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[OOC: I'm resisting the urge to call this future "Five Years Gone future." There are no zombies in the Heroes-verse, and no time travel in the WL-verse. So far as we know, anyway.]

Tom managed to stay in Chicago for two weeks after the military surrounded the city. Two weeks after the military arrived, and a week after negotiations started, and maybe three days after the first fight in the negotiation chambers.

And then he couldn't stand it any more. Because, see, it wasn't just the military out there. It was the people who'd killed Jordan. And every time he thought about that, he started to sweat and he couldn't swallow and he felt like screaming.

A lot of zombies in out of the way places in the city limits got hunted down in those two weeks. Unfortunately, there weren't very many zombies in the city limits at all. A couple times, Tom felt guilty for destroying such useful stress relievers and keeping them away from other people.

And then he realized that he was thinking of them as stress relievers, not former humans, not even zombies, and he had to go sit down for a while and shake.

And after two weeks, he quietly packed up his possessions -- more than he ever would have thought he'd have -- into his backpack, loaded his gun, and left the shelter in the middle of the night. The brief thought of saying goodbye to Gwen and Karla and Preston and Kenneth was brutally squashed down. He couldn't afford it.

He got five miles out of town, walking along the train tracks, before an army patrol pulled up next to him.

"'Scuse us, sir. You'll have to come with us."

He stopped and hitched his backpack higher on his back. "I don't have to do anything. It's a free country."

"Not at the moment, sir. Please come with us, sir."

Tom didn't even notice that his hand was resting on the butt of his gun, tucked in the waistband of his jeans. The second soldier in the Jeep did, though.

The click of the soldier's gun cocking made Tom's stomach feel like it was going to drop out.

"Keep your hands where we can see them. Sir."

"Yeah." He moved his hands slowly out to his sides, fingers splayed. "Yeah, okay."

They loaded him into the Jeep, took his gun, searched his bag perfunctorily, and turned around to take him back to Chicago. He sat with his head in his hands and didn't talk. Both soldiers were young, his age or younger, and he kept thinking that if he'd met them in the Wasteland he'd probably like them okay.

The army had commandeered an empty warehouse complex out west of the city. Tom had uneasy, vaguely hysterical thoughts about being given a number and sent to shower off. No such thing, of course -- it was just a crowded warehouse that they escorted him to, packed with other refugees from Chicago, noisy even this late at night, and smelly as only a bunch of people in a small space can be. They gave him back his pack, told him to find a cot, and left him there.

Two days later, a very polite middle-aged soldier picked his way through the cots and told Tom that The Colonel -- Tom thought it ought to have capital letters, the way everyone at the Wasteland talked about him -- was asking to see him.

Tom brought his backpack with him.

The Colonel wasn't as intimidating as he'd been expecting, but he noticed, in a detached way, that his palms were sweating as the very polite soldier left, closing the door behind him.

"Have a seat, Tom."

"Uh. Thanks."

". . . You can put your backpack down, you know. You're not going anywhere any time soon, are you?"

"--I'd rather hang on to it."

The colonel smiled. "I'm sorry, that was unintentionally ominous. I just meant that we're going to be talking for a while, so you might as well be comfortable. Trust me."

The straps on the backpack squeaked; Tom made himself relax his hands. "I'd rather hang on to it."

"All right. Can I get you anything? A beer?"

"You have beer?"

"We're pretty well supplied here," said the colonel. "We've offered to help the city with provisions, but the Council refused."

"That's not what I heard."

He regretted it moments after he said it, as the colonel's eyebrows rose, and he said quietly, "Oh? What have you heard, Tom?"

Tom shook his head, hugging his pack closer without thinking. "Nothing. I mean, I hear stuff, but I'm sure it's just rumours, the gossip mill around here's crazy, there was this rumour for a while that Russ 'n' Gwen were gonna get married and anyone who knows them knows that that's a crock--"

"You know Mr. Harris and Ms. Russell well?"

Tom winced and rubbed his forehead. "Not -- well. No."

"According to your file, you spend a fair amount of time at the Wasteland. A real regular."

He went still. "You have a file on me? On me?"

"It's standard procedure," the colonel said smoothly, "when dealing with insurgents."

Tom gaped. "Insurgents? Is that what you're calling us now? Like -- like terrorists in some South American banana republic?"

The colonel sighed. "This isn't how I was hoping this interview would go."

Tom tensed up again, and knew that he'd been neatly turned off the political talk and onto something else, and didn't care. "How were you hoping it would go?"

The colonel leaned forward, elbows on the desk; Tom scooted his chair back fractionally. "I'll lay it out, Tom. You seem like someone who'd prefer to hear it straight. I like that. There's so much diplomatic talk these days that sometimes you can't tell what people are saying."

Tom said nothing.

"I was hoping you offer you a -- deal, I guess you could say."

Still no response. The colonel sat back, eying him.

"Sometimes you can't tell what people are saying," he repeated. "What's said in the Council and the diplomatic talks sometimes has very little to do with what's actually being said in Chicago, by Chicago. We need someone who can tell us what's really on people's minds. A liason, if you will -- a go-between."

"A spy."

"I'm not asking for subterfuge."

"No, you just want me to wander around and talk to people and not tell them I'm reporting to you because they'll clam up. That's totally not subterfuge or spying."

The colonel said nothing.

"No. No. Absolutely not."

The colonel sighed. "Tom, look. The Army needs you, and we'll compensate you for any service you perform for us, even just once. Look at the big picture -- it's a good deal for everyone. We're not unreasonable."

A few minutes later, a couple soldiers rushed into the room and hastily escorted Tom back to the warehouse; an hour after that, they escorted an only somewhat calmer Tom to the city limits and wished him goodbye and good riddance.

"Can I get my gun back?" he asked. They politely refused, saying something about mental capacity.

"Oh," he said after a moment of staring blankly at them. "You think I'm crazy."

"Goodbye, sir," they said, and drove away.

Tom stood there for a few minutes, looking between the train tracks running east and west, and the avenue that headed back into town.

Finally, he looked back towards the Army warehouses, considered, and raised one finger in salute.

"I can see the bigger picture just fine, thanks."

He started walking. The sun was setting , and the shelter, and the Council, were a good fifteen blocks away; he'd have to move pretty fast to get there before dark.

Maybe, he thought, there'd be time to go out drinking afterwards.


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April 2011

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