“Look, Bass - ”
“Hey, just drop it, all right?”
Tom watched Monroe duck into a tent before following after Matheson who with a lingering look at the tent, took off to the west. Something in the man’s eye drew him in, made him want to follow. They’d stayed with several small encampments like this since fleeing their home. Julia had been right, of course, and their home wasn’t safe. The bandits flocked to the cities, knowing the people locked up in their houses would be easy prey. In the weeks they’d been with this group he’d watched. Knowing how to read people helped him before the blackout, and he planned to put it to use now. Monroe and Matheson, they were the ones everyone looked to for answers. No one questioned them; no one crossed them. They only argued with each other, and occasionally the blond, what was his name, would intervene.
“There a reason you’re following me, or what?”
“I just wanted to know if everything was okay.”
He watched Matheson’s eyebrow shoot up, and admitted it had been a stupid question.
“You and Monroe - ”
“Tom Neville, right? You, your wife and son, joined up with us a few weeks back.”
“Yeah.” The reasons why he would bother to know that should bother him, but Tom knew that’s what made him keep his family with this group. Every group he and his family had stayed with since leaving their home had been raided. Including this one, but the difference was this group survived the attacks, and often came out with extra supplies.
“It’d be smart to focus more on your wife and son and less on me and Bass.”
Tom swallowed. “I am. You were talking about food. The night of the blackout, my neighbor, Rob, was throwing a party. The kind that spilled out onto the porch and yard. I hated when he held those parties; they always kept Jason awake and made Julia irritable. I’d asked him to turn the music down, and, of course, he ignored me. That night, I spent the time before dinner with my knuckles wrapped beating the shit out of the heavy bag I kept in the basement. Jason came down. I’m not sure how long he watched me, but I pulled him close, let him land a few punches. I remember telling him we only punch the bag, never the people.” Tom smiled at the memory.
He allowed himself a moment to remember the man he’d been then, the child his son had been. Knowing they’d never be those people again made his eyes harden, his gaze narrow as he regarded Matheson. “A few weeks after the blackout, Rob, he broke into the house. Caught him stealing. He encouraged me to to just go on back to bed; didn’t want my boy to see me get my face beat to hell. After the first couple of blows, I saw my boy and my wife on the stairs, saw the fear on their faces. I hit back. I kept hitting until Rob quit breathing. He died on my floor, his blood on my hands. I’ll never forget the words I told my boy that night. I told him we have to toughen up. If we're scared, if we're weak, then we're dead. I didn’t bring my family here only to have them starve.”
Matheson step in closer, but Tom refused to move back. He held his gaze, wondering what Matheson wanted to see, what he hoped to find. Rumors ran through the camp, bored people with little to occupy their time when there was nothing to hunt, no water bottles to fill. Monroe and Matheson fought like the devil himself when called to it; giving no ground and taking anything they could. Tom learned quickly that in this new world, the meek would inherit only death.
“There’s a camp nearby. They’ve got maybe ten head of cattle, a couple dozen guns. I suggested we take it, store up for the winter,” Miles paused. “It would mean starting something more than what most folks signed up for.”
“You mean to start an army.”
“Like you said, if we’re weak, then we’re dead.”
“If you’re starting an army,” Tom allowed the word to hang in the air, watched the way Matheson responded. The man liked the idea; seemed even the blackout couldn't take the army out of the man. “I think people would be interested. I doubt I’m the only person who learned to fight once the lights went out. Most people want to keep their families safe. I’d do anything to keep my family safe.”
“This is more than killing a man in self-defense.”
“You’re still thinking about going through with it?”
Tom turned to face the new voice. He recognized the man, the blond who never strayed too far from Matheson and Monroe.
“Miles, there are other ways to feed people without declaring war on people who haven’t even had the pleasure of pissing you off.”
“I’m not going to war.”
“Bass thinks you are.”
“He tell you his plan for feeding us once the snow hits?”
“When did you decide it’s your job to feed everyone?” Jeremy moved in closer, and Tom expected the two men to come to blows.
“I didn’t ask for this. None of us asked for this, but someone has to come up with a solution or we’ll tear each other apart.”
Tom looked between the two men. He didn’t want to go to war; he didn’t want to kill people. The night the power went out, the world quit caring what he wanted.
“What’s your plan, Miles? Just walk into their camp, offer the unsuspecting people who are only guilty of having something you want a wave and a smile before you start shooting?”
“I figured I’d ask first, then shoot when they say no.”
“That’s great, Miles,” Jeremy threw his hands up. “We’ve got a bunch of scared people and you’re going to throw them into something they didn’t sign up for.”
“I’m not forcing anyone.”
“That’s it? That’s your big speech?”
“I told Bass I’d try,” Jeremy shrugged. “I tried.”
Tom narrowed his eyes. “You agree with Matheson.”
“I think I prefer steak to tree bark.”
“Alright, princess, that’s enough.”
They spent the next two days planning. Tom paid close attention, watched everything Matheson did, the way he spoke, learned the military jargon he used without realizing it. He and Jeremy had been asked to go scout the camp again, and Tom thanked his attention to detail for his ability to remember everything: the number of people, broken down by men, women, children, the placement of the tents, the level of security, if the stored the weapons in the same location, and anything else either of them thought important enough to mention.
He’d expected Julia to fight him on it. The look on her face the night he’d killed Rob still fresh in his mind as he explained the situation to her. She smiled, pulled him into a hug and told him to come back with the supplies. He should have given her more credit; she’d always put her family above everything else. Jason didn’t cry, didn’t beg him to stay. Since leaving home, the boy had become quiet, his wide eyes always moving, always cataloging the things around him.
As he walked past the tents, he saw Matheson and Monroe toe-to-toe. He knew the position well, remembering many a night he and Julia settled their differences with hissed words, not wanting Jason to overhear their argument. Monroe’s eyes narrowed when he caught sight of Tom, and he quickened his pace, knowing it was absolutely none of his business. When he reached the clearing overlooking the neighboring encampment, Jeremy was the only other person there.
“Miles still arguing with Bass?”
“Mmhm. Know what it’s about?”
Jeremy stood against a tree, one leg propped up behind him. “Bass is probably trying to convince Miles to leave it alone, and Miles is being stubborn.”
They fell silent as more men joined them. They didn’t know each other well, and aside from Matheson and Monroe, none had any experience. Jeremy was the only one who didn’t look nervous, but from the rumors he’d heard, Jeremy had been with Matheson and Monroe ever since the lights went out.
Jeremy let out a low whistle. Tom looked up, saw Monroe stalking up the clearing, hellfire in his eyes, Matheson a few paces behind. When they came a bit closer, Tom saw the dried blood on Matheson’s face, watched Monroe clench and unclench his his fist.
“It’s part of the charm,” Matheson gave Jeremy a quick wink.
“Shut up, Miles,” Monroe snapped.
They led the group closer to the other camp, signalled for the group to split off, Tom went with Matheson to the west, Jeremy with Monroe to the east. When Rob had attacked him, he’d been caught off guard, the adrenaline hitting his system only later, once the first blows had been landed. As they stood, waiting for the signal, he could feel that same energy building within him, like an itch crawling up his spine. He gripped the handle of the M9 in his hand. They didn’t wait long, and then everything moved in fast forward. His work paid off; they knew exactly where they kept the cattle, and Monroe’s men were able to lead them away while the rest of them went for the weapons. Later, he’d realize he never hesitated, never thought about not shooting someone, just reacted, pulled the trigger. When Julia patched up a deep gash on his arm, he’d remember Matheson coming out of nowhere, and blocking a second blow that would have slit his throat. From his place on the ground, Tom had watched Matheson fight off his attacker. He didn’t know where the man’s gun was, but watching him use his sword to fight gave the whole battle a timeless quality. Maybe he’d lost more blood than he thought.
Once cattle and weapons were secure, Matheson gathered all the remaining people together. Matheson and Monroe held each other’s gaze for a long moment before Monroe turned away, resigned. Tom tilted his head, working through the dynamic in his mind. He needed to understand how the power dynamic worked so that he could find his place within the structure and secure his family’s safety. He watched the few survivors gather, saw the fearful way they glanced at Matheson, noted the braver ones who showed their hostility on their face. Matheson stood before them, blood splattered on his jacket, more staining his hand. Jeremy tugged on his sleeve, pulled him over to line up with the other’s who were checking their guns for bullets. That was the first time he’d seen Miles Matheson order a mass execution.
They didn’t bury the bodies. Instead, they gathered whatever they thought would be useful and began the trek back to their own camp. A few men needed help because of wounds, but no one died. During the walk back to their own camp, he overheard Matheson and Monroe arguing.
“You didn’t have to kill them, Miles.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“They would have surrendered.”
“For how long, Bass? We took their food, killed their men, took their weapons. Better they died quick.”
“You’re such a bastard sometimes.”
“If I let them live, and they found another group, one with more weapons - ”
“You can’t tell the future, Miles. You have no way of knowing they’d do that.”
Matheson threw his hands in the air. “I’m not willing to take that chance, Bass. How many times have we been raided in the last month?”
“What about you, Tom,” Monroe asked, eyes boring into him.
Tom stumbled a bit, not expecting to be noticed. “Me?”
“Sure, were there. You’ve been trailing behind us, surely you heard.”
“I think,” Tom paused, cleared his throat. “Dead men can’t seek their own revenge.”
“See? He gets it.”
“Damnit, Miles. This isn’t Iraq.”
Matheson grabbed fistfull of Monroe’s shirt, and yanked him closer. “You think I don’t know that?”
“Of course I do, but what do you expect me to do, Bass?” Matheson released his hold on Monroe, raked a hand through his hair. “The last group of people we showed mercy to - "
“That wasn’t my fault. Letting them leave - ”
“I’m not blaming you. But, I’m not risking it again.
“As much fun as watching you two bicker is,” Jeremy interjected, “The natives are getting restless.”
Tom glanced behind him and saw the varied looks on the men’s faces. He couldn’t determine if they were troubled by what just happened, or by the way their leaders argued amongst themselves. The two might not realize it yet, but he did. He knew they were in charge. He knew if order was to come, it would be brought by the men he’d just fought shoulder to shoulder with in battle. Staying with these men, doing what was necessary would help ensure his family lived. Nothing mattered more to Tom Neville than that.
Tom’s eyes looked out on the horizon, sun low in the sky. “We killed a lot of innocent men that week, Miles. But my family didn’t starve. I never regretted it, following you. Monroe promised to bring us order. You promised to keep us safe.”
“I’m not sure which bothered Bass more. Me leading a group of untrained men on that raid or suggesting to Jeremy we make one of the cows the emblem of the Republic.”
“Back then? Probably both.”
Miles snorted. “Probably.”
“Look, while we’re talking. I wanna ask you something.”
Miles met his gaze. Tom steeled himself and held it. He’d started this conversation, and he wanted answers.
“Why’d you come back?”
“You’re the first one to ask me that.”
“Monroe called me to his office the night you tried to kill him. I’d never seen him look that unsettled. Couldn’t figure out who he regretted living through the encounter more him or you. He knew someone would come for him; we all did. Never thought it would be you, though.”
“And you, Tom? Did you think it would be me?”
“No. That surprised me as much as everyone else. He had me investigate it, after I offered to go hunt you down myself. I found your list of conspirators, and dug until I found out about Monroe’s quest to bring the power back. Some folks might thing he’s obsessed with it, crazy even.”
“I thought it was a waste of time, like the train. Something to occupy his time. Bass likes his projects.”
“Now?” Miles paused. “There might be a way to get power, maybe not like before, but something. All it would take would be one tank, one chopper. One - and we’re all dead.”
Tom shook his head, a smile on his face. “You two said the same thing, but years apart. The night I found Bass’ stockpile, after he decided not to kill me, he told me the same thing. He asked me if I thought he was crazy. I didn’t then. I don’t now.”
“There are a lot of people who think he is because I convinced them he was.”
“You made quite the mess.”
Miles rolled his eyes. “Yup, and to clean it up we’re going to kill more innocent people.”
“It’s good to have you back, Miles.”
Miles raised an eyebrow.
“The man I offered to hunt down was weak; he’d forgotten himself, got himself wrapped up in morals from a time when good men could afford such things. We don’t live in the kind of world anymore, Miles. The way I see it, it doesn’t matter why you left so long as the Miles Matheson who came back is the one who decided we needed to do what was necessary to feed our people through the winter. That man, I figure he can pretty well do as he pleases so long as he remembers to feed the people.”
Miles nodded, moved in close. His voice lowered to a harsh whisper. “Let me be perfectly clear, Tom. You’re valuable to me, and a damn good soldier. We’ve been through a lot together. I respect that.” Miles paused. “Fail me again, and I’ll kill you, your wife, and your son with my bare hands.”
Tom inclined his head. Because he knew Miles meant every word he spoke, Tom felt better. The Miles Matheson who’d ordered the execution of a group of innocent people had returned.
“Still have that list?”
“Good. Most of them went into hiding when I left, some of them in places I know about. Once they learn I’m back, if they don’t already know, they’ll scatter.”
“We should send men out now, increase our chances.”
Miles nodded. “I know, the trouble is I don’t have men to send out because I just called them all back in.”
“Not everyone, sir. Send individual runners, privates with kill orders. Have them go to the outposts, to the men we never pull back to the capital. Once the ceremony is over, we can send another wave, pick up any stragglers.”
“One last thing, Tom. One of the boys from your unit, Danny killed his best friend.”
“This kid carrying a grudge?”
He watched the sunset as Miles walked like a specter back towards Independence Hall. Tom rested his hands behind his back, mind racing to catch up with everything that just happened, everything he’d learned. With a small smile on his face, Tom made his way home.
“These plans Miles has me working on, this party? It’s a sham.”
“Julia,” Tom began carefully.
“Don’t, Tom. It wasn’t enough for him to make you work for that lapdog of theirs, but now he makes me his fucking event planner? To celebrate his family?”
“This is an opportunity, can’t you see it?”
“He’s testing me.”
“Of course he’s testing you. We’re having this conversation which proves why he’s testing you. He already questioned me because his brother’s dead. I may not have pulled the trigger, but,” Tom paused. “I hesitated. Waited longer than I should. I’d been traveling with those boys for a year, and I put them before the Republic. I didn’t plan for it to end with Ben Matheson dead.”
“Miles left because he thought Monroe’d gone crazy. Now he’s back, blames you for his brother’s death, but he doesn’t kill you. That’s not the General Miles Matheson people whisper about in back alleys. He’s gone soft.”
Tom curled his hand into a fist, feeling the leather stretch around his knuckles. He hated these conversations with his wife because she didn’t always see the big picture. She valued family above all else, pushed their position, garnered favor in parlors around the capital. While he worked up the ranks, she worked the social elite of the capital with compliments, stories, accolades mentioned at the right time, to the right person. She excelled at those games, the small intrigues that kept society running. It eclipsed the bigger picture though, and currently threatened his ability to maintain his family’s safety. He feared her desire to see their family elevated would exceed his own. Left on her own, Julia would have him be president of the Republic, a job Tom never sought. He was no foot soldier, but the pinnacle of power within a volatile world was not something he coveted. Men like Miles and Monore were made for it though, and with Miles back, the Republic would flourish again.
“Miles hasn’t gone soft,” Tom said with a smile, Miles’ threat still fresh in his mind. “He’s a pragmatist to a fault. Killing me would’ve made him feel good, and if I give him a reason he might still do it. I’m useful though. Jason, too. Now, if you put all of your considerable skill into a ceremony the Monroe Republic will never forget, you’ll be valuable, too.”
“I don’t like playing his games.”
Tom shrugged. “Nepotism didn’t disappear with the power. We all dance to the tune Miles and Monroe play. Just like the men under me play to mine.”
“I don’t understand why you’re not more upset about all of this.”
“Upset? There’s nothing to be upset about, Julia. Now, Miles won’t forget about the mess with his brother, but he’ll move beyond it because he’s loyal to the men.”
“Loyal? He left after trying to assassinate the president.”
Tom sighed. “Miles couldn’t kill him. Monroe told me that very night. Miles couldn’t pull the trigger. I don’t know why he ran, but I could guess. If he’d been interested in destroying the Republic, he could have joined up with anyone of the surrounding areas, come after us, slaughtered us all.”
“The other areas would have shot him on sight.”
“Not Miles. I can just imagine him, walking into President Foster’s office, her guards trailing behind him. He’d look her square in the eye and announce his plan to take the Monroe Republic down one corpse at a time. He’d offer to cut a path to Philly and put a bullet in the president's face. Make Sherman's march feel like a 10k fun run. He’d ask her one question: is that the sort of work that you'd be interested in?”
Julia regarded him for a long moment. “After everything, you still respect him.”
Tom paused. During his earlier conversation with Miles, he’d asked himself that very question. From the first raid, before they’d even pretended to organize, Miles had saved his life, watched his back. Taught him how to defend himself. Trusted him. Miles spent the years after the blackout watching the back of everyone around him. Even when he fled, he protected the Republic.
“I can’t believe you. You’re so much better than these men yet you hold yourself back from greatness. You let them push you around, and you just take it. They send you out, and you’re away from home for months, this past assignment had you, and my son, away for a year. Now you come back, and they spit in your face.”
“So that’s what all this is about,” Tom said gently. He pulled Julia into his arms, pressed a kiss to his hair. “I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long. I can’t imagine the strain that put on you, worrying about your boy for all that time.”
“Don’t patronize me, Tom.”
He pulled back, met her gaze. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m home now, and so is Jason. My new assignment keeps me close to the capital, and working with - for Baker could be worse. He’s good, and we’re finding our way.”
“I know how important this party is, and it’s a good idea. As much as I hate to say anything nice about him, Miles is smart. Not everyone knew about him and his little vacation to, where was it you said Monroe found him?”
“Running a bar in Chicago.”
“He really had no intention of taking over, or defecting.”
“Of course not. He’s the Commanding General; Monroe always knew it.”
“They why send you out? If he knew, why bother?”
“I offered to hunt Miles down and shoot him, figured he had it coming. Monroe though, he had me hunt down the conspirators. That’s when I found out about the power, about Rachel. The power is what made me keep going, Julia. I’m loyal to the Republic, but I’m loyal to my family first. Monroe knew it all along, knew that if the other areas got power first, they’d slaughter us all. I couldn't let that happen. I won’t let that happen.”
“He didn’t send you out out because of the power.”
“No,” Tom said slowly. “I think he sent me out to find Miles and bring him back to Philly.”
Julia smiled. “They work well together.”
Tom carded his fingers through Julia’s hair.
“I missed having you here. I hate that Miles created a situation that took you so far away from me for so long. The soft spots of the Republic are being poked; the other pieces on the board know the queen is vulnerable.”
“Was vulnerable, Julia. Miles has many things to fix, but he’ll fix it.”
“Tom, that’s not - ”
“Mom - ”
“Jason,” Julia smiled at her son.
“I’m sorry,” Jason addressed Tom. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, sir. I’ll come back later.”
“Nonsense. We were just discussing the upcoming graduation ceremony.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” Jason glanced away. “I’m escorting Charlie and her mom, and I don’t know what to do. Charlie hates me, and even the Generals are cautious around Rachel.”
Tom smiled. He rode his son hard. He withheld compliments, buried his pride deep. His boy turned into a strong, capable man with his mother's quick mind, one that kept him alive, had him watch everything, gather up pieces of information, store it for later.
“You really like this girl don’t you,” Julia said, eyes kind.
“She’s beautiful and fierce. I know I did what had to be done, but I hated lying to her. I’m afraid that if she doesn’t come around - ”
“Your father reminded me of something earlier, and in this situation, it works to our benefit. She’s a Matheson.”
“The other one is a Matheson, too. It didn’t help her when Strausser was sent in to get answers from her. I just don’t want Charlie to get hurt.”
“Strausser, really?” Julia asked. “I thought she had a room in the Hall.”
“She does. Strausser went to her,” Jason replied.
“With Ben dead, Rachel is the only other person who might know about the power. Monroe would do what he felt was necessary to get information from her.”
“Including hurting Charlie.”
“I don’t think so. They didn’t hurt Danny, I don’t think they’ll hurt Charlie either.”
“Even if they don’t hurt her, it won’t matter. She won’t talk to me. I had to lie to her about who I was, but she doesn’t understand.”
Julia placed her hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Give her time.”
“General Matheson told me the same thing.”
Tom laughed. “You and Miles have more in common than not, my dear.”
“Tom, I’m thrilled you’re home, but I will make you sleep on the couch.”
Tom smiled. It was good to be home.