Disclaimer: Morgan & Wong, Hardeight Productions, and Fox Network own Space: Above and Beyond, no copyright infringement is intended.
TIMEFRAME: 2052 and 2063
FEEDBACK: Most welcome!
This story is dedicated to Una, a woman who has opened a door for me. She gave me unconditional support when Moving Finger would threaten to stop moving. She harassed me to finish this story and it turned out better than I ever could have imagined. Ghost Riders is special, because it is the bridge between fanfic and creative writing. Thank you Una, you are a woman who I consider a friend even though we've never met. This one is for you!
GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY
THE SARATOGA, fall 2063
Lt. Col. Raymond Thomas Butts, lay on his bunk, pretending to be asleep. He could hear them talking about him. 'What did they know, those Pussies!' If he had anyone better to choose from, he wouldn't be here in the first place. Then he heard it, Shane Vansen's quiet words: 'no one is born that mean, they either put it on for affect or something happens that turns them that way and they can never go back. The hard part is they know it.'
Her words cut to the heart of him, or what had once been his heart. If she only knew, if they only knew, how easy it was to be self-righteous when you're young and the world is in front of you. 'Wait, just wait Ms Marine, until you're like me and you've lost everything you ever wanted, and killed more men than you can remember. Then we'll see what you think about people like me,' he thought.
He closed his eyes and could picture himself as he had been then. Even in '51 he was hard-bitten and tough. He had been the perfect man for the job they had sent him to do, but they hadn't bothered to tell him it would cost him his heart and most likely his soul.
It had started with war, as all good Marine stories do, but then there had been a woman. Women weren't covered in the Marine Manual, not women like Victoria. Butts could see her as clearly as if she was standing beside him. It was a picture he kept in his mind, and only pulled out when things were really bad. She deserved better, so he kept her safely hidden away from that dark part of him she had refused to acknowledge when she was alive, and that even darker self that had become second nature since her death.
The fighting had started more than sixty years ago, with the terrorist attack on New York City in 2001. That first big attack on the almost untouched United States heralded a change in the world. After that, no country was safe from men of hidden causes that killed and maimed often without rhyme or reason. The one thing they all had in common was a huge loss of innocent life that struck without warning and left as silently as it had come.
Ten years later, in 2012, a weary world stopped arguing about sovereign rights and came together to form a United Nations that had the power to rule the world. Each nation maintained Armed Forces, but the ultimate power for world order lay in the UN.
With the exception of the AI Rebellion, which had hit on a global scale, by 2050 a relative peace was maintained, though the Middle East was still a hotly contested area. India and China were locked in a battle of diplomats on the floor of the General Assembly, fighting over the area that had been Pakistan and Afghanistan, but since the Terrorist Wars was named The Karakoram Region. India was determined to get back the land that had been lost in 1947 when it gained its independence from Great Britain, and was only too glad to pick up old Afghanistan as an added benefit. The Chinese were ever looking over their borders toward the disputed lands, and the disgruntled people who had looked at India as an enemy, and the majority of Indian's as religious traitors.
On May 29, 2051, the Chinese upped the ante by placing troops on the borders of the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir, an area that had been occupied by both countries for centuries. When General Hastings Cobb, USMC, a man of little faith in diplomats, and of even less in the still young World Government, received the news, he made two phone calls. The first was to call an emergency meeting of the Joint Chiefs. The second was to his protégée, who was with the newly formed Marine Special Forces stationed in California. The General was a former member of the CIA, and still active in the world intelligence community, though now days he found he was most effective working from behind a desk.
Cobb's meeting went as planned. A short list of men capable of going into the disputed area to gather information and report back to the Chiefs was produced. Captain Ray Butts' name was at the top of that list. It had been necessary to have it appear that the men being sent in would be operating secretly under the auspices of the Armed Services of The United States, when they were really one of Cobb's black ops teams. What the Joint Chiefs didn't know, wouldn't hurt them.
When Butts received his official orders, he gave a sigh of relief, and shook the dust of civilization off his boots. He had been stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms, California, for almost a year and though he enjoyed flying, he was feeling sadly underused.
The Artificial Intelligence War was getting nowhere fast and had degenerated into a series of hit and run raids on both sides. The only mission he had been sent on recently, that made use of any of his special skills, was to find, and kill, the Silicates that had broken into the residence of a Marine family in San Diego in January. The AIs had killed both officers. The only reason their children had survived was because they had been hidden in the attic. He and his squad had been gone for three months, but they had found their targets and completed the assignment.
Butts and a hand picked group of five others disappeared in the night and weren't seen again until they showed up in the Camp of the 3rd Armored Division of the United States Marines, almost a year later. The only proof that they were still alive was the reports that the General received on a regular basis. He had total faith in Butts and used the information he received from him wisely.
Cobb was one of few men who weren't surprised when on a June 5th 2052, the Communist Chinese took the war of words out of the United Nations and into the Karakoram Region. They moved their troops from the borders into the mountains in an attempt to control the passes of Khyber and Karakoram in that Range, protecting their back door. More troops were sent to the Hindu Kush Mountains to the north and east to control the main passes of Ali Bhutto and Khawak. The UN took quick action and called up armies from all nations to try and stop the fighting before it began.
KARAKORAM, late June 2052
Butts and his men were surprised to find the camp of the 3rd Armored Division as far north as it was. They were deep in the mountains, and the snow was just clearing from the higher passes. Nights were bitingly cold, though the days were beginning to warm up. General Dawson and his men had been airlifted out of India just after the end of the first week in June. He had pushed his men and machinery hard and fast to be so deep into the Hindu Kush so quickly.
"Stand and identify," the Marine guard called out to the six scruffy looking men who were headed toward his post.
"We're here to see your commanding officer," Butts moved with purposeful steps toward the young man.
"Gen. Dawson isn't seeing any locals today," the sentry pulled his M-500 Assault rifle.
"Easy, Sergeant," the tall blond man pulled off his headgear and rubbed his hand over his whiskered chin. "The General is expecting us."
Across the camp a tall slim woman watched a bedraggled group of men enter General Dawson's office. From the looks of them she had thought they were from the village, until she watched the leader's stride and posture change. One minute he walked with the loping grace of so many of the mountain people, the next, his movements spoke of parade grounds and drills.
Butts spent over an hour with Dawson, filling him in on the territory around them, and the attitudes of the villagers in the mountain ranges. The General wasn't happy about having a loose cannon in his operation. Not only did the man wear a Special Forces Tab, but he also reported directly to the Joint Chiefs. If the General wasn't careful, he could lose control of his own operation. The Captain and his men had been smart enough and tough enough to stay alive for almost a year, passing themselves off as wanderers. The information they had brought with them was invaluable. It didn't take Dawson long to realize that lose cannon or not, these men could be the making of him.
Later that night the six new members of the camp sat together in a shadowy corner of the rough building that was being used as a combination Mess and Rec area. They were doing the job they had been sent to do: listen and watch.
"Captain, I can't believe anyone would be stupid enough to bring an armored division into these mountains," a lanky dark-haired man spoke quietly to his commanding officer.
"Whoever ordered this action doesn't understand the snow or terrine around here," Butts shook his head. "We're here for the duration, no matter what. The Old Man gave us our orders the last time we were in touch with him. Like it or not, we're stuck."
Butts studied the room under the guise of refilling his coffee cup. Most of the camp had stayed on after the evening meal to enjoy the wood fire that supplemented the solar heating units that were being sadly over worked, in all the tents. A young Sergeant sat by the fire playing his guitar. The tune was an old song that sounded familiar to Butts, but he couldn't place it.
"Come on Victoria, you're next," a short redheaded Lieutenant teased the woman who was sitting beside her.
"Mary, it's just superstition," Victoria rolled her eyes. "Besides, how much is it going to cost me?"
"It's fun," her friend argued. "And all it'll cost you is a cup of coffee. Look, there he is now," Mary motioned one of the guides from the local village over to their table.
"Okay, you win," the taller woman got up and went to the coffee pot where Butts was standing. "Hi," she smiled at the man blocking her way, as she reached around him for a mug.
"What's your rank Soldier?" He glared into her laughing brown eyes, "and why are you out of uniform?"
"That's pardon, Sir," the woman was doing strange things to his insides. He told himself, it had been too long since he'd been with a woman, otherwise he would've felt nothing.
"Captain," the little redhead came to her friend's rescue. "This is Dr. Henning, she's a civilian consultant, Sir."
"A civilian," he took a puff on his cigarette, as he looked her over carefully. She didn't look like the usual camp follower, though part of him was glad to hear she wasn't in the chain of command.
"Victoria Henning," she held out her hand as she introduced herself, not sure if she was surprised or not when he shook it. "I'm an Associate Professor of Engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. I'm here working on a little project." She could tell from the look in his eyes that he knew she had just one-upped him by meeting his rude behavior with politeness.
"Well, Victoria Henning, I'll see you around," Butts grinned at her strategy, then winked at her. As he headed back to his table, the music of her soft laughter filling his hears. He had just evened the playing field, and they both knew it.
"Come on, he's waiting for us," Lt. Mary Reed pulled Victoria back to the table where they had been, and the man who was waiting for them. "This is Ali Kahn, the man I was telling you about."
"It is most pleased I am to be meeting you Ma'am," the small old man bowed slightly then took a seat with the two women.
Victoria handed him the mug of coffee as she watched him, not sure she really wanted to have her fortune told by a hill man in the middle of the Hindu Kush Mountains.
"You look not so sure, Ma'am," he spoke with a mix of accents that were hard to place, many of his words hinted at Old British India, though his sentence structure and inflection spoke of far away places. "My grandfather was a gypsy who came over the ancient Silk Road through China and India. Always for him, was another mountain to be found, another valley to be discovered, until he come here. He is the one who taught me to read the hand, to look for what is to be."
"I've never done this before," she smiled, feeling unsure all of the sudden. There was something in the little man's eyes that made her wonder if maybe she was better off not playing his game. When Mary had told her about him, she thought it would be fun, now it seemed serious.
"I will only tell you what I see," he held her smooth hand in his rough one. "Your life line is strong but it only goes to a short way until it crosses your love line," he traced a very long line in her palm.
"Are you telling me I'm going to die soon?" She gasped.
"Pardon, Ma'am, I not speak so good sometimes," he looked at her with sad eyes, seeing clearly what he wasn't going to tell her. "Your love line is very long, much longer than your life line, that was what I was meaning. The love, it will go on even when you are no more."
"But that doesn't make any sense?"
"I can only tell what I see," he put her hand down and looked for more answers in her face, and found them, though what he saw was strange. "It is the Darkman you are looking for. He is the one. He will be your joy, and you will be his savior. It is done, the paths have been crossed and there is no going back."
"Stop, wait, this has been fun, but I don't believe in any of this," she argued as she felt a tingling up her spine. It was as if she had looked into the face of truth, and didn't like what she saw. She had been dating a man at home, but no one could ever accuse Professor Harold Martinez of being her joy, though he was of Italian decent and had the dark hair and eyes that spoke of his heritage. Dark man he might be, but not the love of her life, at the moment all she really loved was her work.
"As the Ma'am wishes," Ali Kahn bowed as he stood. "I thank you for the coffee."
Butts' men had left, but he had stayed to listen in on the strange exchange between Victoria and the local guide. He had watched that scam played out all over the world and was trying to figure out where the sting came in. So far it appeared as if all the man had wanted was a cup of coffee.
It had been interesting to watch the emotions play across the woman's face as her 'fortune' had been told. She was lovely to look at, and made him feel things he hadn't felt in a long time. He grinned to himself as he put her on his list of people to get to know better. After all, he was blue-eyed and fair-haired, so she would be safe with him. 'Darkman my ass,' he laughed, 'with a little luck they could both get a bit of joy before they had to go their separate ways.'
The next morning Victoria was up early, and working in the small lab she had set up. There was no going back to civilization until she found the answer to the problem that had brought her here. The 3rd Armored Division was using Aerotech's newest tanks, specially built for mountains and cold, but there were stress fractures beginning to damage the under-plating. The Government had called her in as a third party consultant. Reproducing the fractures in her lab had been easy; finding ways to prevent them was another question all together.
At first she thought the rumbling outside was caused by another of the many tremors the area was subjected to, but when the first crashing sounds were followed by high pitched whines then explosions; she knew they were under attack. As she grabbed her helmet and ran out of her lab for the nearest bomb shelter, she crossed her fingers that the building would survive. If her research were lost, she would be back to square one.
"Get down!" A gravelly voice yelled, and she felt herself tackled and pulled into a foxhole, reinforced with sandbags. "Keep your damn head down, and secure that helmet under your chin. It's for protection, not a fashion statement!"
"Stop that," she pushed at the hand that had shoved her face against the dirty wall and was now reaching to close the strap on her helmet. "I can do it myself!"
"Then do it!" The man yelled, as another shell hit the ground not far from them. He pulled her close, so she was against the sandbags, with his body covering hers. "It's going to get real noisy," his lips so close they tickled her ear.
"Stop treating me like a child," she shouted, though she felt like one and it made her mad. This was the first time they had come under fire since she had arrived a week ago. Always before, squads would go out, taking the fighting to the distance hills. Occasionally, she would hear guns echoing across the valley, but that was different than being at the center of the attack.
When the shooting finally stopped Victoria looked up into the blue eyes of the Marine she remembered from the night before. "Sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. I…a, well,…"
"Your first time under fire?" He realized that she was holding on to him tightly and grinned at her.
"It was that obvious?" She unstrapped her helmet and stood on shaky legs.
"You did well for a civilian, Torie" he reached for her as she tilted slightly.
"Pardon," she blinked at him.
"Torie, short for Victoria, it suits you when you've got smudges on your face," he teased and wiped some dirt from her cheek.
"Oh, it does?" She quickly checked the rank insignia on his collar and the name sewn on his left breast pocket. "Is there a first name to go with the Captain and the Butts?"
"Raymond T," he remembered the soft touch of her hand in his the night before. Wanting to feel her skin against his again, he reached for her hand to help her out of the foxhole.
"I'll bet that T stands for trouble?" Victoria grinned; it was like teasing a caged tiger.
"It could, it very well could," he muttered as he looked her over carefully, and wondered if she realized she was playing with fire. "I have to go out for a while," he tilted his head, indicating the general direction in which the mortar attack had come. "Will you be in the Mess after dinner tonight?"
The quiet way he whispered the question caught her off guard, all she could do was shake her head 'yes.'
"Good, I'll look for you there," then he turned and was gone, headed off for General Dawson's office at a run.
Their conversation couldn't have taken more than a minute. One second there was firing, the next all was quiet, but that's how it started, the old cliché of two people pushed together in a moment of danger. Captain Ray Butts and Victoria Henning, PhD had spent thirty mind numbing minutes in a foxhole, having gravel and dirt thrown at them, while the ground shook and missiles exploded. It changed their lives forever. Butts had started it as a casual flirtation, which he hoped would lead to her bed. It did all that and more.
Three hours later his squad was back with the bad news that there was a large force of CC's four klicks away. The only things that separated the two camps were a few hills and a large valley. The Communist Chinese were setting up outposts in the mountains, matching the UN forces one on one. It looked like it was going to be a long haul. With the opposing armies in place, each had the other pinned down. From the look of the anti-aircraft artillery the CC's had moved in, no one was coming or going from either camp until the stalemate was ended. Butts knew from experience that unless Cobb was wrong, and the diplomats were able to make some headway, things would end in blood for one side or the other.
When Butts went to the Mess that night, he had planned on ending the flirtation he had started earlier in the day. The war had gone from words and posturing to shooting, and that changed everything. This is what he did best, women would come and go, but he didn't have time for one now, no matter how attractive she was. That had been his plans until he walked into the Mess and saw Victoria shaking her head 'no,' and laughing as she backed away from Major Ryan, Dawson's second in command.
"Good evening, Dr. Henning, Major," Butts moved to her side; his face grim as he nodded at the superior officer.
"Hi there," she smiled up at him, and then realized that something had changed in the last few hours.
"Captain," Ryan hadn't missed the look in the woman's eyes when Butts had joined them, but decided to give it one last try. "I've been attempting to convince Victoria to have a cup of coffee with me, but she's as stubborn tonight as she has been since she arrived."
"Now Charles, you know that isn't true, you ate lunch with Mary and me yesterday. I believe all of us had a number of cups of coffee then."
"Have it your way Victoria," Ryan shook his head. He wasn't getting anywhere with her, none of the men had and plenty had tried. "Goodnight, you two."
"Where's your friend," Butts looked around surprised not to see the scrappy red head from last night. It had been his observation that women tended to travel in groups, especially when they were outnumbered ten to one.
"Mary had to turn in early. She has an 0500 duty call," Victoria smiled, glad she had come on her own because there was something about this man that made him different from all the rest.
"You shouldn't be here alone!" He snapped.
"I'm not. You're here, besides, they're harmless," she waved her arm indicating the men in the room.
"That's bullshit and you know it. You're pushing the limits coming here by yourself," he pulled out a cigarette and lit it, watching her over his hands.
"But you said? You asked?" As she thought back she realized she might have been reading a lot into their earlier conversation. "I apologize," she pulled herself up straight and looked him in the eyes. He had pricked her pride, but she wasn't going to let it show. "I got the wrong impression this morning. Goodnight, Captain Butts," she turned quickly and headed for the door.
"Damn it all," he muttered. Throwing down his cigarette he crushed it beneath his boot as he turned to follow her out of the Mess. "Wait a second. I said WAIT!" He barked as he caught up with her and pulled her around.
"I am not one of your Marines, and you're certainly not my father!" If looks could kill, Butts would be in serious trouble, "you can't order me around like that."
"Someone has too. This is an armed camp in the middle of a war." He glared down at her, "not some fancy campout in the mountains."
"I knew that when I came here, and if I hadn't, this morning would have made it very evident." She took a deep breath and grabbed the bull by the horns, "did I get the wrong idea this morning?"
Her sudden change of topic took Butts by surprise; he had been prepared to make her mad enough to forget what had almost happened between them. "You were right about this morning, right about a number of things. Most importantly, about me being trouble," he watched the shadows play across her face as the moon shifted in and out of the clouds.
"You don't look to me like the type of man who would back away from trouble," she took a deep breath and licked her lips. "And I've always met it straight on."
A punch in the gut wouldn't have taken his breath away as easily as her simple answer. "Just remember you asked for it," he muttered as he reached for her and kissed her, while maneuvering them into the nitch between the Mess Hall and a small stand of trees.
"Ray," she whispered his name between kisses. He tasted of coffee and smoke and smelled of wool and danger. The combination made her head spin as she felt his hands move over her face and into her hair.
"Is this what you were looking for?" His voice was husky with desire, but he was damned if he was going to be some blue blood's entertainment. "Someone who isn't harmless? Because no one has ever called Ray Butts harmless."
"No, I... I wasn't looking for anything or anyone," her hand shook as she ran it over his craggy features. "Then you were there..."
"It's okay, Babe," he sighed, feeling like a heel when he caught the glint of tears in her eyes. He had been rough with her on purpose, and had expected her to run away, but she hadn't. He figured she was confused and probably out of her depths. They leaned against each other for support, trying to think clearly. "We can't talk here, like this, someone will come along and get the wrong idea."
"My tent," she whispered. Her voice husky as she made a decision, "I bunk alone."
"If I go in there tonight, I won't be leaving until morning," he gripped her shoulders, making sure everything was clear between them.
"I wouldn't want you to," she kissed him quickly, then took his hand and led him back to her small tent. Part of her was shouting that she was crazy, another part was sure that she had never been so sane in her life.
As the weeks passed, Ray Butts' life changed. He and Victoria had become a couple, though at first he had tried to keep it under wraps. In a camp of just under 500 people, there were no secrets, so he gave up trying, after the first week. It made life easier in some ways. She was no longer being hit on by every man who came along, and that suited him just fine. The only problem was that as much as he enjoyed being with her, he wished they were able to get her out of the battle zone. There were daily skirmishes and the camp had been the target of mortar fire two more times. She was a civilian and didn't belong there, but for the moment the 3rd Armored Division was as pinned down as was their counter part on the other side of the valley. Neither the CC's nor the UN forces were moving anything or anyone, in or out of the area.
"Captain Butts," Lt. Mary Reed stood beside the table where he was finishing his lunch. They had both been on a scouting detail that had run into fighting, and had just come in. He had been impressed at how well Torie's friend had handled herself. "May I speak to you off the record?"
"Have a seat," he indicated the chair opposite him. "What's on your mind Lieutenant, off the record?"
"You're not what you seem," she jumped right in before she lost her nerve. There was nothing like being in a firefight with a man to learn about his true self. What Mary had seen caused her to worry about Victoria.
"Oh? And what do I seem?" She had caught his attention fast. 'Could he have blown his cover?'
"You know very well what I'm talking about, Sir."
"Why don't you enlighten me?"
"You're Special Forces, that much is true. It's how Special that worries me. I saw you in action today. You've been places and done things most of us only whisper about. But when you're operating under the cover of shadows it becomes an everyday occurrence. As a Marine, you're the type I'd most like to have covering my back, but sleeping with my best friend is another story all together," as she said the words his face closed down. In an instant he looked every inch the shadowy dark man she feared him to be.
"This conversation has come to a close," he stood and picked up his plate. "And what was said at this table will go no further, that is an order, Lieutenant."
"Does she know?" Mary challenged. He was a Spook, she was sure of it. The thought chilled her to the bone. People were always talking about them, but Mary never imagined she would meet one, or know about it if she did. She supposed it was her worry for Victoria that had made her extra observant of Butts.
"She knows what she needs to know," he turned and walked away.
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