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Norcross, GA Sol III
1447 EDT March 16, 2001 ad

Michael O'Neal was a junior associate web consultant with an Atlanta web-page design firm. What this meant in practice was that he worked eight to twelve hours a day with HTML, Java and Perl. When the associate account executives or the account executives needed somebody along who really understood what the system was doing, when, for example, the client group included an engineer or computer geek, he would be invited to the meeting to sit there and be quiet until they hit a snag. Then he opened his mouth to spit out a bare minimum of technobabble. This indicated to the customer that there was at least one guy working on their site who had more going for him than good hair and a low golf score. Then the sales consultant would take the client to lunch while Mike went back to his office.


While Mike had fine hair, he played neither golf nor tennis, was ugly as a troll and short as an elf. Despite these handicaps he was working himself steadily up the corporate ladder. He had recently gotten an unasked-for raise in lieu of promotion, which surprised the hell out of him, and other rattling noises had been heard that indicated the possibility of further upward mobility.


The office he moved into was not much; there was barely room to turn his swivel chair, it was right next to the break room so several times a day it was overwhelmed by the smell of popcorn, and he had to install a hanging book rack for his references. But it was an office, and in a time of cube farms that meant everything. Someone in the background was grooming him for something and he just hoped it was not a guillotine. Unlikely—he was the kind of aggressive pain in the ass every company secretly needed.


He was currently in a mood to kill. The overblown applets on the newest client's site were slowing their page to a crawl. Unfortunately, the client insisted on the "little" pieces of code that were taking up so much of their bandwidth, so it was up to him to figure out how to reduce it.


He sat with his feet propped on his overloaded desk, gripping and releasing a torsional hand exerciser as he stared up at the "Tick" poster on his ceiling and thought about his next vacation. Two more weeks and then it would be blue surf, cold beer and coral reefs. I should have gone SEAL, he thought, his face fixed in a perpetual frown from weight lifting, and become a surfing instructor. Sharon looks good in a bikini.


He had just taken a sip of stale, cold coffee, thinking blue thoughts of Java surgery, when his phone rang.


"Michael O'Neal, Pre-Publish Design, how can I help you?" The phone snag and stock answer were performed before his forebrain kicked in. Then he nearly spit out his coffee when he recognized the voice.


"Hi, Mike, it's Jack."


His feet slammed to the floor with a crash and XML for Dummies followed it. "Good morning, sir, how are you?" He had not talked to his former boss in nearly two years.


"Good enough. Mike, I need you down at McPherson on Monday morning."


Whaaa? "Sir, it's been eight years. I'm not in the Army market anymore." By nearly Pavlovian response, he started to catalog everything he would need to take.


"I just got finished talking to your company's president. This is not, currently, an official recall . . ."


I like that little hidden threat boss, Mike thought. 


"But I pointed out that whether it was or not, you would be eligible to return under the Soldiers and Sailors Act . . ."


Yup, that's Jack. Thanks a million, ole boss o' mine. 


"That didn't seem to be a problem. He seemed to be kind of upset at losing you right now. Apparently they just got a new contract he really wanted you to work on . . ."


Yes! Mike chortled silently. We got the First Onion upgrade! The site was a plum job the company had been chasing for nearly a year. The account would guarantee at least a solid two years of lucrative business.


"But I convinced him it would be for the best," the general continued. Mike could hear other conversations in the background, some argumentative, some subdued. It seemed almost like the general was calling from a telephone solicitation company. Or several of his cohorts were making the same calls. Some of the muted voices in the background seemed almost desperate.


"What's this about, sir?"


The answer was met by silence. In the background a male voice started shouting, apparently displeased with the answer he was getting on his own call.


"Let me guess, OPSEC?" Any answer to the question would violate operational security directives. Mike scratched at a spot of ink on the varnished desktop then started working the gripper again. Blood pressure . . . . It was security and dominance games like this that had partially driven him away from the military. He had no intention of being sucked back in.


"Be there, Mike. The SigInt building attached to FORCECOM."


"Airborne, General, sir." He paused for a moment, then continued dryly. "Sharon is going to go ballistic."


* * *

Mike was cleaning broccoli when he heard the car pull up. He wiped his hands and opened the door to the carport so the kids could get in, waved and went back to the sink.


Cally, the four-year-old, made it through the door first and got a big, wet hug from daddy.


"Daddy! You got me all wet!"


"Big, wet daddy hugs! Arrrh!" He gestured at her with soapy hands as she went shrieking towards her room.


In the meantime Michelle, the two-year-old, had toddled in and handed him her latest creation from preschool. She got a big, wet daddy hug, too.


"And what is this masterpiece?" He looked at the scrawl of green, blue and red and flashed a quick helpless glance at his wife, just coming through the door.


"Cow!" she mouthed.


"Well, Michelle, that's a very nice cow!"


"Mooo!"


"Yes, mooo!"


"Juice!"


"Okay, can my big girl say please?" Mike asked with a smile, already headed for the refrigerator.


"P'ease," she answered, mildly.


"Okay," he reached into the fridge and extracted the cup. "No spill."


"Mess!" she countered, clutching the no-spill cup to her chest.


"No mess."


She carried the cup into the living room for her afternoon video. "Pooh!"


"Cinderella!"


" 'Rella!"


He heard the video player start, courtesy of the older girl as his wife walked back into the kitchen after a quick change. Slim and tall with long raven black hair and high, firm breasts, even after two pregnancies she still moved with the grace of the dancer she was when they first met. She'd joined the club he worked at to improve her muscle tone. He was the best in the club at muscle management schemes so he got assigned to her, naturally. One thing led to another and here they were eight years later. Sometimes Mike wondered what kept her around. On the other hand it would take a crowbar to separate him from her. Or, at least, the hand of duty.


"Your agent called me at work," she said, "he said you weren't in."


"Oh?" he said, noncommittally he hoped. His stomach had already started to churn. He pulled a bottle of domestic Chardonnay out of the refrigerator and began hunting for the corkscrew.


"He says he needs another rewrite, but Dunn may be interested." She leaned back against the counter, watching him carefully. He was giving off all the wrong vibes.


"Oh. Good."


"You're home early," she continued, crossing her arms. "What's wrong? You should be excited."


"Umm." He bought time by wrenching out the cork and pouring her a glass of wine.


"What?" She looked at the Chardonnay suspiciously, as if wondering if it were poisoned. After six years of marriage there was not much he could get past her. She might not know exactly what was coming, but she could tell it was nasty.


"Uh. It's not bad, really," he said, taking a pull of his own beer. The mellow home-brewed concoction dropped to his stomach like lead and started doing dances with the butterflies. Sharon was really going to hit the roof.


"Oh, shit, just spit it out," she snapped. "What, did you get fired?"


"No, no, I got called back up. Sort of." He turned back to the stove, picking up the pot and dumping the al dente pasta into the colander.


"What? By the Army? You've been out, what? eight years?" The words were low but angry. They tried to never argue in front of the kids.


"Almost nine," he agreed, head down and concentrating on getting the pasta just right. The smell of garlic permeated the air as he tossed the crushed cloves into the mix. "I'd been out nearly six months when we met."


"You're not reserve anymore!" She reached out and touched his arm to get him to turn around and look at her.


"I know, but Jack called Dave and twisted his arm into letting me go for a while." He looked up into her blue eyes and wondered why he could not tell Jack, "No." The hurt in her gaze was almost more than he could bear.


"Jack. You mean General Horner. The 'Jack' who wanted you to get a commission?" she asked with dark suspicion, setting the wine down. It was her way of clearing the decks and he took it for a bad sign.


"How many Jacks do you know?" he asked playfully, trying to lighten the mood.


"I don't know him—you know him." She had moved in close to him, crowding his space and more or less making him back up.


"You've talked to General Horner before." He turned back to the pasta, running from the argument and he knew it.


"Once, and it was until you got to the phone."


"Mmm."


"And why the hell do they want you?" she asked, still crowding in. He could faintly feel the heat from her body, raised by a combination of the wine and the argument.


"I don't know." The fettuccine ready, he added the Alfredo sauce, covered and warming on the stove top. The heady smell of parmesan and spices filled the air.


"Well, call General Horner and tell him you're not coming until we know why. And fettuccine Alfredo will not get you out of anything." She crossed her arms again, then relented and picked up the wine for a sip.


"Honey, you know the drill. When they call, you go." He portioned out the kids' supper, readying trays for them to eat in front of the TV. Normally they tried to eat together, but tonight seemed like a good night to create a little distance from them.


"No. Not with me," she retorted, gesturing sharply enough to slosh the Chardonnay. "Not that anybody has asked, but they'd get a little more argument if they tried to get me back in the Navy. The hell if I'm ever serving on another carrier." She tossed her head to move an imaginary hair out of the way and waited for a response.


"Well, I guess I don't know what to say," he said softly.


She looked at him for a long moment. "You want to go back." It was clearly an accusation. "You know, I'm going to have a hell of a time keeping up with both work and home if you're gone!"


"Well . . ." The pause after that looked to go on forever.


"God, Mike, it's been years! It's not like you're eighteen anymore." With her mouth pursed into a frown, she looked like a little girl "saving up spit."


"Honey," he said, rubbing his chin and looking at the ceiling, "generals don't recall you from civilian status, personally, to go run around in the boonies." He dropped his eyes to meet hers and shook his head.


"Whatever it is, they'll want me for my know-how, not my biceps. And sometimes, yeah, I wonder if being, maybe, by now, a company commander in the Eighty-Deuce wouldn't be a little more . . . important, useful, I don't know, something more than building a really boss web page for the country's fourth largest bank!" He garnished the generous helping of fettuccine with a chicken breast in garlic and herbs and extended it to her.


She shook her head, understanding the argument intellectually, but still not happy. "Do you have to leave this evening?"


She took the plate and looked at it with the same suspicion as the wine. A little alcohol and complex carbohydrates to calm the hysterical wifey. Unfortunately she knew that was exactly how she was acting. He knew all about her knee-jerk reaction to the military and was trying to compensate. Trying hard.


"No, I have to be at McPherson on Monday morning. And that's the other thing, I'm just going to McPherson. It's not like it's the back side of the moon." He picked up a rag and wiped away an imaginary smear on the gray countertop. He could see the light at the end of the tunnel, but with Sharon on the warpath it could just as well be a train.


"No, but if you think I'm taking the kids to south Atlanta you're out of your mind," she retorted, losing ground and knowing it. She sensed that this was a critical argument and wondered what would happen if she said it was her or the Army. She had thought about it a few times before, but it had never come up. Now she was afraid to ask. What really made her mad was that she understood her emotions and knew she was in the wrong. Her own experiences had poisoned her against the military as a career, but not against the basic call to duty. And it made her wonder what would happen if she faced the same question.


"Hey, I may be commuting. And it may not be for long," Mike said with a purely Gallic shrug and rubbed his chin. His dark, coarse hair had raised a respectable five-o'clock shadow.


"But you don't think so," she countered.


"No, I don't think so," he agreed, somberly.


"Why?" She sat down at the kitchen table and cut a bite of the chicken. It was perfectly done; delicious as usual. It tasted like sand in her mouth.


"Well . . . just say it's a gut call." Mike began to fill his own plate. He suspected poulet avec herb was going to be lacking in his diet in the near future.


"But we have the weekend?" she asked taking a sip of the oaky Chardonnay to wash down the wonderful meal in a mouth gone quite dry.


"Yes."


"Well, let's see what we can think of to do." The smile was weak, but at least it was a smile.


* * *

"Can I see some ID, sir? Driver's license?"


I got up pretty damn early for this crap. Three hours driving separated his home in the Georgia Piedmont from Fort McPherson, Georgia, home of the Army's Forces Command. Perched just off of Interstate 75-85, the green lawns and numerous brick structures hid a mass of secure buildings. Since it commanded all the combat forces in the Army its secure meeting facilities were top-notch but the press hardly noticed it. If a large number of military and civilian personnel suddenly congregated in Fort Myers, Virginia or Nellis AFB it would be noticed; places like that were carefully watched but not Fort McPherson. Serviced by Hartsfield Airport, the largest in the United States, and covered by Atlanta's notorious traffic, the only people who noticed the gathering were the carefully selected soldiers acting as military police. But, while the soldiers had been carefully selected, they had not been selected from the ranks of MPs.


"Thank you, sir," said the somber gate guard after a thorough study of Mike's driver's license and face. "Take the main road to a 'T' intersection. Turn right. Follow that road to Forces Command; it is a gray concrete building with a sign. Go past the main building to the guard shack on the left. Turn in there and follow the MP's direction."


"Thank you," said Mike, dropping the Beetle into gear and taking the proffered ID.


"Not at all," the guard said to the already moving Beetle. "Have a nice day." The Delta Force commando in an MP uniform picked up a recently installed secure phone. "O'Neal, Michael A., 216-29-1145, 0657. Special attention Lieutenant General John Horner." For a moment the sergeant first class wondered what all the fuss was about, why he was wearing rank three grades inferior to his real one. Then he stopped wondering. The ability to quell curiosity was a desirable trait in a long-term Delta. Damn, he thought, that guy looked just like a fireplug, then dismissed him from memory as the next civilian car pulled up.


 


"I'd forgotten how much he looks like a fireplug." Lieutenant General John J. (Jumpin' Jack) Horner murmured to himself, standing at a comfortable parade rest as the Volkswagen puttered into a parking place. Over six feet tall and almost painfully handsome, the general's appearance was the epitome of a senior military officer.


Slim and hard looking, stern of mien, the only time he smiled was just before he pulled the rug out from under an incompetent junior officer. Erect of carriage, his Battle Dress Uniform fit as if, contrary to regulation, it was tailored. With closely cropped, silver hair and glacial blue eyes he appeared to be exactly what he was: an iron-clad modern scion of the Prussian warrior class. Were he wearing a greatcoat and jackboots he would slip unnoticed into the WWII Wehrmacht Oberkommando.


His twenty-seven-year career had been spent exclusively in airborne infantry and special operations. Despite having never attained a keystone desire, command of the Ranger regiment, he was undoubtedly the world class expert in infantry tactics and doctrine. Furthermore, besides being an excellent theoretician and staff officer, he was considered a superlative commander, a leader of men in the old mold. In his career he had come across many characters, but few matched the squat juggernaut rolling across the emerald grass towards him. Horner laughed internally, remembering the first time he met the former NCO.


* * *

December 1989. The weather conformed to official standards for a North Carolina winter and Fort Bragg, Home of the Airborne, had been under sullen rain and sleet-swollen clouds for a week. With the exception of the weather, and it had its good points, Lieutenant Colonel Horner was pleased with his first ARTEP as a battalion commander. The units he and his sergeant major had grilled mercilessly for three long months had just performed flawlessly despite the environment, whereas the year before, under the previous commander, they brutally flunked the same Armed Readiness Testing and Evaluation Program test. Even with the rain it appeared that God was in his heaven and all was right with the world right up until his jeep suffered a sudden and spectacular blowout.


Even this was no obstacle. Jeeps come with a spare tire; the driver's rucksack was hanging from it, containing tools to handle just such an eventuality. But when his driver confessed that he had neglected to pack those self-same tools, Lieutenant Colonel Horner instantly smiled. It was a very Russian smile; it did not reach the eyes.


"No tools?" asked the colonel tightly.


"No, sir." The specialist swallowed, his prominent Adam's-apple bobbing up and down.


"No jack."


"No, sir."


"Sarn't Major?" snapped the colonel.


The sergeant major, not having anywhere he was supposed to be and snug in his camouflage Gortex rain-suit, was deriving some humor from the situation. "Shall I draw and quarter him, sir?" he asked, tucking his hands into his armpits and preparing for a long wait in the sleet. He hoped like hell it would start to snow; there would be less of a chance of hypothermia.


"Actually, I'm prepared to entertain suggestions," said the colonel, holding on to his temper by a thread.


"Other than the obvious, sir, call the CONTAC team?" A grin split his ebony face at the commander's discomfiture. Jack was the best battalion commander he had ever met, but it was always fun to watch him handle minor problems. The colonel hated dealing with little shit like this. It was like he was born a general and was just waiting until he had an aide-de-camp to handle drivers and their failings.


"Other than getting on the net and admitting that my driver is an idiot by calling a recovery team for a simple flat. Reynolds," he said, turning to the specialist fourth class, standing at attention in the drizzling sleet, "I would love to know what the hell you were thinking."


"Sir, we have the operational readiness survey coming up," said the specialist, desperately wishing his internal processes would just stop or a hole would open up and swallow him.


"Uh huh, go on. Feel free to use more than one sentence," said the colonel.


"I think I know where this is going," chuckled the sergeant major.


Taking a deep breath the quivering specialist continued. "Well, the PLL kit is only good for minor shit like changing a tire . . ."


"Like now!" the colonel snapped.


"Yes, sir," the specialist continued, doggedly, "and when the vehicle is good the tires rarely go bad. And this is a good jeep, that's a new damn tire! But at ORS the inspectors know that the commanders' vehicles get first dibs so they really go over 'em with a fine comb. And if they can't find something major they look for little shit like chipped paint on your jack and stuff. So, I got the maintenance chief to swap me for a new set of PLL and since I didn't want it to get fucked up . . ."


"Knew it!" laughed the NCO. "God, I hate that trick. Next time, Reynolds, get two sets of PLL and keep one in your locker!"


"Reynolds." The colonel forced himself to pause. Ripping the head off the idiot would solve nothing. One of the reasons he was so angry was his own sense of failure for not replacing this particular weak link before ARTEP.


"Yes, sir?"


"You are almost remarkably lacking in sense." Horner looked at the heavens, as if seeking guidance.


"Yes, sir."


"I ought to send you to the Post Protocol office as a permanent driver," said the colonel, returning to the situation.


"Yes, sir."


"It is not a compliment," said the officer, smiling like a tiger.


"No, sir. Airborne, sir." Reynolds knew that when the colonel smiled like that you were totally screwed. Scouts, he thought, here I come.


"Sergeant Major Eady?"


"Alpha weapons." While the discussion had gone on, the sergeant major had pulled out and consulted a tactical dispositions map. The sleet turning to rain pooled and dripped on the acetate cover, occasionally requiring a shake to clear the view. By evening it was sure to snow. The sergeant major decided he wanted to be back at the Tactical Operations Center by then; all his comfort gear was there.


"Where?" snapped the colonel, stalking over to his own seat.


"South to the next firebreak, which should be on the left about two hundred meters, around the bend, then about a hundred fifty, two hundred. Clearing on the right. If I remember correctly, there's a lightning-struck pine at the edge of the clearing along the road." The NCO had been driving these roads before the specialist was a gleam in his daddy's eye.


"Reynolds," growled the colonel, throwing himself into the seat of the open jeep and propping his foot on the mud-splashed shovel lashed to the side.


"Sir."


"I assume you can run four hundred meters in your field gear." The colonel assumed the same position as the sergeant major in the back, gloved hands thrust into armpits, body slightly crouched to reduce surface area. The position of an experienced and heartily pissed infantry officer preparing for a long wait in the cold rain and sleet.


"Airborne, sir!" The specialist snapped to attention, happy to have somewhere to go out of the glacial gaze of his commander.


"Go."


The embarrassed spec-four took off like a gazelle. The icy red mud splashed for yards in every direction with each stride.


"Sergeant Major," said the colonel, conversationally, as the figure disappeared around the first bend.


"Yes, sir!" snapped the sergeant major, coming to attention in his seat, but not removing his hands from his armpits.


"Sarcasm?" asked the colonel, tightly.


"Sarcasm? Me, sir? Never," he said, leaning back in his seat. Then he held up his right hand with forefinger and thumb slightly separated. A pea might have fit between the two. "Maybe, maybe, just a bit. A bit." As he said it, his fingers separated until they were at maximum extension. "A bit."


"I have been meaning to talk to you about getting a new driver . . ." said the colonel, letting some of his tension go. The situation was just too stupid and petty to get really angry about.


"Oh? Really?" The sergeant major chuckled.


"It's not so much the fact that he is so damn stupid," the colonel continued, resignedly. The Smaj would have his little laugh. "It's that when he's not arrogant, he's obsequious."


"Well, Colonel," said the NCO, taking off his Kevlar helmet and scratching his head. A flurry of dandruff drifted off in the cold wind. Basic personal hygiene complete, he took care settling the helmet on his head and getting all the straps back in place. The chinstrap was greasy against his chin, the well-worn canvas soaked with skin oils after the long field problem. "The sergeant major is only an enlisted man and we're not cleared to know what obsequious means. But if you mean he's a little ass-kisser, that's why he got the job in the first place. That and he's a hell of a runner; Colonel Wasserman was big on running." The ebony Buddha, a noted runner himself, smiled contentedly. From his point of view this was the last item that needed major repair in the whole battalion.


"Colonel Wasserman came within a hair's breadth of being relieved for cause and is currently headed for the street," snorted the colonel. He and the sergeant major had tried to bring the soldier up to the standard that they expected but it just had not happened. Reynolds just seemed to be one of those soldiers best suited for the "Old Guard." He looked great during inspections, but just could not get his head out of his ass when it came to combat training. Horner sighed in resignation, realizing that there were some situations that training would not solve.


"In general I use the following criteria," he continued. "If Colonel Wasserman thought it was a great idea, I try to go in the exact opposite direction. In a way it's too bad I can't follow him through the rest of my career, it's like a guiding light. Move Reynolds out gracefully. Give him a nice letter, your signature, not mine, and send him back to Charlie company. Find a good replacement. God help us if we had to go to war with this bozo."


There was a period of silence as the two leaders listened to the falling precipitation. It seemed to have settled for sleet, but there were occasional flurries of snow and still a little freezing rain. In the distance there was a rumble of artillery from the Corp artillery having its bi-yearly live fire bash. Weather like this was good training for the cannon-cockers. Good training was an army euphemism for any situation that was miserable and, preferably, screwed up. Their present predicament met all the requirements for "good training."


"Where the hell is the jeep?" asked the colonel, resignation echoing in every tone.


Coming down the road was a sight that would have been comical in other circumstances. Reynolds was tall and slender. Walking with him, carrying a gigantic overstuffed rucksack, was a short—Horner later learned he was five feet two inches tall—incredibly wide soldier. He looked like some camouflage-covered troll or hobgoblin. His oversized "Fritz" helmet and, when he got near enough to see, equally oversized nose completed the picture. Under one arm he carried a large chunk of pine, easily weighing seventy or eighty pounds and his face bore a deep frown. He looked far more annoyed than the colonel or sergeant major.


"Specialist, hmm, O'Neal, one of the mortar squad leaders," the sergeant major whispered as they approached. He climbed out of the jeep and the colonel followed, getting ready to deliver a world-class ass chewing, Horner style.


"Sir," said Reynolds, continuing his saga of despair, "when I arrived at the weapons platoon, I found all the vehicles were gone to refuel . . . " As he spoke O'Neal walked to the rear of the jeep without a word or a greeting to the senior officer or NCO. There he dropped the log and his pack and grasped the bumper. He squatted, then straightened, lifting the corner of the thousand-pound jeep into the air with an exhalation.


"Yeah, we can do this," he said with a grunt and tossed the jeep back into the mud. It bounced on its springs and splattered Reynolds with more of the cold glutinous clay. O'Neal's actions had effectively shut off the flow from Reynolds. "Good afternoon, sir, sergeant major," O'Neal said. He did not salute. Despite standing division orders to do so, the 82nd continued the tradition of considering a salute in the field a "sniper check" and thus a bad thing to train for.


The sergeant major stuck out his hand. "Howarya, O'Neal." He was astounded at the return grip strength. He had dealt with O'Neal peripherally but had never appreciated the specialist's almost preternatural condition. The baggy BDUs apparently hid a body made of pure muscle.


"Specialist," said the colonel, sternly, "that was not a good idea. Let's try to think safe, okay? Rupturing a gut would just make a bad situation worse." He cocked his head to the side like a blue-eyed falcon, pinning the soldier with his most arctic stare.


"Yes, sir, I guessed you would say that," said the specialist, the officer's stare bouncing off him like rain off steel. He worked a bit of dip over to one side and spit carefully. "Sir, with all due respect," he drawled, "I work out with this much weight every damn day. I've lifted the gun jeeps before for exercise, I even clean jerked one, once. I just wanted to make sure the extra radios didn't make it too heavy. We can do this. I lift it, the sergeant major slides the log underneath, we change the tire, reverse the procedure and you're outta here."


The colonel peered down at the specialist for a moment. The specialist looked back up with a matching scowl, the bit of dip bulging his lower lip. The colonel's scowl deepened for a moment, a sure sign of amusement. He carefully did not ask why the sergeant major was sliding the log under the jeep instead of the driver. Apparently O'Neal had the same opinion of Reynolds that he and the sergeant major did.


"You have a first name, O'Neal?" asked the colonel.


"Michael, sir," stated the specialist. He moved the dip to the other side. Other than that his expression of terminal annoyance did not flicker.


"Michael or Mike?" asked the colonel with a deepening scowl.


"Mike, sir."


"Nickname?"


Reluctantly, "Mighty Mite."


As the sergeant major chuckled the colonel scowled fiercely, "Well, Specialist O'Neal, I reluctantly approve this procedure."


"How're we gonna break the bolts?" asked the sergeant major. That had been wearing on his mind more than lifting the jeep. There were plenty of things to use for levers if necessary but not a lug wrench to be seen.


Specialist O'Neal reached into his cargo pocket and with a flourish withdrew a crescent wrench all of eight inches long.


"Good luck," snorted Reynolds, "they got put on at Brigade with an impact wrench."


A smile violated the frown on O'Neal's face for a moment. He knelt in the mud, cold water seeping into the fabric of his BDUs, adjusted the wrench and applied it to the nut. He drew a deep breath and let it out with a "Saaa!" His arm drove forward like a mechanical press and, with a shriek of stressed steel, the nut loosened.


"Craftsman," he said, relaxing and letting the rest of the breath out slowly, "when you care enough to use the very best." He spit another bit of dip out, deftly spun the nut loose and started on the next.


The colonel scowled, but there was a twinkle in his normally cold azure eyes. He turned to be unobserved and gave the sergeant major a wink. They had found their new driver.


* * *

"Howarya, Mike?" General Horner asked, as the approaching figure brought him back from memory lane. He extended his hand.


Mike shifted the cedar box under his arm and took the outstretched hand. "Fine, sir, fine. How are the wife and kids?"


"Fine, just fine. You wouldn't believe how the kids have grown. How're Sharon and the girls?" he asked. He noticed in passing that the former soldier had lost none of his musculature. The handshake was like shaking a well-adjusted industrial vise. If anything the former NCO had put on bulk; he moved like a miniature tank. Horner wondered if the soldier would be able to retain that level of physique given the demands that would shortly be placed upon him.


"Well, the girls are okay," said O'Neal, then grimaced. "Sharon's not particularly happy."


"I knew this would be hard on both of you," said the general, smiling slightly, "and I thought about it before I called you. If it wasn't important I wouldn't have asked."


"I thought generals had aides to meet low-level flunkies like me," said Mike, deliberately changing the subject.


"Generals have aides to meet much higher level flunkies than you." Jack frowned, taking the opportunity to leave it behind.


"Well the heck with you then." Mike laughed, handing the officer the box of cigars. "See if I cough up any more Ramars."


Even while on active duty, Specialist O'Neal and then-Lieutenant Colonel Horner had developed a close relationship. The colonel often treated Mike more like an aide-de-camp than a driver. The specialist, and later sergeant, was invited to eat with the colonel's family and Horner explained many of the customs of the service and functions in the staff that would normally remain a mystery to a lowly enlisted man. Mike in turn increased the colonel's computer literacy and introduced him to science fiction. The colonel took to it surprisingly well, considering that he had never read it before. Mike took great care however in the subject matter, starting with the great modern combat science fiction writers to pique his interest.


After Mike left the service they continued to correspond and Mike followed Jack Horner's career. They had lost touch in the last three years, mainly because of a disagreement over Mike's career. After Mike completed college, Horner fully expected him to take a commission, and Mike wanted to work in web design and theory, while writing on the side. The colonel could not accept Mike's reasoning and Mike could not accept Jack's inability to take "no" for an answer.


Mike sometimes felt that a career in the Army might have made more sense than civvie street, but he had seen too many officers' lives strained to the breaking point by the demands of the service. When his time to reenlist came he got out instead and went to college. The pressure to take a commission, especially during the tough years when he was just getting started and after Cally came along had been hard on him and hard on his marriage. He had never told Jack but the implicit blackmail was what had caused Mike to sever their relationship.


Sharon had experienced the problems that he only witnessed. Her first marriage to a naval aviator had ended in divorce, so she had no intention of letting Mike go back into the service. His brooding on the severance from Jack, in many ways like that of a son from a father, had distracted him from a discordant note: Jack's rank.


"Lieutenant general?" asked Mike in surprise. The morning sun glittered on the five-pointed stars of the new rank. The last Mike had heard, Horner was on the list for major general. Three-star rank should not have come for another few years.


"Well, 'when you care enough . . . ' "


O'Neal smiled at the reference. "What?" He retorted. "Given your well-known resemblance to Friedrich von Paulus, they decided major general wasn't good enough for you?"


"I was a major general until four days ago, Chief of Staff at the Eighteenth Airborne Corps—"


"ADC-O. Congratulations."


"—when I got yanked out for this."


"Isn't that kind of fast to get 'the advice and consent of the Senate'?"


"It's a brevet rank," said the officer, impatiently, "but I have it on excellent authority it will be confirmed." He frowned at some private joke.


"I didn't think you could frock—" Mike started to say.


"That'll have to wait, Mike." The general cut him off, smiling slightly. "We have to get you briefed in and that will take a secure room."


Mike suddenly saw a familiar face that made him sure the conference was about science fiction. Across the lawn, surrounded by a sea of Navy black, was a prominent writer who specialized in naval combat.


"Can you give me just a minute, sir? I want to talk to David," he said pointing.


General Horner looked over his shoulder, then turned back. "They're probably taking him in for the same conversation; you two can talk after the meeting. We have a lot of ground to cover before then and it starts at nine." He put an arm around Mike's shoulders. "Come on, Mighty Mite, time to face the cannon."


* * *

The secure conference room was windowless but it was probably on the exterior of the building; there was noticeable heat radiating from one wall. Another wall sported a painting of an Abrams tank cresting a berm, cannon spouting fire; the title was "Seventy-Three Easting." Other than that the room was unadorned: not a plant, not a painting, not a scrap of paper. It smelled of dust and old secrets. Mike ended his perusal by grabbing one of the blue swivel chairs and relaxing as General Horner settled across from him. As the door swung shut, the general smiled, broadly. It gave him a strong resemblance to an angry tiger.


Mike's scowl deepened. "It's that bad?" Horner only smiled like that when the fecal matter had well and truly hit the fan. The last time O'Neal had seen that smile was the beginning of a very unpleasant experience. It suddenly made him sorry he had given up tobacco.


"Worse," said the general. "Mike, this is not for dissemination, whether you choose to stay or not. I need your word on that right now." He leaned back in his swivel chair, affecting a relaxed posture but with tension screaming in every line.


"Okay," said Mike and leaned forward. It suddenly seemed like a perfect time to reacquire a habit. He opened his recent gift to the general and extracted a cigar without asking.


Horner leaned forward in his chair and lit the cigar at the former NCO's lifted eyebrow. Then he leaned back and continued the briefing.


"You and about every other son of a bitch who's ever worn a uniform is about to be recalled." The smile never left his face and there was now a hint of teeth to it.


Mike was so stunned he forgot to draw on the cigar. He felt his stomach lurch and broke out in a cold sweat. "What the hell's happening? Did we go to war with China or something?" He started to draw on the flame but the combination of surprise and trying to light a cigar caused him to choke. He put the cigar down in frustration and leaned forward.


"I can't get into why until the meeting," said the general, putting away his lighter. "But, right now, I've got a blank check. I can bring you in on a direct commission . . ."


"Is this about that again? I—" Mike leaned back and almost started to rise. The statement could not have been more inflammatory given their previous arguments.


"Hear me out, dammit. You can come back, now, as an officer, and make a difference working with me or in a few months you'll be called back anyway as just another mortar sergeant." The general extracted his own Honduran from the box and lit it expertly, in direct defiance of the building's no-smoking regulation. They had both learned the hard way, and in many ways together, when to pay attention to the niceties and when the little stuff went out the window.


"Jesus, sir, you just sprang this on me." Mike's normal frown had deepened to the point it seemed it would split his face as his jaw muscles clenched and released. "I've got a life, you know? What about my family, my wife? Sharon is going to go absolutely ballistic!"


"I checked. Sharon's a former naval officer, she'll get called up, too." The silver-haired officer leaned back and watched his former and hopefully future subordinate's reaction through the fragrant smoke.


"Jesus Christ on a crutch, Jack!" Mike shouted, throwing up his hands in frustration. "What about Michelle and Cally? Who takes care of them?"


"That is what one of the teams at this conference will be working on," said Horner, waiting for the inevitable reaction to subside.


"Can Sharon and I get stationed together?" asked Mike. He motioned for and caught the tossed lighter and relit the Ramar. For the first time in three years he took a deep draw on a cigar and let the nicotine bleed some of the tension off. Then he blew out an angry stream of smoke.


"Probably not . . . . I don't know. None of that has been worked out, yet. Everything is on its ear right now and that's what this conference is about: straightening everything out." Horner looked around for a moment then made an ashtray out of a sheet of paper. He flicked his developing ash into it and set it in the middle of the conference table.


"What gives? I know, you can't tell me, right? OPSEC?" Mike studied the glowing end of his cigar then took another draw.


"I can't and I won't play twenty questions." General Horner stabbed the conference table with a finger and pinned his former subordinate with a glare. "Here's the deal," he continued, blowing out another fragrant cloud. The room had rapidly filled with cigar smoke. "This conference will last three days. I can hold you as a tech rep, for a really stupid amount of money, for the conference, maybe a week. But that is only if you agree to take a commission now. Further, we'll be locked in for quite a while afterwards, maybe a couple of months and any communications with home will be monitored and censored . . . ."


"Hold it, you also didn't say anything about a goddamn lock-in!" Mike snapped, his face stony.


"Debate is not allowed about the lock-in so don't even go there, it's been ordered by the President. Or you can go home and in a few months get orders to report to Benning as a sergeant." Jack leaned back and softened his tone. "But if you come on board now Sharon will get the tech rep check in a week—I can disburse it out of Team funds—and after that you'll be making O-2's salary and benefits including medical and housing, and so on." Jack cocked his head and waited for an answer.


"Sir, look, I'm working on a career here . . . . " Mike twiddled the cigar and contemplated the top of the conference table. He found himself unable to meet Horner's gaze.


"Mike, do not kick me in the teeth. I would not have requested you if you were stupid. I will make this as plain as I can within the limits of my orders: I need you on my team." He stabbed the table again. "Not to put too fine a point on it, your country needs you. Not writing science fiction or making web pages, but doing science fiction. Our kind."


"Doing . . . ?" Then it hit him. The other writer specialized in naval sagas. Space naval sagas, not "wet" navy.


Mike closed his eyes. When he opened them he was staring into a set of blue eyes as cold as the deep between the stars.


* * *

 
The earth is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions—
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!



—Kipling


 


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