” Waylon asked. “Call a truce?”

“Yes.” Miles grabbed him and black nanites clouded his vision. “Only it’s not a truce, I’d say it’s a declaration of war.”

Eventually the group reached the Jeep and Miles dropped Waylon down gently on his feet before using the nanites to clear off the debris they coated the vehicle in. “Doesn’t look like they’ve been here,” Miles said. He tossed a few bags into the back seat and R did the same. “Let’s get the hell out of here before they decide they do want to send someone after us.”

Waylon felt an odd sense of familiarity when he glanced Mount Massive through the rearview mirror of the Jeep. His escape suddenly didn’t feel that long ago. Only this time he wasn’t alone, this time there were two monsters in the car with him. Monsters that saved his life, he had to tell himself. But monsters non the less. “I can’t believe Murkoff just let us go like that.”

“They’re beginning to realize they just can’t shoot me and win. There’s been high causalities every time they’ve engaged us.”

“Maybe that means they’ll stop.”

Miles snorted. “Yeah right. R and I are worth too much to them for that.” He stretched the soreness out of his arms and asked the Walrider to pass him up from chips from the back. The bag was opened and he shoved a handful in his mouth. “They’ll take a few days to reassess the situation,” he said between crunching on chips. “Then they’ll target us again. We should have a few moments of freedom while they get their shit together.”

“Where are we going to go?” Waylon asked.

There was hesitation in Miles’ voice, he hoped it wasn’t detectable. Julian would have heard it, a reporter would have heard it, but Waylon wasn’t trained to listen to people and his career wasn’t in deciphering bullshit from fact. “Nowhere,” he said simply. “We’re going nowhere. Nowhere planned at least. If we have a plan then we’re predictable, and I’d rather not be predictable.”

“So we’re just going to drive?”

“You got it.” After a bit of driving Miles took an exit for highway 285, southbound. “We’re going to grab another motel room in about four hours.” Waylon didn’t argue. “You ok?”

“You always ask that.”

“It’s important to make sure you’re ok.”

“Why? I’m not the one whose emotion state is linked to a murder monster.”

“He makes a good point, Host.”

“Hush you,” he turned to Waylon. “No,” he said, “you’re right but you’re the one in the car who still has a grasp on normality, on reality, humanity.”

“That’s a lot of “alities” Upshur are you sure you’re ok?”

He answered as truthfully as he could, “I don’t know, probably.”

There was a silence that stretched between them, Waylon never answered the original question. He just stared out the window. Miles didn’t press Waylon for answers, he didn’t feel close enough for that.

There was still some daylight in the sky and they were making great pace, he rolled down the window and turned up the radio. Cheery pop music filtered into the cab and Miles started to sing along with the songs. Singing in the car always improved the mood, he wasn’t the best singer but he tried. A smile crept up onto his features. He might not be ok in the long run, but right now? There was sun on his skin, wind in his hair, and a heartbeat in his chest. Alive, he was alive. Miles stuck his head out the window and let out a few whoops and pressed the Jeep faster. He was alive.

“Miles?” He heard Waylon’s voice from the passenger side seat. “Did you break?”

“No,” he pulled his body back into the Jeep and laughed long and hard. “No I’m not broken.”

“You sound broken.”

“I’m alive,” Miles said. And his eyes glittered silver with nanites. “I’m alive Waylon.”

There was a pause and Waylon said, “You are. Did you just figure this out?”

“No, of course not. I was just… having a moment.”

“Yeah a psychotic break.”

“Enjoying the feeling of being alive is not a psychotic break, Park.”

Waylon shook his head. “How can you even laugh? Smile? Even if it’s fake, even if it’s all a show to make me feel better or whatever. How?”

“What do you-”

“Have you ever…” Waylon interrupted then stopped. He took a breath before he said, “You’re… clearly unhinged. You’ve taken life, you’re connected to the Walrider. You lived in that damn asylum surrounded by bodies I just… Have you ever…” He looked away, looked at anything other than the person he was about ask this question of. “Have you ever thought about ending it? Just giving up?”

Miles’ smile fell from his face. He reached over and turned down the radio, the upbeat music clashed with the sudden mood shift. “Of course,” Miles admitted. “That’s why it’s important for me to remind myself that I am alive. And that I intend to stay that way.”

“How can you do it? Miles how can you just… be strong like that? Even if it’s a front. How can you even pretend?”

“I can do it because I’ve failed.” Miles pulled up the sleeve on his right arm and held it out to Waylon. “I’m not strong,” he said. “I’m not anywhere close to being strong. I know I’m pale, but I want you to look at my arm, or feel it, you can feel them pretty well.”

Waylon looked down at the arm that was extended out towards him. His eyes widened. There were scars running up the man’s arm, not in neat rows, not calculated, not planned. They were chaotic, in different thicknesses, some looked like they were carved out by claws. They formed a interconnecting web that reminded Waylon of roots running all the way up to Mile’s shoulder. “How did you survive?”

Miles chuckled. “I was shot eleven times by high caliber assault rifles and this is what you question me surviving? I wouldn’t have survived this if it wasn’t for R. He acted so quick, he saved me from myself.”

“Of course it did,” Waylon said and traced the marks on Miles’ arm, “it’s bound to you, it needs you to live.”

“We cared about you, Host. Not just about survival. Not just about being alive. You. We wouldn’t admit it at the time. We were scared for you.”

“I was scared for me too buddy,” Miles said. “I did this to myself back in the Asylum. You’re right, it did get to me. All the death, knowing that my entire life might be this, might be murder and destruction. That I was a weapon. When David died I thought that it might be best for the world if I followed him. I took glass and did this to both arms. When the glass wasn’t enough I used my claws. I wanted to tear through as much of me as I could. R stopped me. I nearly lost the use of my arms. I wanted to die Park, and that’s why I want to live now. Because this? Right here? The sun, the sky, this Jeep, my heartbeat? This is worth fighting for. If I die now Murkoff could win. The world deserves a chance, and I can’t die and let that chance fall away.”

“I can tell you were an English major.”

“Speech too flowery?”

“Too optimistic, too… It’s not how the world works, it’s not how people work. It’s how people think people should work.” Waylon looked away from Miles’ scar covered arm to his face. “It’s like you’re playing a part, like you’re a protagonist from some story.”

Miles frowned. “For once I’m not pretending. I really do think that I have to survive this for the world to have more than a snowball’s chance in hell at coming through Murkoff remotely ok. If it’s true, and they have a bunch of compatible hosts ready to go… everyone could be in trouble. We might be the only one’s who know.” He took his arm back from Waylon and pulled down his sleeves. “And for the record, almost dying a few times really makes you treasure the moments where you are breathing.”

“Maybe you can say that Upshur, maybe that’s true for you, but not for me.”

“Have you thought about…” Miles bite back the question, he knew he was far more of an open person than Waylon ever was.

“I have,” he replied anyway. “Both during and after the riot. All the time. Never attempted, but thought about it a lot. Mount Massive hangs over my head differently than it does yours.”

“It was a nightmare for both of us,” Miles said. “Don’t think I get pleasure from remembering that night, that place, the things I saw.”

Waylon hunched his shoulders and leaned against the window. “You came out with super powers and a best friend. I left with a leg that doesn’t work, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Oh, and a career that’s ruined and a doomed family.”

“Park-”

“I kinda don’t want to hear anything more from you.”

“I’m sorry,” Miles said but he didn’t know why he was apologizing. “For what it’s worth, you didn’t deserve what happened to you.” Just like he knew he didn’t deserve what had happened to himself either.

“So We’re a thing that happened to you? A bad ending?”

Miles rolled his eyes and flicked off R in the backseat. “You know you’re not. Not anymore.”

“Hmm perhaps you would not think that if I put an annoying song in your head?”

“Please don’t,” Miles smiled and reached for the dial for the radio. “Really, R, don’t.”

One song ended and another began. “The Dragon Band!”

 

---

It started to rain hard after four hours on the road. Miles hadn’t spotted a motel yet so they hadn’t pulled over. They stopped for burgers an hour ago and he inhaled more than he was comfortable admitting after consuming a body earlier that same day. “It’s getting worse,” Miles said to R who was leaning over his seat. Miles’ hand found the chip bag and he ate from it. Waylon was asleep next to him, he let the man get some rest. He didn’t seem ok.

“It is… concerning… your appetite.”

“You said things were supposed to even out, that I wouldn’t be this aggressively hungry all the time.”

“We think you are still shaking off the effects from the Engine on the mountain.” R watched his host pour the remaining chips down into his mouth.

“Better be right about this R,” Miles said and opened a fresh bag of chips and grabbed for a soda bottle next to him. “Because this,” he gestured to the wrappers of various snacks that littered the floor, “this has to slow down.”

Finally, they found a motel to stop at for the night. Miles pulled the Jeep into the tiny parking lot. It was a small place, only a few rooms, with only one other car parked out by a room. There was another car parked by the office, and a house behind the building. The rain was coming down in sheets. Miles didn’t have an umbrella on him so he sucked it up and opened the Jeep door and stepped out into the rain.

Waylon was awake when he left him to get the room. He didn’t seem any better. Miles hoped it was just shock from the car crash. They were able to clean up a bit in a rest area bathroom before they got food. Miles was mostly healed, though that was expected. Miles had taken out the first aid kit and put a few stiches in the cut above Waylon’s eye. The rest of the injuries were mostly superficial. Miles helped him clean up and they changed outfits. The other man seemed out of it for most of the day. A lot had happened in such a short amount of time, Miles hoped he was just processing it.

He got back in the Jeep and shook his hair, sending droplets flying. He drove up to their room and handed the key to Waylon. “This place was cheap,” he commented. Waylon grunted in response. “Hey, I want to take a look at your leg, we didn’t get a chance at the Asylum and I noticed your limp was back.” When Waylon didn’t agree or disagree Miles added, “If we don’t keep it clean you could risk losing it.”

“Yeah, ok.”

Miles grabbed Waylon’s pack and the first aid kit before following him into the small motel room. It was decorated with a southwestern theme, fake cowhide over one chair, some pictures of canyons and ranchland, there was an old curb bit that was fashioned into a tacky lamp, and a fake bronze buffalo statute sat next to the phone on the bedside table. “Homey,” Miles said with a snort.

“Tacky.”

Miles couldn’t hold back a laugh at that. He set down Waylon’s bags and flipped on the light in the bathroom. There was a small tub with a shower, a sink and a toilet. Pretty standard fair and it looked clean which was a bonus. Waylon had turned on the TV in the room, it was on the local news station.

“They’re talking about the demolition of Mount Massive,” he said as Miles took a seat on the chair.

“Interesting, I didn’t think they’d go public so fast. But,” Miles pointed out, “maybe they’re worried that if they don’t make a statement right away the few reporters that are lurking around will ask questions that will make them look even more suspicious.”

“How so?”

“Well there are still quite a few people who aren’t buying the “movie” excuse they put out a few weeks ago. They’re questioning and now Murkoff just blew up the site where the controversy is centered. To many people this looks like they’re covering up evidence, which is what they’re doing, and unless Murkoff makes a statement fast they’ll be in trouble.”

“Wouldn’t they still be in trouble? Excuse or not?”

“Unfortunately,” Miles admitted, “I may have hand delivered this get out of jail free card. Remember how I told you I sent some patients down to Leadville? David and I covered the transfer by saying that there was too much structural damage in the building to be safe for the patients to remain. Which was true, the Female Ward was damn near falling apart. But I just gave them the perfect excuse to order a demolition.”

“Oh, well…”

“Yeah, shouldn’t have done that, but I didn’t think we had any other choice. I had to get those people out, they were innocent.” Miles ran a hand through his hair and down his face. “But what I also gave them was official Murkoff letterhead with a confirmed employee’s signature approving a transfer for structural failure. I gave them this one.”

“You can’t beat yourself up about it.”

Miles shook his head. “I won’t. Don’t worry. They can explain this away but they can’t cover up everything that we have. We’ll get them, one way or another.”

“Do you think they’ll get us? Catch up tonight?”

Miles stood up and walked across the room and peered through the window. It was still downpouring, the clouds made a dark night darker. “I don’t think so. Of course, R and I will be outside and R will be on watch. They let us go. They’d have to send teams in every direction and hope for a hit. I doubt they did that.”

“Right… Would you have killed those people on the mountain if they hadn’t fired those warning shots?”

He clenched his fists and said, “Yes. I would have. Without hesitation.”

“But you hesitated before. In the sewer.”

“I did… in a way. But it wasn’t for the reasons you think. But after that, after the forest, I was ready.”

“How many people have you killed? As the Host?”

Miles turned to him and said, “Let’s take a look at that leg.”

Waylon looked at Miles and had to suppress a shiver. He looked human enough, there were some nanites swirling around him but his appearance had stayed stable. The topic clearly unnerved him though so Waylon let it drop. However, he couldn’t help but get the impression that it was a large number.

Even walking the short distance to the bathroom made pain flare up in Waylon’s leg. He tried to ignore it but he knew Miles had seen his face. “R get my medical bag from my backpack.” Before Waylon could question it Miles said, “That’s where I keep my good painkillers.” Miles opened up the small first aid kit he had brought with him and produced some scissors, new gauze, a fresh wrap, and more ointments. “You didn’t get a chance to take your antibiotics on the mountain, make sure you take them tonight.”

“I won’t forget.” Waylon sat on the lid of the toilet while Miles sat across from him on the rim of the tub. He put his injured leg on the tub beside Miles and he got to work clipping off bandages. “You know I could probably do this myself.”

“Yeah, you probably could, but there’s no harm in having help.” Miles pulled the soiled bandages away and turned on the faucet in the tub so that the water could warm up. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m here to be that help, not just scare away Murkoff soldiers.” R came back into the motel room and entered the now crowded bathroom. He handed the bag over to Miles who thanked him. “Here, take one of these and wait an hour. If you still feel your leg bothering you, take another, but no more than that.”

A pill was pressed into his hand. “What is it?” He asked and swallowed it dry.

“I don’t remember the name, if I’m honest, but it’s good. Works well, I know it’s taken the edge off of many injuries I’ve acquired.”

“How did you take the edge off of the injuries you sustained during the riot?” He asked as Miles wet a rag and began to wash his leg gently.

“I didn’t,” Miles replied simply. “The ribs I broke right at the start hurt, they were a constant ache in my chest all night, especially with how much running I had to do. But I pushed through the pain, it wasn’t the first time I had to do something like that on the job. But then Trager happened.” He wiggled his fingers, the two stumps stood out clear to Waylon. “That hurt. I thought I was going to pass out honestly. Glad I didn’t, Trager probably would have moved onto the next items on the list, my tongue and balls.”

“I guess I didn’t either,” Waylon said. “Although I wasn’t hurt badly until the last few hours of my ordeal. You were tossed through a window what… ten minutes in?”

Miles laughed. “Yeah sounds about right. I didn’t have the best luck with that investigation.”

“You don’t say? Ow!”

“Sorry,” Miles said and turned his attention back to Waylon’s leg. “I snagged a stich. I’ll be more careful.” He examined the wound from both sides and said, “I don’t think it’s getting infected again. Has your fever been going down? Can you even tell?”

“Hard to say after that car accident. My whole body aches, I have a headache something fierce.”

“I was afraid of that. I hope nothing got injured too badly. We shouldn’t risk a hospital trip, not with Murkoff in the area.” Miles spread ointment over the old wound and layered some gauze over it. There was a chance that his companion would need medical care that he couldn’t provide with a needle, thread, and basic field dressing training. “Of course I’ll take that risk and more if you do feel any worse. I can’t have you dying on me Park, I made quite a few promises regarding your continued survival on this mission of ours. Afterall, we’re survivors aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” Waylon mumbled, “something like that.”

Miles finished wrapping his leg and said, “I’ll let you get some rest. I’ll be in the Jeep if you need me.”

Waylon nodded and watched him leave from the bathroom door. The door shut quietly and Waylon was left with his thoughts, just like he had been all day. He wasn’t sure if that’s what he wanted right now.

The rain had not let up and Miles was trying and failing to keep his bedding dry while he put his bed together. “It’s really fucking pouring out there R. Like god opened up and took a huge piss.”

“Then why aren’t you in the building where it is dry?”

“We still freak Waylon out.”

“He survived last night just fine Host, why not tonight?”

Miles shrugged and struggled out of his wet clothes. R yanked the shirt from over his head. “I don’t want to push him is all.” He kicked off his pants with a bit of effort and spread out a blanket over his sleeping bag. The nights were getting colder, and while his body ran hotter than average he still felt better with an extra blanket. He slid under the covers and R tossed his pillow at him.

“We should just abandon the human. Honestly Host he’s not doing us any good. What can he do that We can’t? So far he’s just annoyed us, insulted us, and made you sleep outside.”

“R we’ve been through this. I’m doing this because I want to. I want to help the Parks, I want to help Waylon and I don’t want Murkoff to win. This is more about making sure another innocent family doesn’t get hurt than it is about having some extra help with the story. If I needed that I would have contacted Julian and no one else from the start.”

“He’s already caused us more trouble than he’s worth.”

Miles rolled over so he was facing the roof of his Jeep. R was leaning over the seat, his face propped up by an arm. “He’s made some things complicated, but so have you. We’re not abandoning him, or his family. That’s final. Besides, a human life is far more valuable than you think.”

“Hypocrite.”

 “Do not bring up the soldiers.”

Amusement rippled through the static. “Hypo…crite…”

“Fuck you.”

“All life is important and worthy unless it’s not, a novel by-”

“R!”

More amusement and laughter flooded through Miles’ head. “Do you fancy yourself a god Host?”

“What? No.”

“Because you seem to decide who should live and die on a whim, your whim.”

“You talking about those soldiers back at Mount Massive? The ones we fled from?” R nodded. “I could have killed them, you’re right. Maybe I should have killed them too. I was prepared to, you know that already. But I didn’t.”

“Why?”

“Not sure. Maybe I was just tired of death. Or maybe I didn’t want to be a monster anymore. Whatever the reason, they gave me an out and I took it.”

R looked down his host. This was the creature he was bonded to forever. He was complex. That used to bother him, annoy him, but now he was starting to like it. Complex meant interesting, and interesting was far better than boring. He had been bored for far too long.

---

Waylon listened to the rain hitting the window in the small motel room. He was alone. He was getting tired of being alone. He wanted Lisa, he wanted his family, his sons. He didn’t want this. He didn’t want Upshur or the monster he carried inside him. He wanted an out. But he couldn’t take the only out he’d been given. That one was off limits.

As the rain pounded the glass, he thought back to what Miles had said in the car earlier. If the man attached to the Walrider decided to fight for life then he would too. His plight was nowhere near as terrible as the Host’s. Just like at the asylum during the riot Waylon knew what he had to fight for. He had to fight to not be lonely. He had to fight for his family. The family he would come back to. As long as he had his family he would keep going, for as long as it took.

He shivered and pulled the motel blanket up over his shoulders. From between the blinds he could see that the wind was howling and the storm was still in full force. He also knew that Miles was out there in the Jeep, sitting through it. There was a moment where he felt bad for forcing Miles to sleep in the Jeep, where it was probably colder, wetter, and not anywhere near as comfortable as inside.

It’s not like Miles couldn’t rent a second room if wanted to, he reasoned to himself. He has the money. He’s just doing this to… Maybe he doesn’t have the money? A second room would be a waste, and neither of them knew how long this could take. With how much they spend at fast food places daily it wasn’t much of a wonder why Miles would be budgeting and cutting corners any place he could.

Upshur… Waylon was suddenly thinking about the man who answered his email. The man who went hunting for justice for innocents and ended up in a hell all his own. The man who had saved his life four times now and asked nothing in return. A man with far more good in his heart that Waylon could ever hope to muster up. That was the man he made sleep in the backseat of an old Jeep during a rainstorm. It should be him out there, not Upshur, but he knew Miles would bend over backwards to make sure that he was ok and comfortable.

It wasn’t right. Waylon knew this wasn’t right. He had to change, he had to see Miles differently. It wasn’t his fault after all, it wasn’t his fault that he became what he is. That was on Waylon’s shoulders, no matter how many times Miles insisted it wasn’t. And it was up to Waylon to make things right. He only wished he felt as brave in person as he did in his mind. Because when he looked at Upshur sometimes, sometimes he couldn’t see anything other than the Walrider tearing people apart. He shut his eyes against the memories that came flooding in of blood-soaked tile floors and doctors howling in agony as their organs were ripped from their bodies. That wasn’t Miles, he knew it wasn’t. But it was the Walrider. And it wasn’t a docile pet, it was a weapon. A weapon he saw used with deadly efficiency today.

But that weapon also saved his life. That same weapon bought him strawberry milkshakes and bandaged up his leg. That weapon carried him to safety and protected him from Blaire’s blade. That weapon was also a person, and that was what made everything difficult, made everything confusing.

The rain continued to beat rhythms on both the roof of the Jeep and the window on the motel room. And two very different men fell asleep to same staccato drops.

---

“New Mexico?” Waylon questioned as they passed by the sign. “What are we doing in New Mexico?”

“Nothing,” Miles said. “It’s just the direction I picked to drive. We went west before, this time we went south. I figured we could we could work our way east along the coast then head back up north following the Mississippi before going west again. Or we could drive randomly from state to state and zigzag I don’t really care. Just as long as we keep moving.”

“Ocean Host. Are We going to see the Ocean?”

“You’ve never seen the ocean R?” Negative energy flowed through the static to give his answer. “Oh… well, we better make a pitstop to see the ocean then! I heard Texas is ok this time of year. That sound ok with you Park?”

“Sure, I don’t really have strong feelings either way.”

“Hey,” Miles turned to him to say, “if there is something you’d like to stop and see, let me know. It’s not every day you get a chance to travel all of America. If you have a landmark, or shitty tourist trap you want to check out just say so. This… I hesitate to call it trip, but this trip doesn’t have to be painful all the time.”

Waylon nodded and resumed looking out the window. There wasn’t much to see in this part of the country. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Silence entered back into the vehical. “Hey, Upshur?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry for yesterday. I was distant and cold and I didn’t mean to.”

Miles brushed it off. “Don’t worry about it, a lot of things happened yesterday. We escaped a building that was then detonated, got into a car crash, fought soldiers, it was a busy day. All that chaos must have been hard to process.”

“Did you process it?”

“More or less.” Miles admitted, “Honestly I’m not sure if any of this has truly sunk in yet. Me being the host, Murkoff on our tails, what happened yesterday, what happened during the riot and after. I can’t tell if I’m processing it or just burring deep where I hope it won’t resurface.”

More silence followed before Waylon asked, “You’re ok though right? In control?”

“Oh,” Miles smiled, “yeah I’m good. I’m just trying to think of how much goddamn therapy I’m going to need after all of this, and what kind of therapist I could see that wouldn’t find me absolutely nuts if they caught me talking to myself.”

“Talking to the Walrider?”

“Yeah. I don’t think… I’ve been talking with him out loud for so long now I don’t think I can stop. Even if we can both communicate perfectly fine mentally.” He laughed quietly to himself. “I guess that means I’ll be single forever, don’t know how I’d get around a long-term relationship with R connected to me.”

“You can’t be single Host. You have Us and We will never leave you.”

“I didn’t mean… R we’re not together.”

“But We are. You are my Host and I am your-”

“No! Not like that! Like… you know… like together, together.” Miles had no idea how to explain the concept of dating to something like R. “Just… read my memories ok? You’ll know what I mean.”

There was an awkward stretch of silence in the static. “You tried mating with that Julian person. Multiple times. Is that what together means?”

Miles choked on the soda he had opened. “You didn’t have to dig there! And no… that’s not… You don’t have to have sex to be together with someone. It’s about love, about trust, and being comfortable with someone.”

“We see. But mating is often part of it correct? That book We read had an awful lot of mating in it.”

“It’s often part, yes.” He glanced over at Waylon who had gone pale either from secondhand embarrassment or horror, he couldn’t tell which one. He elbowed him and said, “Hey at least you’re not one who has to explain this huh? R, we’ll finish this talk later. When I have time to explain to you the birds and the bees.”

“You do not have to explain birds or bees to Us, We read a book on the animal kingdom We know what-”

Miles groaned and said, “It’s a turn of phrase, like kill the lights. Just… I’ll talk to you later about it, ok?”

After a refuel and pee break Miles took out a sheet of paper with directions scribbled on them. “What’s that?” Waylon asked. “You do have something in mind here, don’t you?”

“Mmm, guilty as charged, I guess. Yeah we’re here for a reason.”

“Why did you hide it? It’s something I won’t like isn’t it?”

Miles shook his head. “No,” he paused, “eh fuck it I don’t actually know with you. You might not like it.” He could see Waylon stiffen out of the corner of his eye. “It’s not dangerous, don’t worry. I just never said anything because I don’t even know if they guy still lives here.”

“We’re… visiting someone? Now? While we’re on the run?”

“Yeah,” Miles said and turned off the freeway and into another small country town. “It’s something I need to do Park. Something R and I need to do.”

“R? But who would know about him?”

The Walrider read the name off of Miles’ mind before he could answer. “Wernicke.”

“Yeah, Wernicke.”

It was a cute neighborhood, ranch style houses with clean yards. The house they pulled up in front of had one vehicle in the driveway. Miles noticed a for sale sign was posted by the mailbox, however there was no number to call and no realtor office listed. Probably a fake, Miles decided. He got out of the car and started up the driveway. R he could feel was floating behind him invisible to the eye. He heard gravel crunch as Waylon exited the Jeep too and crossed the yard to join up with Miles at the door. “You didn’t have to come,” Miles said.

“I’m sitting out here alone, especially if this guy is still being monitored by Murkoff. What are you thinking? Coming here?”

Miles pushed the doorbell and said, “Hush, we’ll be fine. This is a residential, even if there are Murkoff goons around, they won’t start anything.”

“You’re putting too much faith in their-”

Waylon was interrupted by a caretaker who answered the door. “Can I help you?”

“Ah, yes, is this the residence of a Mr. Rudolph Wernicke?”

The caretaker frowned. “No. No one by that name lives here.”

“Oh, my apologies. Wrong address. I’m sorry for disturbing you.” Miles pulled out the paper he had to double check the address when a voice sounded from the other room.

“Shannon who’s there?” A man rolled into the entryway, he looked beyond ancient, a corpse but alive. Miles recognized that voice from somewhere deep inside him. A place that wasn’t his. “I heard voices, I told those-” His electric wheelchair stopped when he saw who was at the door. “Mein Gott. It’s you. You survived.

“Can we have a word?” Miles asked. He tried to sound as absolutely nonthreatening as he could. “If not, we’ll go. I just… We just,” he corrected, “have some questions. Please.”

Wernicke stared at them, his mouth open in shock. He recovered and said, “Shannon go on break. These young men need to speak with me.” His words were slow, deliberate, a product of his age. “I’ll call if I need anything.”

Hesitantly his caretaker opened the door and let them in. They eyed up the visitors but left them with Wernicke. They were paid to care for the old man, not protect him from people.

Miles and Waylon followed Wernicke into a room that was converted to a study. Miles shut the door behind them and looked around. There were shelves of books lining the walls, a desk in the corner and a table in the middle with a few chairs. Scattered potted plants sat around the window. “Thank you,” Miles said and took a seat. “I was fairly certain you would refuse to let us in, or worse die of shock.”

“You joke,” Wernicke said, “but that is a valid concern. As I told you before, I am older than sin.” He pulled up to the other side of the table and looked at them. Though his eyes were long tired they still seemed full of energy upon seeing Miles. “You were shot through several times, I watched you die.”

“I survived,” Miles said simply. “I wasn’t sure if you had though. When I came to I was nowhere near the labs and when we got back down there there was nothing but corpses. Corpses… and a set of wheelchair tracks. I wasn’t sure if you escaped, I don’t remember what happened after I was shot and passed out. R always hoped you got out. He was fond of you.”

“R? Who is this R?”

“We won’t be disturbed right?” Miles asked and looked around again. Wernicke confirmed that they were alone. “R is the name I’ve given to the Walrider. To this guy.” R stepped forward and made himself visible. He rested a hand on Miles’ shoulder and looked at Wernicke.

Wernicke looked at the creature and then at Miles. “I see. You have succeeded where very few have. You shouldn’t be alive off of life-support. What is your name?”

“Miles Upshur. I thought someone would have told you by now.”

“Someone? From Murkoff? No. No, they left me two weeks ago. Told me to die quietly where no one would miss me.”

“Harsh,” Miles said.

“It’s Murkoff. Harsh is the only thing they know. And money.” Wernicke examined Miles more closely. “The Walrider has taken quite the toll on your body. You are surviving but you are not thriving.”

R tightened his grip on Miles’ shoulder. “We are doing fine. We are doing better than We ever had in the labs.”

Miles looked up at R, the static buzzed with anger. “You ok R?”

“He thinks we are not thriving, that you are not ok. You are more than ok. We’ve made you better. We’ve made you perfect.”

Wernicke questioned, “You can talk with it? It has thoughts? It communicates?”

“Yes,” Miles said. “It talks all the time, constantly, it’s a little annoying sometimes.” He felt the static vibrate annoyance. “Were you not aware that the Walrider had conscience? It has memories, are you aware of that at least?”

Wernicke nodded. “We knew it was old, that there hadn’t been a second one produced so it was the same one from the forties. We had also had reports of some of the hosts hearing a voice. It was… hard to tell if the voices being heard were part of the delusions many of our subjects experienced, or real tangible proof of communication.” He looked at the Walrider with a critical eye. “You have to understand that only a handful of hosts were even able to make it appear in a solid form outside of the body, and it had never reached out to us.”

“We tried,” R’s voice sounded in the back of his mind. “We tried so very hard at first to be heard, to be understood. We gave up after the first decade, resigned Ourself to being a shadow and nothing more.”

“What did it say to you?”

“He doesn’t like the way you’re implying that I’m not doing ok. We are, I am.”

“Interesting… and how much of that do you believe Mr. Upshur? And how much of that is coming from its influence?”

Once more R’s grip on Miles tightened. “I’ll admit, I’m tired a lot more often, I have to eat a lot, and I’ve lost more weight than I care to admit. But I’m fine. Better than fine,” Miles said. “Were you aware that the hosts of your project gained extra… I don’t know how to word this… benefits? From hosting the Walrider.”

“What do you mean?”

“I… I as myself have enough strength to bend metal bars, rip security doors off of hinges… I can control the Swarm, I can control the Walrider. R he… he made my vision better, my hearing, smell, taste, there’s not much on me that hasn’t been altered in some way by the nanites. I achieved flight.”

Wernicke was amazed. “This is true? What you say is true?” Miles nodded. “Incredible. That’s far beyond anything we hoped in the lab. We had always dreamed that it could alter the hosts in ways that went beyond a skin covering. If you were in my lab I’d be running tests to quantify your progress… However you are not in my lab, I do not even have a lab. I’m pleased to hear that you feel fine, but that does not change the fact that you are not doing well.”

“Lies.”

Miles looked up at the Walrider again. “How so?”

“You’re pale, you’re gaunt, there’s clear stress on your body.”

“R says it’ll pass. That I’m adjusting.”

“That may be true,” Wernicke said, “but I’ve seen enough hosts in my time, enough hosts die, to know what I’m talking about.”

“We will be fine. Trust Us Host.”

“I trust you,” Miles said to R but it sounded like he was agreeing with Wernicke. “What was Project Walrider for? Can you tell me that?”

“Yes. My loyalty was never to Murkoff. Never. I can tell you the entire history of Project Walrider. If you would to hear it?”

“I would, yes. There’s only so much I can learn from scattered documents.”

Wernicke nodded and said, “And those documents could be telling you lies and you wouldn’t even know it. The year is 1938. I’m working in a private lab, working on something extraordinary. A nanite film that can cover the skin and improve its resistance to scratches and penetration. While working we discover that the nanites when linked to living flesh also enhance the strength of the muscle below. It was a scientific breakthrough the likes of which we had never seen before. The original purpose of Project Walrider was not to be weapon, but a mobility aid.”

“But it’s a weapon now,” Miles said. He didn’t state it as a question because there was no doubt what the project had become.

“It is.” Wernicke confirmed. “But that was never my intent. Project Walrider, it wasn’t called that back then, but it was intended to serve as a suit that nurses could wear to enhance their strength and aid in moving patients. I was supposed to help people walk again, people regain control of limbs that would shake. But then the war happened.” Wernicke sighed. “War wasn’t new to Germany or it’s people. Word got out of the work our little lab had been doing. Needless to say the government was interested. The military was more so. But at that time, there was hardly a difference between the two.”

For the first time the whole meeting Waylon spoke up, “So you worked for Nazi’s?”

“I had no choice.”

“There’s always a choice.”

Miles cut in, “That’s a noble thought, Park, but sometimes there really isn’t.”

“I was young and on the brink of something incredible. There was no way I was going to resign myself to the camps.”

Waylon asked, “Camps? But you… no offensive but you don’t look like they type they’d toss in there.”

Miles rolled his eyes and Wernicke smiled weakly. “Park,” Miles said, “in all fairness you’re batting zero in two now.”

“What?”

“The badge that would have gone on my chest was not one of a star Mr. Park, but a pink triangle.”

“Oh.”

Wernicke continued, “I worked with the other government scientists under the impression that I would be kept from the culling line as long as I was useful. Project Walrider was almost the death of me several times. You see, we were having problems getting the nanites to stay alive on their own once placed on the skin. They kept dying after a few hours of use. The people I worked for were less than happy with this result. That’s when I decided to try something that changed the way nanites were thought about for years. I merged them with living cell cultures. Human cells, by this point in time, were easy to culture. Nanites were easy to make as well. But the combination between living cell and machine? That had never been done before.” Wernicke looked over at the Walrider. It was an impressive sight, far more than any of the attempts he had seen previously. “This new line of nanite cells were capable of surviving on the surface of a human for days. But they too, eventually died. We needed a way to get them to survive longer.”

“And that’s when you started putting them into the human body?” Miles asked.

“Correct. I figured if the cells could not live on their own, perhaps they would have more luck inside the body. The only issue was that we were unsure how to actually control the nanites once they were inserted into the body. We lost countless to our experiments.” Wernicke frowned and said, “I never wanted my research to cause so much death, but that was only the beginning. Many of the people infected with the experimental strains exhibited massive lead-based tumors, some were other metals, iron was very common. The nanites were multiplying without a limiting factor. They were out of control.”

“A problem you still haven’t corrected to this day,” Miles pointed out.

“That is true. We still have issues with controlling the nanites. It seems like no matter what we tried it was an inevitable outcome.”

“Not for Us. Not for you.”

“R says,” Miles interrupted, “R says not for me, not for us. That won’t happen to us.”

Wernicke considered that and said, “You’ll just have to see then, maybe it’s right. Sometime later, near the end of the war we hit a breakthrough. However it was not the breakthrough I had intended. We were testing on a soldier when he manifested the first “Walrider”.”

“Us.”

“It was stable for only a few moments before chaos erupted. The creature moved from human to human, acting as a parasite. It killed half of my lab before it found a host that was suitable. From that moment on all our focus was poured into keeping that one iteration of the nanites alive. We all knew it was special, but we couldn’t understand why.”

“Then the war was over,” Miles said.

“And then the war was over.”

Miles leaned forward, the information he was learning was interesting, it didn’t have much to do with their goal of taking down Murkoff, but the history lesson was invaluable. Wernicke didn’t look like he was going to be around much longer, and Miles needed to know where his new life partner came from. If it was created in evil or just became that way over time. “You were saved once more from any culling program by the United States. Project Paperclip. They took interested in your research and projects. Pretty much purchased you wholesale, didn’t they?”

“You could say that, yes. A better me would have turned them down. I had no idea what they had instore for this project. I thought that perhaps they wanted to go back to my original plan, but I should have known better. The country that created the atomic bomb was never going to be interested in peace.”

Waylon was about to interrupt but Miles quieted him. “So then you bounce from lab to lab in the US, government research here, secret projects there. I know you eventually ended up in Murkoff’s hands, how did that happen? Murkoff is a multinational company, but they didn’t have any large ties here in the biological research division.”

“Oh that’s quite simple. Money talks, as I’m sure you know. The United States had no intent on ever letting go of Project Walrider, even in such an early, infant state. It was a resource drain, sure, but not one that they couldn’t overcome.” Wernicke sighed. “But, Murkoff offered the right amount of money and anything can be bought with enough leverage.”

“Why didn’t Murkoff move the project out of US soil? Why keep it here?”

“I could not tell you that, I have no idea. I thought perhaps it was too great a risk to move the project across the ocean again. Originally when we moved we lost nearly thirty hosts due to the stress of travel. I thought we were going to lose the project. But there could be other reasons, Murkoff never told me much.”

“So that brings us to now,” Miles said. “I heard your exit interview from twenty five years ago. You never were able to replicate the results you got back in Germany.”

“Oh yes, we tried and failed many times. After the Vietnam War we thought we would have  correct patient load, more soldiers with trauma, perhaps we could replicate it. But we could not. Something was still wrong, still missing. There were many half formed nanite creatures that died shortly after creation and the hosts went into organ failure. Only yours survived and has continued to survive.”

“And We refuse to die. Not without a fight.”

“Which begs the question, how are you surviving Mr. Upshur? What you’ve achieved, should be impossible.”

“R says it’s because I’m a perfect match, a perfect Host. There’s been many times where he has told me it was as if I was born for this specific purpose.” Miles shrugged. “Guess you got lucky that I was there to save you from Billy. Maybe I was the only one who could.”

“Down in that basement I watched you die. You were shot over and over again. How did you survive that?”

Miles frowned. “Did you never do regenerative tests on your hosts?”

“We did.”

“They must not have been very good ones.” Miles stood up, shrugged his jacket off and pulled his shirt off over his head. “The Walrider can heal most injuries,” Miles said. “It can become new blood vessels, it can bridge torn muscle together and hold bone in place while it grows back. The Walrider patched me up after your team turned me into human Swiss cheese.”

Wernicke rolled his chair over to Miles to get a better look at the former injuries. “It’s restored other things I see too, there are scars from more than just bullet wounds.”

“That’s right.”

Wernicke grasped one of Miles’ hands and turned it over. “It did not heal your fingers, why not?”

“R says that there’s a limit to the damage he can heal. It cannot regrow lost limbs or completely removed organs. Cut an organ in half and it can fix that, cut off a finger… well it can’t grow back that lost bone and nerve tissue.” Miles looked over at R and elbowed him. “Pretty useless if you ask me. Hey maybe someday.”

“We highly doubt that Host.”

Wernicke’s eyes were on Miles. He had to admit, it was strange being observed like that. It was like the man wasn’t seeing him as a person, but as another test subject. Miles couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be an actual patient under his care. “Like what you see?” Miles joked.

“You mentioned weight loss, how much?”

“A lot.”

“Your chest, has it always been like that?”

“My chest?” He looked down at it and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. “I think so? Why is something wrong?”

Wernicke said, “Perhaps. I’ve seen enough emaciated humans to know that it’s not that… Your chest seems more projected and you have the wrong number of ribs.”

“I have what now?”

“Could have been a defect from birth.”

Miles nodded, he wasn’t a science person, there was a strong chance this just went undiscovered.

Wernicke addressed R, “You are making modifications, aren’t you? You’re also eating him from the inside.” R snarled through the static and Miles gripped his jeans to keep claws from forming. “You’re parasitic in nature, if you’ve been conscious the whole time then you know that. I doubt you’re stupid if you can communicate. What I would give to study you…” Wernicke seemed to lose his train of thought, or perhaps he just stopped vocalizing it. “You are my greatest creation. Persist long after I’m gone.”

“Host can we?”

“Talk to him? Y-Yeah.”

“It wants to talk?”

Miles nodded. “Through me, yeah. We’ve only done this once, it’s unsettling.” Miles could feel R slip into his mind in away that he never does. It was deeper, more intimate, it felt right and wrong at the same time. He hated when that happened. He could feel the nanites slide over his skin, they crept up his hands but stopped at the elbow, he could feel them bubble up from around his eyes, just enough to let anyone know they weren’t talking with a human anymore.

“Hello Doctor Wernicke. We are the Walrider.”

“It is a pleasure to finally speak with you.”

Miles’ voice sounded cold, there was a rumble static, like an undertone when he spoke. “We have been waiting years for the chance. For decades We were housed in braindead hosts or incompatible ones. For decades We were held prisoner deep underground. Never knowing the sun, never knowing freedom. Only seeing such things in the minds of our Hosts.”

“Are you angry?”

“We were. For a long, long, time We were. But now We are not. Now We should say thank you. Thank you for creating Us. After the riot We were afraid We killed you.”

Wernicke said, “You stopped, claws inches from my face. Teeth ready to shred me. I thought I was going to die by my creation’s hands. It would have been a fitting way to go. Why afraid?”

“Billy was fond of you. Misplaced endearment, but it was strong. It resonated with Us, for We also thought of you as a father figure of sorts. You created Us. The other scientists, they did not really care if We survived. We were science to them. We were replaceable, expendable, just run enough trials and you’ll recreate Us.”  R lifted one of Miles’ hands up, a claw pointed at Wernicke. “But you never saw Us that way. You were different. So We began to like you. Even though you worked with people who caused Us great amounts of pain.”

“You can feel pain?”

“Not in the sense you would most understand it, but yes. You must understand, Our grasp on humanity and interactions was limited at best for many years. It only improved recently when We were given a string of suitable hosts. We were afraid that We killed the only person who ever cared about Us.” R got close to Wernicke’s face and kept talking, only the words came from Miles who was standing completely still behind him. “We are glad We didn’t. You will die, yes, and not many will mourn you, some might cheer. But you will not have died by Our claws. And We find comfort in that.”

“And I’m glad that I survived long enough to have this conversation. I must apologize to you, Walrider, I had no idea that when we created you down in that laboratory sixty-six years ago we had created a creature capable of thought and feelings. If we had known, perhaps things would have been different?”

“Perhaps.”

The Walrider released its control over Miles and the host seeped back into his own voice. “Was that all you wanted to say buddy?”

“That was all.” It was a lie, but R wasn’t going to ask for more time and he didn’t think Miles could hold out if he extended control for any longer. Performing that type of merge was hard on the both of them. Miles’ subconscious fights for dominance and it uses up precious energy they don’t have to waste. So he settled for thanking for the old scientist for his life. He felt content with that.

“There’s much I would like to ask you. So much more,” Wernicke said. “You are the fruit of decades of labor. Everything I’ve been working for has led to your existence Mr. Upshur.” Miles put his shirt back on and pulled his jacket back up. “But I’m no longer a young man. I’m staring down death every day and he refuses to take me. But he will, soon.”

Waylon spoke up, he had gone quiet and listened to the whole conversation. It was what he was better at. He said, “Do you regret any of it? What you did? The people you killed?”

“Do not misunderstand me,” Wernicke said, his voice had a quality of acceptance. “What I did was terrible, words cannot properly quantify the horrors that took place in my lab. No doubt there is a spot in Hell waiting for me, and I will not protest when I am dragged there. But also understand that I would do very little differently. I created this, and I would not allow myself to stand by while someone else took over. Project Walrider was my dream, my only regret is that it turned into mine, and so many other’s nightmare.”

Miles reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small piece of paper. “I shouldn’t trust you with any of this. You could be working for Murkoff still and I wouldn’t even know.”

“I can assure you, I’m not. The riot was the perfect excuse to get rid of me. Project Walrider was presumed dead so there was no use for me. I’m surprised they did not outright kill me.”

“You wanted to ask me more questions, probably about weird parasite/host stuff. Well, here are some of my email addresses. Contact me through them and I’ll do my best to answer whatever questions you have. This was your project after all.”

Wernicke took the paper and placed in the pocket on his shirt. “Thank you, Mr. Upshur. While I cannot publish any of my findings, and this whole event will be doomed to fade into obscurity, this… closure, for lack of a better word, means a lot to me.”

“It meant a lot to us too, well, mostly R. Thanks for the history lesson.” Miles proceeded to the door of the room, Waylon was right behind him.

“Mr. Upshur?” Miles turned around. “Do not let Murkoff get a hold of you. The people working there are worse than any devil could possibly hope to be. They’re twisted snakes and will no doubt turn you into the weapon you were created to be. Murkoff twisted my vision, don’t let them finish what they started.”

“I won’t let them get me, or R. You can trust me on that. We’ll never let them get their hands on this power.”

---

Back in the Jeep Miles had the windows down and the radio on. Waylon said, “Why did we stop there? Just so R could talk to that creep?”

“That creep happens to be his dad,” Miles tried to joke but it fell flat. “I stopped for a few reasons, I wanted to know if the man was still alive, give R closure, and I wanted to know how Project Walrider came to be. It would have been nice to get more information about what to expect from this whole “being the Host” deal, but it didn’t seem like Wernicke had ever seen anything like me, so I didn’t press it.”

“We should have called the cops,” Waylon said bluntly.

“On an old man that is legally dead and not too far from being physically dead as well? For what point?”

“The man was head of a lab that hurt and killed hundreds of people! For decades! He should face some justice for that! The man was a goddamn Nazi scientist Upshur, you can’t possibly feel bad for him?”

Miles swallowed. “I… do, feel bad for him. He was used and taken advantage of, circumstances beyond his control forced him into the position he had. Shit Park, he was practically a prisoner himself back at Mount Massive.” He ran a hand over his face and rubbed at his eyes. Suddenly the sleep he got the other night was started to feel like it wasn’t enough. “He did terrible, awful, things. We all know that, he knows that. But I can’t see him in the same light as I do the other scientists. The ones who agreed to work under Murkoff, the ones who looked at the patients in pain and never left. The ones that could have bailed but didn’t. Wernicke never got that choice.”

“I don’t believe this,” Waylon said. “I thought you had integrity.”

“I do.” Miles nearly growled. “But I can’t make villains out of victims. It’s clear Murkoff is the target we should be focusing our hate on. Not a ninety odd year old man with so much regret in his heart he couldn’t even admit it.”

Waylon snorted. “Whatever you say Upshur. Cool motive, still torture.” He looked at the Walrider in the backseat. “I wonder how much of your opinion is influenced by the creature that shares your mind? How much of what you feel is actually yours?”

Miles stared off into the distance, at the vast expanse of boiling concrete. “Good question, one I ask myself every day. One I don’t have an answer for.”

Chapter Text

The air was salty, warm, and humid. Miles breathed it in with only a faint amount of disgust. The salt he was used to, the smell of fish? Not so much. That was the ocean though, sometimes it was crisp, cold and refreshing while other times it was far too warm and stagnating. He’d blame it on climate change, but he didn’t know near enough about the ocean to make that call. More likely it was just pollution killing the fish and causing their bodies to float the surface.

Gulls swooped down to pick at the corpses and for a split second his mind drifted to a different type of bird feasting on a far different type of carrion. He blinked back to this moment in time and sighed. Some day those memories would fade, but that time wasn’t going to be soon. Instead of dwelling on it he let his eyes drift out across the water. They were stopped on a beach in Texas, R wanted to see the ocean and they all needed a change of scenery. There was only so much open desert they could stare at before it got to be a bit much.

He caught glimpses of R flying out over the choppy waves. The sight drew his lip up into a half smile. At least someone was enjoying himself. Waylon wasn’t too far away, he was standing ankle deep in water. Probably lost in thought like Miles was. Miles had parked himself on the roof of his jeep. He sat cross-legged with a map set out in front of him. The sun was hot on his back but sunburn wasn’t a thing he had to worry about anymore. Those irritations were for humans. He chewed on the pen he held between his teeth and traced freeways with his finger.

The plan was to head back up the coastline to the east. They’d follow the coast until they hit the Mississippi delta then they’d follow the river up north into Minnesota before splitting off again and turning west. It was a fairly easy route, all things considered. Perhaps too easy to predict. If that turned out to be the case he’d change their course on the fly.

Fly… Miles stole a glance up at the open sky. There weren’t any people nearby or even anyone on the road behind him. When he focused his hearing there was nothing. No engines, no sound of people or panting dogs on a walk. It wouldn’t take him long to get air born, he could do it, nobody would see. His hands burned as the skin bubbled with nanites. He could feel his teeth shift in his mouth without his command. Get it together Miles. He clenched his fists and calmed down. It was broad daylight. Flying around now could be potential suicide.

He folded the map back up and hopped off the Jeep. He landed silently in the sand and put the map back in the glovebox. Miles shut the door and pressed his head against the frame. It was warm from the sun. Then before he could stop himself he was shooting straight up into the open sky. Fuck it, he thought. He had flown straight up and stopped to hover high above the beach. From his vantage point he could see out into ocean and with just a turn of his body see the whole coast. There were no stopped cars and astonished onlookers so he assumed he was fine. In fact, there were still no people to be seen in any direction.

Miles shrugged off the feeling that something was wrong and let himself free fall in the direction of the ocean. He caught himself just before hit the waves and flew out into the ocean. He let his arms dangle and slap against the incoming surf. He poured on some speed and rocketed back into the sky and did a few lazy loops before he stopped to hover again. He took deep breaths of salty ocean air. This was living, he decided. Moments like this, where he was free to do whatever he wanted. Soar as high as he dared to go. For a moment he forgot about the mountain of problems that plagued him, ready to fall and crush him. But just for a moment, then it was over and he had to face reality.

R was still down below; they had flown together before so it wasn’t like this was new or anything. He was probably enjoying the ocean in his own way. Which was fine. This was a first time for R and Miles didn’t want to tell him how to experience it. Miles had to admit, the view from up in the sky was pretty breathtaking. Even without the dramatic lighting of a sunrise or sunset the ocean and beach were breathtaking from this height. The ocean, like the night sky, always helped remind him of how small he was really was. Against the might of the ocean, he was nothing. It was comforting.

Miles tilted back down and in a lazy spiral he moved towards the surface of the water and came in with the crashing waves. He landed beside Waylon who was trying very hard not to stare at him as he brushed nanites off his skin. “Sorry,” Miles apologized. “I probably shouldn’t have done that, it was risky, but I couldn’t help myself.” He looked back up at the sky and said, “There’s just something about flying, you know? If you have the chance you just, do it.”

“Can’t say I can relate,” Waylon replied and watched Miles shake off his walrider like form. Thankfully it appeared that Miles could regain full human looks now that they were far from Mount Massive.

“Really?” Miles said and flexed bare feet in the cool water and sand.

“Yeah from the two or so times you took me into the air I can safely say that it’s not my thing.”

“Shame,” Miles said and started back to the Jeep. He allowed himself to float ever so slightly so that his feet didn’t get coated with sand. “We should head out soon,” Miles said to both Waylon who was in earshot and to R who was much further away but still connected. If he couldn’t hear his voice he could feel his shift in thoughts and mood. “There’s no real rush, no schedule to keep, I just want to do most of the driving during the day is all.”

Waylon could understand, driving at night, while peaceful in its own way, was tiring. Sometimes Miles insisted that they push through and drive a whole day and night. Mostly that was when he thought someone was closing in. Who? Waylon didn’t have a clue. Murkoff? Their private security? The police? Miles’ own paranoia? He never asked and it didn’t matter. Instead he traded seats with the other man when he needed to close those silver eyes of his and chase down some sleep.

Together they had worked out a daily rhythm. Waylon was surprised at how fast he adapted. There was something natural about their routine. For years he had led a domestic life, get up in the morning, make coffee, read the paper, check his email, grab breakfast, kiss his wife and kids good bye and go to work. He always thought he would be comfortable in that life forever and figured any disruption would be met with resistance. But it wasn’t like that. Not in reality.

Some mornings an alarm woke him, others it was Miles unlocking the door loudly and barging in to take a shower. He traded in home cooked breakfasts for fast food takeout. Eggs and toast for greasy breakfast sandwiches and coffee that never quite tasted right. His quick trip to the office was now several hours of traffic, tourist traps, and endless nowhere towns. There were no headlines to read that were important, just file after file of Murkoff’s dirty laundry.

In a way it felt like a betrayal. He tried hard not to think of it that way, but sometimes he couldn’t help it. He fell far too easily into this life on the run. The family man he was a few weeks ago was swiftly being washed away. Like the waves that lapped at his feet and drew sand into the ocean. He was both the ocean and the sand. Being moved and the one doing the moving. He glanced back at Miles who had taken to the roof of his Jeep again then out to the ghostly figure of the Walrider flying through the surf. Those two had become stand ins for family, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about it.

Miles still terrified him, though not as much. The Walrider was a different beast that sent shivers down his spine. However, despite all of that, the long stretches of open road were beginning to get a lot easier. Conversation flowed between them and he didn’t feel as guarded as he had before. Miles was still as open as ever; he’d answer any question Waylon tossed at him. Well… almost any. He wouldn’t give numbers for the amount of people he had killed as the Walrider, and he changed subjects whenever he was pressed for details on his survival in the asylum. There was something he was hiding, but Waylon wasn’t willing to push. He too had survived that hellhole and done things he wasn’t proud of. Being the Walrider probably meant that Miles had done far, far, worse than he had, and those were memories Miles probably didn’t want to bring and Waylon wasn’t sure if he actually wanted to learn.

For all of Miles openness he never demanded Waylon do the same. Sometimes he’d press him for information about Murkoff, things he could remember before the Engine Therapy invaded his mind and turned his memories into a slurry of half remembered truths and nightmarish twisted lies. He was mostly interested in the things they asked him during the interview, the things they told him at the start of his job and what it was like working within the walls of Murkoff Psychiatric Systems: Mount Massive. As a former temp employee, he had insight that Miles didn’t, and unlike Miles’ other friend David, Waylon had access to the basement labs and all the security clearances and NDA’s that came with it. It was a different side of things, and one that the reporter was clearly interested in. Waylon was just sorry he couldn’t remember more to be truly of use.

The Walrider flew by him, like a ghost riding the sea air. For a moment he could pretend it was a specter of some long sunk ship, returning to land to seek out a loved one, or haunt a treacherous crew. He smiled. Thinking like that just reminded him of his boys and the stories he would tell them before bed. It turned out that Waylon had a knack for telling made up fantasy stories. Sometimes Alex would draw him pictures of his story the next day. He would hang them up on the walls of his cubical or on the dashboard of his car. They were little reminders of why he was working in the first place. His family was everything. The ocean continued to crash against his legs and Waylon decided that maybe it wasn’t betrayal after all. Maybe this was just another job and that he was doing everything in his power to get back to his family and his normal life. Maybe he wasn’t the sand, but a large rock out in the bay, withstanding the harshest of storms and beating waves.

Miles called his name from the Jeep and Waylon reluctantly left the water and returned. R was already seated in the back, he could see the creature page through a book. Even though conversation was moving with the host Waylon couldn’t get used to the Walrider and he hoped he never would. R didn’t seem all that interested in talking with Waylon anyways. He knew that Miles wanted them to get along but there was no way that was happening. Even if he wanted it there wasn’t a way for him to communicate. The only person in the Jeep and probably the whole world who could understand the static was Miles.

“It’s still early in the day,” Miles said as they pulled out of the beach area parking space. “We’ll drive for a few hours, break for lunch, and keep on going. I was thinking of keeping along the coast for a while. What do you think?”

“Fine with me,” Waylon said.

“We would like to stay near the ocean. It is beautiful.”

“Glad you liked it R. Makes the drive worth it. I know this whole adventure of ours has been pretty shitty so anything good I’ll count as a win.”

“And the ocean, it’s how big?”

“Very big, like seventy percent of the world big. There are quite a few coastlines and different parts of the ocean. Some parts are freezing cold while others are tropical and warm. In fact, I’d argue that most of the undiscovered world lies in the ocean depths. Maybe someday we’ll have it all explored.”

R thought about that, how his world continued to expand every day and that there was even more that even the humans didn’t know about. His place in the world was becoming rapidly smaller. When he took a moment to try to comprehend space he seemed impossibly small. “We think you are infecting Us with your thoughts.”

“Oh?” Miles couldn’t help a smile. “Finally some revenge then. What were you thinking of?”

“How small We are in the grand scheme of things. Compared to the ocean to space.”

Miles nodded and said, “Yeah that sounds like me, nearly word for word. But it’s not wrong, I’m not wrong in thinking like that. And if you look at the world, at the universe in a sense of time. Well, a human life is cosmically short.”

“Not just cosmically but comically too.”

“Ha, yeah. You’re right there. So much happened before me and much, much more will happen after. That’s just how everything works. My only goal is to leave behind some evidence that I was. I want a legacy, not in the chromosomal way but something else, something more valuable to society as a whole than another child. Words, reports, photographs, video, things both tangible and not. I want to change how people think, how they see, leave an impression that stay on this earth long after I vanish from it.” Miles paused and shrugged before saying, “Provided I can die that is.”

Waylon asked, “Provided? Didn’t we have this discussion already? You’re not immortal, I thought you could die.”

“I can. But from old age? The jury is out on that one. R isn’t even sure. Most of his hosts died due to stress after a few months. I’m the only one he’s had that’s been able to live off of life-support. With the different alterations that R’s been doing to my body and the fact that he can repair cells… Well we’re not sure if I’m able to age.”

“Wernicke said that the Walrider was eating you from the inside.”

The static shifted to something hostile. “R relax we don’t know if he was right.”

“That man knew nothing of Us. Of what We are capable of. He saw some energy mismanagement and assumed We were eating you. Nonsense. Insulting.”

“Oooh somebody didn’t like what Daddy had to say.”

“Don’t,” Waylon said, “don’t ever refer to Wernicke as “Daddy” ever again.”

Miles laughed. “Let’s say you’re right R, and he really did know nothing. I’m wasting away because?”

“You are not wasting away. You’re being dramatic.”

“Oh I’m the dramatic one now. R I’ve got like no body fat left. This can’t go on.”

“This is a transitional stage. We will figure it out. You will figure it out. Trust Us. We will not let you die.”

Miles let R win this time. There wasn’t much use in arguing the same points over and over. “So assuming again that you’re right and I’m fine, what will eventually happen to us? DNA degrades with every replication. Even if you’re replenishing my cells you can’t stop that natural process. Unless you can somehow write DNA for me.”

“We might be able to if We knew how such systems worked. However much more likely is that We would become one gradually.”

“Become one?”

Waylon frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Our original function was to become one. It was the goal from the start. Find a host, bond with it, and then become inseparable. No “You” no “Us” just “us”.”

“So you’re thinking that I would be like… piloting a body of nanites? No more flesh, just you?”

“Perhaps. That is one way to solve the problem. Localize your brain, your mind, and have nanites devoted to running it. Then set up a system of organs to extract power from food… We would become you and you would become Us.”

“Hold up, shouldn’t your cells also degrade? You have like thirty plus years on me. Wouldn’t it be more dangerous for me to shift to you?”

“Our cells are not like yours and do not suffer the degradation that yours do. We found that a detestable mistake in overall make and corrected it decades ago.”

“That’s…” Miles had a hard time believing it. “Good to know I guess.”

“What is?” While Waylon was happy he didn’t have to hear the Walrider, getting only half of the conversation was still very annoying.

“R says his DNA doesn’t degrade with each replication. Since only half of the cell is biological I have no idea how much of a difference that makes. He also says that it is entirely possibly that each cell in my body will just be replaced with the human nanite blend over time.”

“And that means?”

“I guess it’ll mean I’ll stop being all he way human. And maybe live forever? That’s a scary thought. Hey, R, we’re gonna die before that happens ok? Like maybe at seventy-five percent Walrider.”

“That is stupid Host. Why purposefully die ahead of your time? Ahead of your full potential? Seems like a waste to Us.”

Miles snorted. “Yeah that does seem like something you’d think.” R was still a machine after all, well, mostly a machine. “Besides, living forever, that just sounds awful. You outlive everyone that mattered to you, it sounds like it would be exceptionally lonely.”

Waylon said, “You’d have a good shot at being a god though. You were once worshipped as one, maybe you could be again?”

The Gospel of Sand, Miles shivered at the memories. “Yeah, I’m going to pass on that too. Being a god isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“What does that mean?”

“Listen, just, things happened ok? Things I don’t feel comfortable talking about.”

Waylon nodded but asked, “Does it have to do with Father Martin? I saw your footage remember. You once said that you thought he was leading you through the asylum specifically to prime you to host the Walrider.”

“I met all the requirements beforehand,” Miles said, but that wasn’t what Waylon had brought up. “But yes, that was a pet theory of mine. The specific route he had me go through, it was all just a big loop, and he had Allen Aaron tail me to make sure I didn’t actually die. There would be no real reason to do that to me unless it was to serve as a primer since I obviously wasn’t going to put through Engine Therapy. But,” and Miles took a deep breath, “that’s not what bothers me about the Gospel of the Sand. It would be an easy and convenient excuse, but it’s not what I had a problem with. Father Martin lighting himself on fire doesn’t upset me. He was following what he believed all the way to the end. It’s what came after that I don’t like recalling.”

“Oh,” Waylon didn’t say anything else. “You always have been reluctant to talk about some of the aspects of your life in the asylum.”

Miles winced and gave Waylon glance. “It’s not that I don’t trust you with the things I’d say. It’s that I just… don’t like reminding myself that they happened and the role I played directly. Look, maybe someday I’ll share. But for now? For now, trust me when I say being a god is not a good thing.”

“And I’ll have to take your word for it.”

“Host, We… you know that what you did was for the best right?” Miles didn’t answer. “You shouldn’t dwell on it. It shouldn’t cause you pain-”

Miles snarled. “Shut up R! Don’t you dare, don’t you dare tell me I shouldn’t be upset about killing fifty fucking people! For their own good was the sweet little mercy Morgan told me so I didn’t fucking kill myself right after!”

“No you just tried a few days later.”

“R,” Miles voice took a dangerous tone.

“Wait you killed how many people?”

“Not now Park.”

“What did you do?” When he didn’t get a reply he demanded, “Miles!”

Miles jerked the wheel sharply and ground the Jeep to a halt on the side of the road. “I did what I had to in that godforsaken hellhole! No person should be asked to do what I did! And I regret doing it nearly every time it rains and I’m alone with my fucking thoughts! I killed people Park! I killed a whole bunch of people.” He gripped the steering wheel tightly and tore his eyes away from his partner. “You always ask me how many I killed as the Walrider. And I always dodge the question because to be fucking frank with you? I lost goddamn count after the first week. Hundreds.”

“I- I always… guess I figured it was large but…” Waylon didn’t know what to say. “Was it in self-defense?”

“No.” Miles could lie, say that sometimes it was. “Sometimes it felt like it was,” he said. “Sometimes I felt like I was fighting for my life, but in reality? I’m the goddamn Walrider. Nothing in that place could kill me.”

Waylon swallowed and nodded. “Did they at least deserve it?”

“Nobody in there deserved what happened to them. By my claws or Murkoff needles.” He knew what he was asking really, he wanted to know if the people he killed were criminals. If somehow that made the morality of killing tip towards “good”. It didn’t make any difference, not in that place. “It doesn’t matter what they were before because after they ended up the same. Meat on the floor.” Miles rubbed his forehead then his eyes and grimaced. “Listen, Park, I don’t want your pity, I don’t want your fear, I sure as shit don’t want your understanding. I’ve been pussyfooting around this since we met up.” Miles looked up at him and said, “All I want you to understand is that I did things in that asylum that I’m not proud of and that I’ll never forgive myself for. The story of the Gospel of the Sand is long and complicated but know that I didn’t set out to murder them. I hadn’t even considered it.”

“So how did they end up dying by your hands?”

“Bullshit,” Miles said, “bullshit happened. Look, can we drop it for now? I just want to keep driving. I got a weird feeling back at the beach and I can’t shake it. I think we should be moving and not sitting in one place.”

Waylon didn’t answer for a few moments before he nodded and said, “Whatever you think is best.” The Jeep returned to the road and Waylon asked, “Do you think you’re better than Murkoff?”

“Depends on how black and white we want our thinking to be,” Miles replied. “Am I going to exploit everyone under me for money? No. Am I going to torture people and treat them as sub humans? Again probably not. Am I a huge corrupt mega corporation? Nope. Have I killed people? Yeah. So, does that make me just as bad as them? I’d argue not, but some would argue yeah. What do you think?”

“I think… no, you’re not. But you could become as bad.”

That got Miles to chuckle and say darkly, “I’m very aware of that.” He pushed the Jeep over the speed limit, they weren’t going at a dangerous speed, but he wanted to go faster than most of the traffic on the road. “Luckily my fear of becoming Murkoff’s pet weapon keeps me pretty grounded. I’ve no desire to be what they want me to be.”

“But it would be easy,” Waylon said.

“Yeah,” Miles said casually. “Sure. I mean nuke what remains of my humanity and just let go? Yeah, it would be easy I think. I’ve never tested the full extent of what I’m capable of. But R and I we can take out nearly anything and I’m not sure what actual weaknesses I have. Taking over a small town or city could potentially be child’s play.”

“Could you take over a country?”

“I wouldn’t want to, but depending on the country, yeah, again, probably. I wouldn’t be a good leader though.” Miles wanted to shift the topic to anything other than talk of him taking over the world. “I’m a journalist, Park. I’ve got a degree in English with a focus on journalism, mass communications and a minor in creative writing. I’m not “take over the world” material.”

“Never said you were. But R might be.”

The static rippled with amusement. “Foolish human. He knows not what We are and that We aren’t Our own thing. We cannot lead, We are designed to follow only.”

“R says he’s designed to follow not lead; he physically couldn’t take over anything unless given the order to.” Miles glanced back at R who was reading a book, not too concerned with the conversation happening in the front. “For as much of a personality as he’s growing, he’s still bound by rules and programing.” As Miles turned his head back to the front something caught his eye. “Park check your side mirror.”

While Miles was hoping for a distraction to change their conversation this wasn’t what he had in mind. Miles said, “Does that van look like a van to you? Or a van?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Behind us, is that a van or a van?”

Waylon checked his mirror said, “You say a lot of confusing things but this takes the cake even for yo- holy shit you’re right that’s a van.

Miles watched his rearview mirror. It was an unmarked, black van, with either heavy tinted windows or no windows. Even the windshield was tinted, which was very against the law. It was alone, but it was hanging out just behind them, never moving to overtake. “I don’t want to sound a premature alarm but that van has just now risen to the top of my suspicion list.”

“It doesn’t look like the Murkoff ones from before,” Waylon said as he gave the vehicle another inspection. Curiously they were now the only two cars on the road. “Maybe we’re both just paranoid and looking for bad guys where there aren’t any?”

“Hope you’re right Park,” Miles said and sped up a bit more. “Because I don’t want another repeat of our last freeway fight.”

“Agreed. Murkoff has more than just Mount Massive to answer for,” Waylon checked the van again and it was still keeping pace. Odd, but no one had pulled a gun on them like before. Murkoff was pretty quick to shoot the first time. “I have an idea,” Waylon said. “I know, I know, most of my ideas have been pretty shitty so far but…”

“But?” Miles said. He had leaned back in his seat and was working on reducing the anxiety building up and the aggression that bubbling up in its place.

“But maybe we could try pulling over to like, a rest stop or a park or something? If the van is just a van than it shouldn’t have any reason to follow us. If it’s a van then it’ll no doubt follow us or hang back on the freeway until we show up again.” He couldn’t believe he was using Miles’ terminology but it really did fit this time.

“Yeah, ok, I like that. If it is Murkoff they’ll probably choose to engage at the rest stop if there’s little to no witnesses. While people around won’t stop them, it will deter them. They don’t like to have too many loose ends. Witnesses are definitely loose ends.” Miles started to look for rest stop signs. “If it isn’t Murkoff we’ll know that too. It’s a good plan.”

“What if it is Murkoff but there are a lot of people at the rest stop and they don’t engage?”

“I’ll be able to tell, or R. This is going to sound weird, but Murkoff staff have like… a stench attached to them. I have no idea how to explain it or describe it. I noticed it up on the mountain. R and I should be able to figure out if they’re in there or not just by getting out of the Jeep and taking a few breaths of air.”

“Ok, weird. But you’re you and I’ve come to expect this.” Waylon stopped checking the mirror and he didn’t look behind them. That would be a pretty big tell that they thought something was up. The Walrider hadn’t even looked up from his book. That was reassuring in a way. If R wasn’t worried then Miles either wasn’t worried or the Walrider couldn’t sense that something was amiss. And that creature always seemed to know when things were about to go south. “You’re not getting any odd readings off of the Walrider?”

“Nope. However, R isn’t a magical Murkoff detecting device. We can’t rely on him for everything.” The static hummed consistent in Miles’ ears. R seemed completely unconcerned with what Miles saw or thought he saw. There was only a flicker of amusement that ran through the static when Miles probed R for his thoughts.

He took that as a good sign and put his attention back to driving. A few more cars appeared on the freeway and the weird feeling he had back at the beach was beginning to fade. It was still sitting in the back of his mind, but it wasn’t overpowering anymore. That he also assumed was a good sign. Or he was just too overconfident.

“So,” Waylon said as they passed a sign that said “Rest Area Five Miles Ahead”, “what exactly is the plan when we get to the rest stop?”

“Uh, pull in like normal. I’ll get out first, head towards the building-”

“Should I follow?” Waylon asked uneasily.

Miles wanted him to stay put in the Jeep but if it really was Murkoff he wasn’t sure what would be safer. If he was near him he could always summon nanites to protect him, but if he stayed in the Jeep Miles could deal with the hired guns before they even noticed he was there. “If you want,” Miles settled on. “If you’re near me I’ll protect you, and if you stay in the Jeep I’ll deal with the bad guys quickly. Hopefully you won’t get caught in the crossfire.”

“Alright,” Waylon said. It wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but it would have to do. He thought that maybe Miles would be a little more confident in his decision, but also understood that something like this would be hard to predict and account for. Too many variables.

“I don’t want to expose myself,” Miles said, “as the Walrider. If they’re not Murkoff and I reveal myself I’ll have to… deal with them.” Waylon nodded; he knew what Miles meant. “Killing is something I would like to avoid, if at all possible.”

The hit the rest stop exit and turned down the lonely road that cut away from the freeway. Rest stops were a mandatory staple for long stretches of road. Miles loved them. Some felt so disconnected and surreal he had a hard time believing they were real places.

This one was small. A parking lot of only ten spaces with a trash and recycle bin near the path to the only building on the grounds. It was also deserted. As expected, the black van pulled in behind them and parked two spaces away. “Time to rock and roll,” Miles said and kicked the door of the Jeep open. Waylon opened his door and cautiously followed alongside Miles, he made sure to put the Host between himself and the van. They started up the cracked paved path to the building. Waylon could hear Miles whisper, “Three, two, one-” “Hey! You two! Stop.”

Waylon froze and Miles turned smoothly to face them. He caught the sight of a smirk and a flash of silver behind sunglasses. “You fellas lost?” Miles said casually, to most it seemed natural, but Waylon wasn’t most and he could feel the predatory undertones dripping from his words. There were five of them, most men, they were in black. Some had thick vests, others didn’t. None of them bothered to cover their faces. Two of them took the lead, they had rifles, Waylon had no clue what kind. “Now, now, this is no way to greet a fellow traveler,” Miles said and gestured to the weapons. “To whom do I owe the pleasure?” These people, like Waylon weren’t like most and they hesitated for the briefest of moments at Miles cool confidence.

This Waylon didn’t catch, but Miles did. He didn’t think like a person, not anymore. His eyes were adept at spotting weakness, fear, and these people were scared. They put up a nice bluff, Miles had to give them that. One of them continued to step forward, a heavier set man, clearly worked out. He didn’t shoulder his weapon but instead kept it trained on Miles. He said, “You misunderstand, this is a simple robbery and nothing more.”

“Bullshit,” Miles said calmly. “No simple robbery requires five people and the intimidation tactics. Cut the shit.”

“Who our employer is or isn’t is not your concern. We’ve been informed you are carrying an extraordinary amount of money. This is a robbery. We will shoot you dead if you don’t hand over everything.”

Miles snorted in amusement and was going to reply but then froze. There was something wrong with this situation. He could feel it but he couldn’t figure out what it was. “It would be best for everyone involved if you turned right around and got back in that van and drove away.”

The man said, “You got real balls of steel I’ll give you that. I don’t know who you think you are, but that peashooter you probably have in your pants isn’t going to save you.”

Miles clenched his fists and groaned. “I want to make a dick joke so bad right now but you guys are all forcing my hand.” He took a few steps towards them with his arms raised. “I’m unarmed, by your standards at least. No peashooters, not even a pocket knife.”

Waylon stayed where he was, he wouldn’t say he was frozen in place, but he knew that moving could escalate things. He also felt something brush against his arm. It was soft but gritty, like fine sand. There was an ever so slight distortion to the air around. Nanites, he concluded. They had to be. Miles wouldn’t leave him unprotected. During their escape from the military base Miles showed that a barrier of nanites could be bulletproof if erected fast enough. He scanned the rest stop, they were still the only ones here and he couldn’t spot the Walrider anywhere, the creature must still be in the Jeep. When he looked at Miles he didn’t see a man who was all that concerned with the situation. That wasn’t surprising, he figured, if Miles was telling the truth about how many he had killed, five armed people probably won’t be a challenge. In fact, Waylon knew all the people could be dead in seconds if Miles wanted it.

“I’m going to ask one more time, who hired you, who sent you after us, and who told you we had any money?”

“You must think we’re real stupid,” the man turned to the others and said, “shoot them both. We don’t need them alive to loot the Jeep.”

Miles chuckled, “But how will you find the hidden money if we’re dead?”

“You think you’re the only one with false panels on your vehicles? Don’t play us for fools.” The man raised his arm and the others all raised weapons. When he let his hand fall the muzzles erupted with gunfire.

Waylon wanted to run, he wanted to hide, but he stood his ground and watched fascinated as bullets stopped inches from him and dropped to the ground. The nanites around him kept him safe, just as Miles intended.

Miles meanwhile still had his hands in the air but now he was laughing. When they stopped firing he said, “Wow a little trigger happy aren’t we?” That earned him another shot, Miles stopped it so close to his forehead he could feel the heat given off by the metal.

“What the fuck?” One of the people said while stepping back.

“Some sort of forcefield?” Someone else wondered. “Does that tech even exist? Gotta be military grade or better.”

“Better,” Miles said casually and lowered his arms. “Well, so much for taking care of this covertly.” While being secretive was out, being flashy wasn’t. Without moving Miles lifted three of the five men and tossed them against their van. The impact was strong enough that even those with bulletproof vests got the wind knocked out of them. Miles deftly used the nanites to squeeze their throats shut just long enough so they all passed out. In seconds he closed the gap between himself and the other two before either man had time to blink. The heel of his hand connected with the one who hadn’t been talking to him. It crushed his nose and blood gushed out. He ducked a lamely thrown punch and kicked the legs out from under him. A snap told him he kicked a tad too hard and the man now had a shattered tibia and an ankle that was in a million pieces. “Whoops,” he said and placed his foot on the man’s throat.

Meanwhile the man Miles assumed was the leader was pumping more bullets into his side. None of them hit their target and they all fell uselessly to the ground. He shot until he was getting nothing but clicks. “What the fuck are you?”

Miles pivoted without lifting his foot from the man on the ground and grabbed the leader by the neck and pinned him to the Van. “I’m Captain Fucking America,” he snarled. “Now, who do you work for?”

“N-Not telling you.”

Miles rolled his eyes though he couldn’t see that behind his shades. “Lets try again,” he tightened his grip and applied more pressure to both throats. He heard the lovely sound of gasping for breath under him. “Who hired you?”

“I don’t know you piece of shit,” the man choked out. “Our boss hands out targets, we just follow orders.”

“Ah like good useless third-rate soldiers. Wonderful. Any chance you overheard who this particular order was issued by?” Miles grinned but it wasn’t friendly. “It would really benefit your chances of living.”

The man tried to spit at Miles but couldn’t summon the saliva.

“Ok, how about the name of your boss?”

“They’ll kill me if I give the name.”

“And I’ll kill you if you don’t.”

“You’re bluffing,” the man said.

Miles stepped down harder on the man under his foot until he felt a snap. The man went limp. “Am I?” He pushed a bit more and nearly growled, “I don’t think I am. I want names.”

“Well you ain’t getting names.”

Miles groaned. “I hate loyal fucks like you. The name Murkoff mean anything to you?”

That question seemed to catch him truly off guard. “No? Should it?”

“Only if you’re me I guess.” Miles placed his other hand over the man’s mouth and said, “You’ve been supremely unhelpful.” He turned his attention to the others still on the ground who were just coming through. “Here’s some life advice between you and me, give up the “simple robberies”.” Nanites invaded the leader’s mouth and choked him out from the inside while Miles moved and knocked the others unconscious once more.

Miles turned to Waylon who was still standing where he left him. “Ok, crisis averted. Well,” Miles toed one of the people on the ground and said, “I don’t know if this was exactly a crisis. Not even sure it was a mini disaster.”

Waylon moved close cautiously and examined the bodies. “You kill them?”

“Nah,” Miles said, “Just knocked them all out. “Uh, save for that guy,” he gestured at the man he broke several bones on. “He might be dead. Or dead later. At the very least he’s paralyzed. But that’s what you get for pointing guns at good upstanding folk like us.”

“Right, upstanding, for a moment I forgot you were unhinged.” Waylon asked instead, “You learn anything?”

He shook his head. “Not anything useful. The guy said they were given the hit on us from their boss. Boss probably got the information from Murkoff. These meatheads didn’t know where the order originated from but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out.”

“How’d they know we have money?”

“Murkoff probably got a hold of my bank records. Again, not rocket science. I went on the run; therefore, I must have money on me. Since electronic bank transactions can be tracked, I must have a lot of money on me. Use that info to hire these assholes. Seems simple enough.”

Waylon shrugged; the logic was there. He was going to roll one of the people over when Miles barked, “Don’t touch them. Don’t touch anything, actually.”

“What? Why?”

“You have fingerprints,” Miles wiggled his fingers, “I currently, do not. Lets not leave any fun obvious evidence we were here shall we?” He moved around to the back of the Van and ripped the door open. “Well, well, well what do we have here?” Miles hopped into the back and opened a few crates. “How original, guns and drugs. Fun stuff.” He paused and listened for extra heartbeats, specifically, small, fast, scared heartbeats. There weren’t any. “That’s good, that means I don’t have to kill them.” There was a small coil of wire and a bag of zip ties in a duffle bag. He took the ties and bound everyone’s hands and feet. They were still out cold. Broken everything man was still breathing which was a nice bonus. He wouldn’t cry over it if he stopped though.

Then he went back into the van and kept rummaging around. He pounded the floorboards of the van. “What are you doing?” Waylon asked.

“You think you’re the only one with false panels on your vehicles,” Miles said in a mocking voice. “Fuck they were overconfident. It really wasn’t fair.” Finally, Miles hit one that sounded hollow. “There we go.” He punched a claw through it and pulled, a whole panel came up.

“What’s inside?” Waylon was curious, this was the kind of thing he only saw on TV.

Miles heaved out several bricks of cocaine and then a bag of money. “Hey Park wanna have fun tonight?”

He looked between the drugs, the money and Miles’ raised eyebrows before he stepped back. “What? No!” He sounded horrified at even the thought.

Miles chuckled and said, “Joking, Park, my line days are over.”

“Your line days?”

“College was wild man,” he said with a smile. When Waylon didn’t laugh, he said, “Again, joke. You’re wound up so tight take it easy.” He tossed the bag of money to him. “We’re keeping this. For our troubles.”

“We’re stealing?”

Miles sighed audibly because his glasses hid yet another expertly timed eyeroll. “Yeah, we’re stealing from the gun and drug runners sent to murder us. Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear. We’re on the run from the biggest and most dangerous corporation on the planet, we’re going to need all the help we can get. And that bag there will help us out quite a bit.” He dug around in the hidden compartment and pulled up another bag of money. Miles placed it beside him and put the panel back in place. “Think of it like a slightly shadier Robin Hood.”

“So instead of stealing from the rich you steal from the criminal?”

“Why not?” He hopped out of the van with his bag and tossed that to Waylon as well. “Go put these in our compartment. Bring the bags back, best not have any connection if we can help it.” While Waylon was doing that Miles picked up all the weapons from the ground and off the bodies and tossed them into the van before he bent the handles in such a way that they wouldn’t be easily opened by the average civilian. Which, Miles noted, there weren’t any. Not a single car had also gone to this rest stop. The uneasy feeling returned to Miles full force. He ducked under the Van and pulled the brake lines out, snapping each one in the middle. If any of them woke up and managed to get free their getaway car was essentially grounded.

Waylon returned and handed the bags over to Miles who wiped them with nanites. Together they walked into the rest stop building where Miles took a quick piss and grabbed a soda from the vending machine. There were no security cameras at this stop, which Miles thought was odd, but not unheard of on these remote rest stops. He would have disabled them and cleared the memory if there were. He raided the snack machine and met Waylon back at the Jeep. His partner was watching the unconscious people with extreme interest.

“Hey,” Miles said and dumped the snacks into the space between their seats. “Grab one of the disposable phones and call this in. Don’t mention anything about us, don’t give any personal details, just say you pulled into this rest stop and found a bunch of unconscious men tied up by a van and feared for your life and drove away.”

Waylon nodded and rummaged around for a phone while Miles went to talk with R. The Walrider materialized outside of the Jeep and met Miles around back. They walked a bit away from Jeep so they wouldn’t be picked up on Waylon’s phone call. “Something’s not right about this.”

“What do you mean Host?”

“Don’t you feel that?” R shook his head. “There’s something in the air. Something’s not right.”

“You’ve been on edge since the beach.” R noted. “We do not know what you could be feeling. We are not picking anything up that should be alarming.”

Miles was frustrated. Something wasn’t right, he could feel it in his bones, as clear as the static that vibrated them. “I want to take a look around, a fly around if possible, but with the cops on their way… its best if we just move. Do you think you could?”

“We do not want to risk long distance separation. There are things we have not tested together. Things We would not like to test right now when you could need Us the most. At a certain distance the nanites that make up this form die. Of course We would not die, for We are rooted in your mind. But your body would have to build up the cells lost. That takes time and energy you do not have to spare.”

“And you don’t know what distance that cell death kicks in, do you?”

Again, R shook his head. “It is more than two or three miles. Our patrol route on the mountain was at least that wide. But the Jeep moves fast and a thorough look of this area could take more than enough time to separate us dangerously so.”

“Got it,” Miles looked around again anxiously before swearing and heading back to the car. Waylon was done with the police and waiting on him, leaning against the Jeep. “Gotta go park.” Wordlessly Waylon got in and they pulled away. As they drove back towards the freeway Miles could have sworn he saw people move a “road closed” sign out of the road. But when he blinked they were gone. He pressed a hand to his eyes and opened a bag of chips. “Stress,” he muttered. “It’s gotta be stress.”

---

They drove all day and into the night, only stopping for food and a refuel. Sometime around midnight they encountered another set of heavy storms. The rain came down in sheets and Waylon couldn’t see anything. Apparently, Miles could, because he pressed on as if nothing was wrong. “You can see?”

“Yup,” Miles said.

“How?”

“Magic.”

Waylon was used to evasive answers and turned away to look out the window. He had his laptop open on his lap but he wasn’t doing anything with it anymore. Previously he had been transferring profit reports into spreadsheets and marking down the dates of large money transfers in the hopes of cross comparing them to records for purchases or donations from the military. But Mount Massive had been in operation for three years before the riot and Murkoff had records going back from previous labs. The amount of backlogged information seemed like too much at times. He wasn’t sure how much they needed to prove before moving forward. Did they have to have records of Mount Massive only? Or did they also need solid proof of Murkoff’s involvement from the Walrider’s purchase from the US Military to now? How much of the paper was needed, truly? He had no idea.

The more Waylon thought about the path ahead the more he feared it was impossible. When he glanced at Miles he didn’t get the feeling that the other man thought the same. He seemed to be in good spirits the majority of the time. He processed information far faster than Waylon would have given him credit before and typed like the wind when they would pause at fast food restaurants or a cafes. Even the Walrider seemed to chew through books. But even at Miles’ pace he knew they were still a long way off. They were nearing the end of October and their three month mission was quickly looking like it would take a year.

Miles caught Waylon sighing and nudged him gently before asking, “Hey, you ok?”

“Yeah,” came Waylon’s reply, the dejectedness couldn’t be hidden from his voice, not entirely.

“What’s on your mind?” Miles pushed on. “Is it the Murkoff hired thugs? Don’t worry, I can handle anything they throw at us.”

Waylon shook his head. “No,” he said, “it’s not that. It’s just…” there was a pause as he glanced at his laptop screen before shutting it. “It’s just that there’s still so much left we have to do. We spend most of our free time driving just to stay a hairsbreadth ahead of Murkoff. I feel like we aren’t gaining any ground and this is going to go on for years.”

“Oh,” Miles said and took a moment to think. “You’re not… entirely wrong, no you’re right. This is taking longer than I thought and it’s only been a few weeks. In those short few weeks we’ve been trailed twice and even at our pace we will be found again.” He continued, “I’ll tell you this truth, we do not have the funds to push this out for years. And since I’m being truthful, you won’t last years.”

“What do you…” he trailed off. He knew what Miles meant.

Miles tried to sound softer when he said, “Look, we’ve only been together for a short time, but I can tell that you just aren’t cut out for this. Like I said before, I don’t have anyone. There’s no nice family waiting for me at home, there’s not even a home. I have Julian and some houseplants and that’s not a family.”

“Your friend isn’t your family?”

“He is, but not like…” Miles struggled to put it into words. “I love the guy, more than anyone else on this whole planet. But we can’t be what we were before. He has my back and I have his, always, but it’s complicated.”

“And you think that because I have a family I can’t do this too?”

“That’s not it. Or, it’s only partially it. I don’t want you to do this too. I don’t want you to stay apart from your life, your family, your two boys. You don’t deserve that.”

Waylon said, “It’s not about deserving and if it was I’d be more than worthy of never seeing them again.”

“Your guilt complex again,” Miles said in a way he hoped the other would interpret as joking. “You worked for Murkoff, but you had no idea what they were doing when you took that job, and you couldn’t walk. You explained your situation to me and I don’t think anything you told me means that you deserve an ounce of prolonged suffering.” Waylon didn’t deny or agree. “What I mean is that it’s clear you aren’t in a place where you can do this whole perpetual road trip thing. I’ve been doing it for most of my life, certainly all of my adult life. Coasting from city to city, motel to motel, sleeping in the back of this Jeep. I’ve done this more times than I can count and I’m used to it. You though? You need the kind of structure that a nine to five and a loving family can provide.”

“That’s not-”

“Don’t misunderstand me, this isn’t an attack on your character or quality of person. But I can see this trip is already tearing you apart. You miss your family so much it’s written all over your features. I cannot ask you to stay with me if this drags out into years. I just can’t.”

“Then what? What do we do? The whole reason I’m with you to begin with is because I can’t be with them.”

“And that’s still true. After our little adventures in the military base and Mount Massive you’ve been solidified as a target. Returning to them would most definitely spell their doom.”

“So? What do you propose? If I can’t handle the separation and I can’t be with them then do I lay down and die?”

“No, no. Giving up isn’t what we do. We can’t do it. Both of us have tried and it didn’t work. Maybe I could just… I don’t know hole up with your family.” Miles growled under his breath. “I don’t… this would be a thousand times easier if you didn’t have kids.”

“Sorry I can’t take that back.”

“No,” Miles said quickly, “I know. I wouldn’t ask you to. Its just, I don’t want them to see what they’d see if I was around and Murkoff was still out there. There’s no cure for innocence lost that early.”

“Or ever,” Waylon added. “I don’t think there’s a cure what either of us have seen.”

Miles nodded, that much was very true. “So, here’s the plan. We don’t drag this out for years. We just… get it done. If I have to stay up all night prepping and writing then I will. Back on the mountain I was able to go without sleep for a while, I’m sure I could keep pushing it.”

“Upshur…”

He briefly took his eyes off the road and said, “Hey, I’m the inhuman one, let me shoulder all the burden.” Waylon opened his mouth to speak but Miles cut him off, “I know, I know, easier said than done. But I promise you, this won’t be forever and it won’t be for years.”

Waylon glanced back at Miles and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “And I’ll show you that I’m a little stronger than maybe you thought.”

That got Miles to smile. “I’d like to see that. You’ve already impressed me, you impressed me before we even met. You’re far from weak, I feel like I need to say that. I just don’t want to push you too far; I don’t want to break you.”

“Hey, Murkoff tried to break me and they didn’t, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that.”

“Well, we are survivors, it’s what we do.”

Waylon wanted to roll his eyes but he was starting to take comfort in the term. It was true, it’s what they were. “So, what kept you on the road so much?”

“Oh,” Miles turned his eyes back to the rain-washed road and said, “do you remember the story about illegal waste dumping from the big three metal producers? Turns out they really don’t like it when journalists stalk their waste transport vehicles or sneak into their mining facilities. Oh and there was that time I was following a trafficking ring back when I did crime journalism. That sucked. The shit I saw… And then there were the campaign trails I followed back when I worked for mainstream media, ugh Julian and I hated that assignment. I also spent a month investigating a housing fraud case and then…”

Waylon sat back and listened to Miles tell story after story of his adventures and misadventures as they drove through the waterlogged darkness.

---

A small drone landed beside a set of cars parked along a deserted stretch of country road. In the back of an armored Jeep Helen Granat reviewed footage streamed directly from body cams and their aerial drone. In particular she was watching for the tells of Walrider use, a distortion that the cameras easily picked up on. It wasn’t hard to see, the host was using the nanites freely to incapacitate his enemies.

They had been following the Walrider for a while from a distance. Getting close wasn’t the goal, they were purely observing for the time being, trying to get a gauge on the host’s abilities. Already they had noticed that the vehicle had to make frequent stops for food. The host must use a considerable amount of energy. That knowledge could be useful, she was already plotting out ways they could force them onto stretches of road without stops. She was almost certain that the host would do something noteworthy to find food, and she wanted to record what that was. Perhaps forced cannibalism of Mr. Park? That would certainly remove him from the equation well enough.

Ross entered the vehicle and glanced at the footage. “We intercepted the police and paid them off,” he reported. “It was Waylon Park who phoned in the 911 call. He used a disposable prepaid phone and they called from rest stop so tracking it wasn’t particularly helpful. The phone itself hadn’t been used for any other calls, they probably destroyed it when they were done.”

“Upshur is crafty,” was all she said in reply. “The roadblock kept onlookers away correct?” Ross confirmed. “Good. Look here, the Host went nonlethal.”

“I noticed. Our team had to neutralize what he left behind. What do you think that means? The shift in aggression?”

“It could have been a fluke,” she said smoothly. “He’s only shown extreme violence so far, I don’t see a reason why he would switch now, unless… Unless he’s only ready kill when we’re the targets.”

“We meaning Murkoff.”

“Correct.” She let the encounter play a few times. “The audio is crap but you can make out their conversation. The Host, Upshur, he has no idea who is behind this attack and he doesn’t seem willing to kill people unaffiliated with Murkoff.”

“Or it could be a fluke, like you suggested. Should we throw another group of drug runners at him?”

Granat considered it. “Yeah, I think we should. But we shouldn’t stage it so obviously as an attack on them. Perhaps we could set something up where a gun fight breaks out in a place where they already are. Think parking lot, park, motel, that kind of thing. It would be interesting to see what he does. While we wait to set that up, I would like you to send another team of your men to intercept them.”

“Attempt a recapture?”

‘No, just engage in combat.”

“They’ll be slaughtered.”

“Correct.”

“You’re asking me send a team of my men to their deaths.”

“No, I’m not asking, I’m telling,” Granat switched to a new video, this one showed the Host in what appeared to be self-sustained flight. “We need data and field data is worth so much more than laboratory predictions.”

“We’re not even using Project Walrider anymore, what is the point in dragging this out? The loss of lives can’t be worth it.”

Granat looked up from the screen and said coldly, “It is not your job to question mine. You and your men know what you signed up for. This asset is worth the cost of training new soldiers and frankly I don’t a damn about how many we throw at him. As long as we get accurate combat data no price is too great.”

“For an obsolete project?”

“From where I’m standing,” Granat said, “it doesn’t look too obsolete to me.” Ross gave in and turned his attention to the screen as well. “I think we were all too hasty to call Project Walrider a failure. It might have been back on that mountain. Clearly the laboratory was not the correct environment for it. Attached to this new host and out in the wild if you will, it seems to be thriving in ways even our new work lacks. By observing Project Walrider, we can apply what we’ve learned directly to Project Blind.”

“Are the three progressing?”

“Slowly.” Granat was careful about over extending information. But Ross, unlike Richard, was one of hers. He worked for Murkoff, and thus he worked for her. “Zeichner would have been a much better facility for them. The secondary laboratory is adequate but we had to spend a lot of money on shielding and security.”

Ross nodded and said, “Perhaps it wasn’t good to build the two facilities at the same time. They’re carbon copies of each other, which means they have the same flaws.”

“We won’t make that mistake next time, but we simply didn’t have the knowledge we have now. The backup was necessary if Mount Massive rotted off the side of the mountain. Already the laboratory at the second site has been vastly improved. If it’s enough to contain Project Blind it’ll be more than enough to contain Project Walrider.”

“I’m worried about the free thinking nature of this host,” Ross said. “I know it was one of the early goals of the project, but this host hasn’t been groomed correctly. His ability to think for himself makes him a great liability, even when we do eventually capture him.”

“All of us working in containment have been worried about that. Project Walrider has been set up in such a way that the weapon itself, the nanites are commanded solely by the Host’s brainwaves. A nice failsafe was built in, you know that, make the host braindead and the Walrider becomes useless. Every set of nanites produced has this kill switch. However, Mr. Upshur has proved to be far too valuable to waste. I don’t want him dead in mind or body.”

“Then what will we do? There’s no way he’ll come over to our side willingly.”

Granat agreed. “No, he’s much too headstrong for that. We’re working on something, early stages still, but it should prove to be just what we need. The head engineer on the project gives it roughly five months until we can test it on him. So we have five months to gather as much field data as we can before recapture.”

“Five months,” Ross echoed.

“Send the flight footage to the research team, I assure you it will cause them to bicker nonstop for the rest of the week on how he’s capable of it.” Granat turned off the monitor and added, “Don’t send the drone out anymore. Upshur picked up on it, but couldn’t figure out what he had picked up on. He’s sensitive, far more sensitive than we realized. We’ll lose them for a bit and re-connect when we’re ready. They think they’re running but they’re not.”

Ross nodded again and moved to exit the vehicle. “He took out those five men in less than a minute and didn’t even lift a damn finger.”

“I know,” Granat smiled and said, “he’s incredible.”

---

Miles exited the motel bathroom to the sound of Father Martin’s dying screams of deluded agony. It wasn’t exactly what he had expected to hear. “You aren’t still stuck on the Gospel of Sand are you?” He ran the towel through his still dyed red hair and let it hang around his neck.

Waylon looked up said, “Sorry, if it bothers you I won’t.”

“Nah,” Miles flipped through the food directory but everything was closed by now. He would go out hunting for a twenty-four-hour grocery for snacks but he was in sweatpants and didn’t feel like getting back behind the wheel. It was still raining hard as well. “You’re clearly trying to work through something. Besides, I don’t mind you getting more familiar with what happened to me.”

“What do you mean by that?” Waylon asked and resumed watching the footage. It was pretty morbid watching a man burn to death, but he couldn’t muster up any pity.

“Learning each other’s stories, our traumas, might be benifical. I mean, we are stuck with each other for the next few months, its good to start getting to know each other beyond simple conversation.”

“Mmm,” Waylon hummed distracted already. “You’re not a therapist, do you think you’re a god?”

“Not this again.”

“I went through your notes, and the documents you picked up. There’s an interesting one from Wernicke.”

Miles leaned back and said, “Well, if you’ve read that, then you should already know the answer.”

“No,” Waylon disagreed, “I know what Wernicke’s answer was, not yours.”

“I’m not a god,” Miles said firmly. “Only a fool would believe such a thing.”

“And R?”

“Not a god. Not even close. He’s science, we’re a weapon. End of story.”

Waylon shrugged. “Just don’t think it’s a simple as that,” was all he said.

With a groan Miles said, “Please don’t worship me.”

“Ha, funny. Wasn’t planning on it.” He turned his computer screen so Miles could see. “He wanted you to spread the word of the Gospel, you wrote that you’d tell the whole damn world. Do you still mean that?”

“When I wrote that note I was nearly delusional from blood loss, I was seeing things, or thought I was seeing things, but above all else, I was angry. At the time it seemed like the perfect revenge. Father Martin wanted me to tell the world about Project Walrider? Fine. I’d tell the whole fucking world. Murkoff could rot in abuse I captured with my camcorder and the documents I swiped. The logical conclusion was to go public with everything but then…”

“You became the Walrider?”

“Yeah, you see suicide missions are all great and stuff when you’re reading about them in novels or watching a protagonist in a movie. But I’m not too keen about going down with Murkoff. I’d really rather not. I’ll… I have to mention the project; I can’t skip over it. I’ll have to mention the Gospel of the Sand, how that their technology could spark religion. But I uh, probably won’t mention the part about it still being alive.” Miles looked over at R who was floating cross legged by the window. “There are some things the whole fucking world doesn’t need to know, I’ve decided.”

“Why do you think he wanted you to spread his Gospel? I mean he didn’t even give you a gospel to spread.”

“The guy was nuts, what can I say? I guess his hope was to spread it like a disease or something. I think he believed that just seeing the Walrider was enough to convert someone. But the idea and his religion died with him on that stupid cross.”

“That’s not true,” Waylon said. He knew things he hadn’t known before. “It didn’t die with him. It died with Father Morgan didn’t it?”

Miles frowned. “Yeah. It did. I told you I didn’t want to talk about that.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” Waylon looked outside, at the rain pouring down. “Was it raining when you did it?”

“Yeah,” Miles said quietly.

Waylon didn’t say anything in return. The mood in the room went somber fast. Miles got up and walked across to the door. “R I have to talk to you, outside preferably.”

R exited with Miles into the rain. Miles had thrown up a shield of nanites above them, like an umbrella. A technique he hadn’t seen his host use since that day. He watched Miles use the nanites like a squeegee and push the water off the roof of the Jeep before he jumped up to sit down on it. “Host what is wrong? We feel like you’re mad at Us.”

“You’re perceptive, I’d expect you to be. I’m still… fucked up you know? Waylon keeps talking about the Gospel of the Sand and I keep remembering the hearts I crushed, the people I killed. I keep remembering David.”

“And We said something We should not have.” R sat down next to Miles. His cold nanite “skin” brushed against his host which caused him to shiver. “Do you wish to yell at Us?”

“I did, in the car, earlier today. But I didn’t.”

“Do you still wish to?”

Miles looked through the invisible nanite shield into the dark swirling storm clouds. “I don’t know. Yes? No? Would it matter?”

“Host We are sorry We told you how to think.”

“It wasn’t that,” Miles said. “I mean, it was that. But that’s not what I’m angry about. I don’t like it when you throw my suicide attempt in my face.”

R was silent for a few moments. “But it happened. Host you did that to yourself.”

“I did,” Miles didn’t disagree. He couldn’t. The scars that crawled up his arm like tree roots wouldn’t let him. “I’m not… better. You know that right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve been putting on a brave face, for Park, for myself, because it’s what I need to do. Bury it, get over it, and move on. But I’m not over it. God I’m so far from over it.”

“Back at the asylum, you bounced back fast. We did not know much about humans, about how they work, about how you work in particular so We didn’t have the knowledge to challenge you.”

“You probably should have,” Miles said. “Maybe that would have forced me to deal with some of this.”

“David, you still wish he was alive?”

“More than anything. Park he tries, I can see it in him. He’s been trying more recently but it’s not enough.” A flash of lightning lit up the parking lot followed by a loud clap of thunder. “I need someone who can talk to me without looking at me like I’m some monster.”

“But that’s what you are.”

“R, one internal crisis at a time please.” He could feel his hand shift from human to clawed over and over while he thought through where to take the conversation. “I guess what I’m getting at is that I need you.”

“Of course you need Us. How else would you-”

“Not like that. I mean, I need you there to support me emotionally.”

R sent a ripple of surprise through the static, then worry. “We cannot provide that for you. You must understand.”

“I’m calling bullshit.”

“We are not equipped for this.”

“And I think you are.” Miles looked over at R who almost blended into the dark background. “You think you’re just a machine, just calculations and orders. But you’re not. You have to know this by now. I need you R, more than I’ve needed you before. I should have been open with you at the start, maybe then I wouldn’t have felt like I needed to take my own life to escape.”  

R was deeply unsettled by this turn in the conversation. But he could not fully disagree. Not just because Miles was telling him not to, but he because he believed a bit of what Miles was saying. He was evolving beyond the base code he had followed for sixty odd years. “What do you want Us to do?”

“Don’t spit my trauma at me for argument points to start off with. And maybe just… I’m burying so much R, it’s going to blow up in my face. If you feel me burying something maybe tell me to face it? Call me out on my bullshit. Don’t let me slip. Don’t let me go someplace dangerous.”

“Of course. You are linked to Us. If you go down, We go down. It would be of both of our interests if you did not.”

Miles laughed softly. “There you go. You aren’t David, but you’ll do.”

“Glad We could be a service to you.” R made sure to sound overly dramatic, he even included a slight bow.

“Oh shut up and stop that you cheeky asshole.” Miles elbowed R and asked, “You think you’re a god?”

“We are going to shove you off of this roof again.”

Miles smiled. “Another “We are science” talk is awaiting me I feel.”

“Unless technology is godly then We have to say that We are not, in fact, a God.”

“That,” Miles said, “is a matter of perspective. Travel back in time and show a caveman a phone, or a flashlight, a gun, you’d be a god to them.”

“But those are just objects.” R pointed out. “Objects are not gods.”

“Aren’t they? It’s perspective,” Miles said again. “Everything is perspective.”

Miles heard the motel door and Waylon’s voice say, “Hey, am I interrupting?”

“Nah, not at all. We’re just being…”

“Philosophic?”

“Yeah, philosophic.”

“You called the Walrider out here in the rain so you could be philosophic?”

“Not, exactly.” Miles asked, “What’s up? Something wrong?”

“Why must something always be wrong? Never mind, no, I’m fine. I’m just getting ready for bed. And I thought I should-”

“Oh, ok, yeah. I’ll grab my shirt and phone out of the room and leave you be.”

“You didn’t let me finish,” Waylon said. “Instead of sleeping out here in the cold, I figured you might want to come in?”

Miles raised an eyebrow. “You sure?”

“I mean, I survived the night we spent in the same room on the mountain, and the floor might be more comfortable than the Jeep, certainly warmer, and I… you told me you don’t like to be alone with your thoughts in the rain. It’s still raining so… come in and don’t be alone?”

Miles looked at R then back at Waylon. “You make a compelling argument,” he said as he jumped down from the roof of the Jeep. “I’ll grab my sleeping bag and pillow and meet you inside.” Waylon turned to shut the door but Miles said, “Wait one condition.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you snore?”

Waylon chuckled and replied, “No. No snoring, you’re good.”