As the car dropped over the ridge into the pocket valley in the Georgia hills, Sharon O'Neal almost turned around.
She had never understood her reaction to Mike's father. A gruff but fair man, he occasionally called her "Lieutenant" and treated her like a chief would a junior officer, courteous if occasionally salty. At her request, he refrained from relating war stories to the children and rarely did so around her, but she had heard enough over the years to understand him somewhat.
Perhaps it related to her Navy experience, where she felt so exceedingly rejected by the "old-boy" establishment. Mike Senior would drop without a ripple into a group of Navy chiefs, without much of a ripple into a group of Navy officers, especially a group of surface-warfare types. He would be indistinguishable from a group of SEALs. Whether it was real or not, she always felt a trace of contempt or perhaps superiority emanating from the old war-horse.
After a long career related to the unfortunate brevity of human life and the means to arrange for reducing it, Michael O'Neal, Sr., returned to the family farm to raise crops like generations before him, and to raise his family. Since then, with the exception of collecting weapons, some of them illegal, and a group of retirees with a similar bent, he appeared to have put that earlier phase of his life behind him. She knew he had left the Army under somewhat mysterious circumstances—the failure to be recalled along with all his buddies was confirmation of that—and that he had spent some time overseas doing things of a military nature, but what really bothered her was the old-boy feeling. Now he seemed tailor-made for her needs and she was going to have a hard time looking him in the eye and saying that.
She glanced at Cally beside her. If she had to choose which of her children might survive on a world consumed by war, she would have chosen Cally. Usually the older child is more reserved and prissy, but with her children it was reversed. If Michelle scratched her finger, she broke into paroxysms of tears; if Cally ran into a wall, she stood up, wiped the blood off her nose and kept running. But she was still only seven, would only be nine when the Posleen landed, and her mommy and daddy were both going to be far away.
Michelle was already gone, consumed by a colony ship packed with dependents headed for safety. That program had come under fire, both in the United States and overseas. Called racist, supremacist and every other –ist anyone could come up with, it still made too much sense to stop. If a human gene pool was going to be moved off-planet (and given the situation, it made sense to create such a backup), it made sense to choose from the gene pool that represented the necessary skills. Right now, the Federation did not need scientists and it did not need politicians and it did not need engineers; what it needed was soldiers. It might not be nice, it might not be politically correct, but it made sense and that was all the Federation cared about.
* * *
The house was stone, unusual in this part of the mountains, and dated to well before the Civil War. The O'Neals were among the first settlers in the area after the Cherokee were forcibly relocated, and the house was designed to protect against the understandably angry stragglers. The first O'Neal was an Irish immigrant who mined gold for a few years then decided that there was more money to be made selling food to the miners than mining. He marked out a stake, broke the ground and built the farmhouse with the occasional help of his fellow miners.
It presided regally over a small valley so filled with good things that it seemed that God had touched it. On the south-facing slope was an orchard of apples and below that an orchard of pecans. The fields were broken into tillage and pasture with hay in portions. It was a tidy and productive six hundred acres that satisfied the financial and nutritional needs of the O'Neal family even in these hard times.
The government was gathering all the foodstuffs it could and caching them in hardened shelters throughout the Rockies and Appalachians. The survivors of America might be on the run, but the United States government was determined that they be well-fed runners. Unfortunately, even with new ground being broken, genetically modified crops and the modern American agricultural engine getting into high gear for the first time, that meant shortages. Shortages were something that happened to other people, not Americans.
When Americans walk into a grocery store, they expect cheerful, smiling bag boys and fresh produce. Now the bag boys were all in uniform and the produce fields were producing wheat and corn crops that were going into holes in the mountains. America's wheat yield the previous year had been twenty-five percent higher than at any time in history but there was a bread shortage.
Even small farmers such as Papa O'Neal were required to report their production and adhere to crop rotas, but the government did not expect or desire to control every acre. The O'Neal garden had kept the family in fresh vegetables throughout the long summer as Sharon awaited her summons to uniform and Mike sat through endless speeches and parades.
The simple numbers meant that one of them would not be coming back, probably Mike, and that Cally's chances were less than good. As a mechanical engineer specializing in maintenance support requirements, Sharon fully expected a glorified clerk's position on Titan Base. Her chances were better than fair. Unfortunately she could take neither her husband nor her eldest daughter with her.
As they pulled up in the twilight the simian shape of her father-in-law, the man from whom Mike had derived his innate strength, if not height, stood silhouetted in the doorway.
* * *
"Uhn?" They were sitting in the living room of the farmhouse. It had a bachelor-pad look to it, the feeling that there were no women resident in the house, for all that it was neat as a pin. An oak-wood fire blazed on the hearth against the winter chill while Sharon nursed a glass of white wine that was growing quite warm. She wondered if she dared ask for ice, while Mike Senior nursed a beer gone much the same way. Both of them had been sitting that way since getting Cally off to bed, more unspoken between them than might ever be possible to say.
"I have to ask. It doesn't have a thing to do with this, with Cally, but it's important to me." She paused, wondering how to go on. Wondering if she should. Did she really want to know the answer? "Why'd you leave the Army?"
"Shit," he said, getting up and going to a sideboard. He threw away the warm beer, pulled out an ice bucket, walked over and plunked two cubes in her glass then walked back over and pulled out a Mason jar. He poured two fingers in a small glass mug, knocked it back with a "pah!" and a grimace, then poured two more and walked back over to his chair carrying the jar.
The chair, with its cowhide cover, complete with coarse hair, had the look of much of the house: rough, dependable, marginally comfortable but not by any means aesthetic. He flumped into it with a sigh and continued, "I just knew you were working up to that."
"How?" she asked, swirling the wine and ice with her forefinger. She took a sip as it slowly cooled.
"You'd never asked. And I could tell that you'd never asked Mike."
"I did. He told me to ask you."
"When?" he asked, pouring another hit of the fiery moonshine.
"Okay, eccentric. And he told me you'd had an interesting career. And you've talked about other stuff, but never that. And hardly at all about Vietnam." She cocked her head to one side.
"You were born in, what? Seventy-two?" he asked roughly.
"Three," she corrected.
"Lessee," he said scratching his chin. The action reminded her so strongly of Mike Junior for a moment that she caught her breath. "In nineteen seventy-three," he continued, "I was at Bragg, but I went back in seventy-four."
"I thought we pulled out of Vietnam in seventy-two and three," she said, puzzled.
"Oh, we did, sure." He smiled slyly. " . . . all except the 'Studies and Observation Group.' "
"The SOG. What was the SOG?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, first of all, we were guys that you absolutely could not introduce to mother, or to Congress, which amounts to the same damn thing. We were a bunch of major bad-ass hard cases for which the war just could not be over. It could not be a loss; therefore, they created a way for us to go back into the jungle.
"SEALs, LRPS, Rangers, Phoenix, SF, Marine Recon, they all contributed. Its purpose was, basically, payback. The brass knew the war was lost. Hell, officially and effectively we had pulled out, but there were some targets that we just felt should not survive the experience, a few situations that needed cleansing in a big way." He took a pull from the two-hundred-proof liquor and stared at the crackling fire, mind far away in time and space.
"I really didn't understand the fuckin' Vietnamese then. I mean, the fuckin' VC were such absolute stone-cold motherfuckers. They would do things to people I still wake up in a cold sweat over. But some of them, hell, maybe most of them, did it because they were patriots. Maybe some of them got their rocks off, but quite a few of them were as sickened by it as I was. They did it because the mission was to unite Vietnam under communism, and they believed in that with the same hard cold light that I believed it was evil incarnate. It took me damn near fifteen years to come to that conclusion." He shook his head over old wounds, bone deep.
"Anyway, we were there to arrange permanent solutions for some of the more unpleasant examples of dialectical materialism as manifest on Earth.
"There were two targets that stand out in my mind. It was one of those situations when there was a fine dividing line. There are a lot of situations that are black and white, but most are shades of gray. This was a situation where two people disagreed on what shade one of the targets was. They were both consummate motherfuckers, no disagreement there, but one motherfucker was, officially, on our side and the other motherfucker was, officially, on the other side.
"Well, I finally decided that I was tired of distinctions like that, so I killed them both."
She looked at the glass clutched in his hand, thick crystal formed into a handleless mug. On it was a legend so chipped and marred as to be illegible, but from a faint outline of a shield and arrow she knew what the inscription would be: De Oppresso Liber, "To Liberate the Oppressed." It was such a high-minded motto, dropped in the Devil's cauldron of Southeast Asia, where the oppressed seemed to seek oppression over freedom, where enemies were friends and friends were enemies. For the lesser soldiers it was the moment-to-moment fear of the booby trap, the mine and the sniper. For those who ruled the jungle, it was the fear of betrayal, the knife in the back. Across more than thirty years, the jungle of the mind seemed to reach out and touch the tough old man across from her.
"Anyway, it really pissed off the brass. However, giving the real reason it pissed them off wouldn't work. But everybody was into something, back then. Some of them were smuggling drugs back to the World, some of them were moving comfort rations out to the front. Whatever.
"Me? I had been moving some equipment back to the World for the last few tours, the kind of equipment guaranteed to not make the ATF very damn happy. Anyway, they put that together with a couple of other things and whomped up a court-martial for smuggling and black market. Twenty years in Leavenworth was the verdict. I got shipped off about when Mike was born. After three years a particular appeal worked and I was out." He snorted faintly at some remembrance and Sharon realized that the hits of white lightning were finally starting to have some effect.
"Now, I could have, probably should have, come home. But I never was into the story of the prodigal son; if I found myself shoveling pig shit I wasn't going home until I was chief pig-shit shoveler.
"A buddy clued me that there were positions available for someone with my skills. Positions where I'd probably meet a few old friends. The Feds wouldn't care for it, but, hell, they don't like anything they don't directly control while being spot on any evil they do. So I went back to being a soldier. On my own side." He shook his head again at the futility of the long war between East and West. It was fought on battlefields throughout the world, most undeclared. And it killed more than bodies.
"But you know, me and my buddies, we sure could win the goddamn battles but we could never win the goddamn wars! It was Vietnam all over again. In Rhodesia, my unit, the RSAS, we had one team rack up the highest kill ratio in history. Five guys wiped out a guerilla regiment, poof! Gone! And we still lost the goddamn war.
"It was then, after Rhodesia, that I just got fed up. I was making a living, but I sure as hell wasn't making a difference; the gooks won every fuckin' time. So I came home and became a farmer like my father, and his father, and his father. And someday, God willing, Mike will come through that door again and only leave horizontal."
He turned blazing eyes on his daughter-in-law and she realized that he was finally talking to her as a fellow soldier, not just a civilian in uniform. "Know this, Sharon—and this may be the last time I get a chance to teach a young officer—it really is true that you have to pay more attention to your friends than your enemies. You can defend against the enemy, but it is damn hard to defend yourself against your own side." He shook his leonine head again and poured more moonshine, the fire of his soul suddenly damped.
"Papa O'Neal?" she said, after some thought.
"Yeah, L-T?" He did not look up from swirling his moonshine.
"I'm glad you shot him. If you hadn't, you wouldn't be here for us." She smiled faintly. "God works in mysterious ways."
"Hmmph," he commented. "Well, in any case I didn't shoot him. I used a knife. I wanted to see his eyes." He shook his head again and threw the fresh white lightning onto the fire where it blazed like a beacon in the night.