The day that Ryan Evans’s world changed forever began as any other day he’d spent in the hot desert might have begun.
On the move, on the double.
Redeploying, as they liked to call it in the army. Changing
stations, changing units, changing rank, and all at a moment’s
notice because when command said jump, you jumped. When
command said lock and load, you got up, geared up, and went
where command ordered you. It didn’t matter if you were an E2
washing dishes or a lieutenant on the fast track to War College.
You belonged to the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, and
the chain of command.
Commander Ryan Evans was temporarily on loan to an army
joint-operational counterintelligence unit comprised of intel
specialists from the army, the navy, and the air force. As a unit
they fed and bled intelligence data from satellite surveillance, human intel assets, electronic taps, and military intelligence. Pieces of data came from every corner of the intelligence spectrum, funneled down to a direct point. Bottom line, up top, as command liked to say.
Most of the time verifying and assessing intel was like looking
at a circuit board through a telescope. Or like trying to open
a tin of canned food with a tuba. But every now and then, intel
was just that. Intelligence. Discovery.
Ryan was an analyst, borrowed from the navy to serve with
the army. He read reports, examined evidence, and poured more reports up the chain than the Pentagon could read. Nothing short of a human sieve. But in the end he was just one small piece on this game board called war. End of story.
Or on this particular day, the beginning of a story.
Advanced game theory, tactics, terrain, numbers, percentages—
this was how Ryan had always viewed the world, even before he’d made the decision to pursue a career in the navy. The last two years in-theater had convinced him that a career in accounting might have been the wiser choice, but he wasn’t one to complain or reconsider the sixteen years’ investment of his life. Particularly not when he was only three months from the end of his final tour.
To be fair, his position in the military was enviable when
compared to the duty of many others. Rather than entrench or
advance with infantry, most of his days were spent at a desk,
reviewing orders, sifting through the work of the twenty people
working under him, intercepting and decoding every scrap of information gathered in a net of assets cast over a much broader region than most could possibly guess. Between satellite photos, electronic interception, UAV footage, and hard, boots-on-sand reports, the flood of information passing through his office on any given day would bury a man who couldn’t view the world from a distance. Where others obsessed over each twig and leaf, Ryan kept a watchful eye on the entire forest, so to speak, searching for an enemy hidden beneath the leaves. Patterns and trends.
But today command had decided that he should move to a different quadrant of his sector to take a closer look. A raid in a small village ten miles east of Fallujah had netted what might or might not be a treasure trove of information. They called it
Sensitive Site Exploitation. He still wasn’t entirely clear on why
the general had decided that he should take a closer look at the
bunker complex—in person—particularly in a region not yet
assessed for equally unknown threats. But Ryan wasn’t one to
question orders. Information, certainly, but not the decisions of
Eight AM and it was already over a hundred degrees in the shade.
He slapped the swinging door that led into the intel room open
and sidestepped Jamil, a twenty-one-year-old whiz kid who, like
Ryan at his age, had a unique knack for pulling needles out of
haystacks, as they sometimes referred to sifting through intel.
“They’re waiting outside with the convoy, sir.”
“Tell them I’m on my way. You get the report on the Iranian border breaches down to General Mitchell?”
“Last night, as promised.”
He dipped his head. “Carry on.”
Ryan surveyed the thirty-by-seventy room, a metal Quonset hut that had been loaded with enough electronic equipment and communication cells to keep any civilian blinking for a full minute. If it happened in the Middle East, it went through
this room. At the moment a dozen regulars hovered over their stations, mostly monitoring feeds rolling down their monitors. The sound of laser printers provided a constant hum, white noise that had followed Ryan most of his adult life.
Lieutenant Gassler approached, cracking his neck. “We have
a new batch of intel coming from the south; you sure you don’t
want me to take this hike?”
The general had left that call up to him, but he’d kept behind
his desk in the office adjacent this hall far too long. A day trip
out into the desert now and then could clear the cobwebs. Not
that his intelligence was clouded.
“It’ll do me good. You got this covered?”
“Like a lid.”
Ryan turned back toward the door. “Back by sunset, then.”
“Keep your head low.”
He left the Quonset without acknowledging the advice. Bad luck.
The tires of the armored Humvee roared on the pavement beneath Ryan’s feet. He’d sat in silence for the last ten minutes as they sped west along Highway 10 toward Fallujah.
“Three klicks to the turnoff,” the driver, a corporal from Virginia,
announced. “You okay back there, sir?”
Ryan shifted his body armor to ease an itch on his left breastbone. “Fine. Air would be nice.”
The enlisted man next to him, Staff Sergeant Tony Santinas, chuckled. “You think this is bad, sir? Try sitting in this hotbox for eight hours at five miles an hour. Welcome to the army.”
Ryan wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “I can only imagine.”
They followed a lead Humvee and were trailed by a third,
moving a good eighty miles an hour. A fast target made a hard
target. On the highway speed meant security. It also turned the
Humvee into a mobile blast furnace, crushing through hot air
upwards of a hundred and twenty degrees. Thankfully, the reinforced
windows were cracked only enough to allow good circulation-like windchill, when fast moving, the hot air somewhat exacerbated the heat.
Ryan stared past the sergeant at the desert. Heat waves rose
off the flat desert ground on either side. That the Arabs had
managed to bring life out of this desolate land served as a testament to their resourcefulness. While most Americans would shrivel up and blow away with the first dust storm, the Iraqis had thrived. It was no wonder the Babylonians had once ruled the world.
A caravan of five huge oil tankers thundered past them, headed back toward Baghdad from Amman, Jordan.
“This your first tour, Tony?”
“Yes, sir.” The staff sergeant shot him a nervous look. Big,
blotchy freckles covered a sharp, crooked nose. A skinny kid
who looked not a day over twenty-one.
“Where you from?” Ryan asked.
The driver interrupted, speaking over his shoulder, “Lead
vehicle is turning off. It’s gonna get dusty. Hold tight. This will
Roils of dust billowed from the tires of the lead vehicle as it
exited the main highway, still moving fast. The burnt-out husk
of a large transport vehicle with Arab markings lay on its side
in the sand. No signs of civilization. The village in question, a
collection of mud huts built around a deepwater well called Al
Musib, lay eight miles north.
The sergeant shifted his grip on the M16 in his hands, checked
his magazine and safety without looking, eyes peeled at the desert.
At nothing. But if there was one thing the American forces had learned, it was that nothing could become something in a big hurry out here in this wasteland.
The driver took the corner at full speed, hanging back just far
enough to stay clear of the dust from the lead vehicle. The tires’
roar gave way to a cushioned whooshing sound. Eerily quiet.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania,” Tony said, answering Ryan’s question. “But I live in South Carolina now.”
“You miss her?”
Tony dug out a photograph and handed it to Ryan. “Betty,”
The picture showed an average-looking blond woman on the
heavy side, with big hair that was out of fashion in most parts
of the country. Her nose was pudgy and the teeth behind her
smile could have used a year in braces. On second look, a very
average woman. Maybe even homely.
The sergeant stuck another picture under his nose. A newborn
baby, grinning toothless. Ryan glanced up at the freckled, redheaded sergeant who made no attempt to hide his pride.
These few bits of information spread out before him were
enough for Ryan’s trained, calculating mind to fill in the man’s
life. Tony had grown up in a small town, near a coal mine, perhaps,
where his selection of suitable mates had been limited to a
couple dozen, of which only two or three had expressed any interest in him. Discarding any adolescent fantasy of a whirlwind romance with Jessica Alba, he’d entertained a life with Betty who, although neither pretty nor rich enough to afford braces, had a good heart and, more important, had opened that heart
to him. Eager for love from a woman, he’d quickly convinced
himself that Betty was the best woman for him. That he loved
her, which he did, of course.
The baby’s conception had come first. Then the wedding.
Now a proud father, Tony equated mother with child and
genuinely loved both. Being separated from them only intensified
his feelings, absence making his heart grow the fonder.
“She’s a doll,” Ryan said. He wasn’t given to emotion, being
the more calculating type, but a strange surge of empathy
tugged at him. Or was it something else?
He sat there in the back of the Humvee, bouncing slightly
as the vehicle sped over the sandy road, gripped by the sudden
realization that he wasn’t so much empathetic for the snapshot
he’d assigned to this man’s life but rather was trying to ignore
a tinge of guilt.
Guilt because he had long ago given up on his own child and
wife. He’d justified his decision to leave them for long stretches
at a time, but in all truth he couldn’t be absolutely sure if
he’d left them or fled them. At the very least he’d fled Celine,
Bethany was another story. Collateral damage, the unavoidable
fallout from his and Celine’s admittedly distant relationship.
He loved Bethany, he most certainly did, but circumstances
had forced him to miss most of her life.
Not forced, really. Circumstances had caused him to miss
most of her life due to his choice to serve. And that choice had
reaped resentment from her.
Ryan realized that the sergeant was holding his hand out,
waiting for the picture of his wife back. He set the photograph
in the man’s hand. “Nice.”
“You have any kids?”
“Yes. Same as you, one daughter, though she’s a bit older. Sixteen.
Her name’s Bethany.”
“Sucks, don’t it?” Tony carefully slipped his two pictures back
into the wallet he’d taken them from. “Being over here.”
Unlike Tony here, who had nothing to live for but a wife and
child back home, Ryan had chosen a far more complicated path.
Not that he didn’t care for Celine and Bethany—in some ways
he missed them terribly. But sacrifices had to be made.
For him that sacrifice had been made when he’d made the
decision to accept a post in Saudi Arabia ten years ago despite
his wife’s refusal to accompany him. He was the best at what
he did, and his work in Saudi Arabia had saved more lives than
anyone could know.
He’d returned to San Antonio, where they’d lived at the time,
and became immediately aware that for all their efforts to put
up a good front, he and Celine could not be as close as they
had once been. She couldn’t understand his world and he had
no interest in being a socialite. Nevertheless, he’d remained at
his post in San Antonio for two years before accepting another
overseas post, this time in Turkey.
By the time he’d shipped out for Iraq, his relationship with
Celine existed solely for the sake of their mutual commitment
to marriage and family. If Ryan wasn’t able to provide his wife
with the kind of intimacy and personal friendship she desired,
he would at least provide her with his loyalty as husband, protector, and provider.
Generals didn’t have to be in love with their troops to be
good generals. Truthfully, he didn’t miss Celine. Bethany, on
the other hand . . .
The thought stalled him for a moment.
“You think it’s worth it, sir?”
“Depends. You have a job to do, right? Mission first, men second,
everything else comes in third.”
The man stared out the dusty window. “I just never thought
about what it would cost them, you know?” He shook his head.
“A kid changes everything. God, I miss her.”
“She’ll be there when you get back.”
His guilt came from not sharing the same kind of ardor in
the mind of this young sergeant who longed to be home with
his wife and daughter more than anything else in life at the
Then again, Ryan did love his wife and daughter in a far
more important way. Not a love demonstrated in gushing words
or heart-wrenching desire, but by loyalty and steadfastness for
not only them but for his country, for the world. The cost of separation was an acceptable sacrifice for such a noble and worthwhile calling.
Still, seeing a man like Tony here, filled with eagerness to
return to his very average-looking wife, had awakened that hidden
sense of guilt.
“I know it’s hard, Tony, but what you give up today will come
back one day. You have to believe that. We’re not the first to pay
“Price for what, sir?”
“Is that what we’re doing here?”
He was briefly tempted to tell the sergeant to check his loyalty,
but he doubted Tony had a bone of disloyalty in his body.
He was simply a young man stretched between loyalties.
He shifted his body armor to ease that itch by his left breastbone
again. Last time he’d worn full combat gear had been over
a month ago. Ryan asked, “How many soldiers asked that same
question during the Civil War? Or the Revolutionary War?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of Vietnam,” Tony
“Sure, Vietnam. But it’s hard to see the forest when you’re
in the trees. History will one day get us far away enough from
this mess to tell us what we did here. Until then you won’t
do yourself any favors by second-guessing your mission. Make
“Yes, sir, it does. But it doesn’t make it any easier, if you don’t
“Crap!” The driver, who had been fixated on the convoy’s
tracks, slammed on the brakes. “Crap, down, down, down!”
Ahead, the road was shrouded by dust—from the lead vehicle’s
wheels or from the detonation, Ryan couldn’t tell. But there
was no mistaking that sound. Either a rocket-propelled grenade
or an antitank mine—he didn’t have the field experience to
know which was which any longer.
“Get on the fifty!” the driver screamed. “RPG, RPG, incoming fi—”
This time behind them.
“Move, move!” Tony yelled. “We’re sitting targets!”
That they were under assault was not a matter of question. The driver slammed his foot on the accelerator. “Hold on, we’re going through.”
The Humvee surged forward into the boiling sand and smoke.
Ryan instinctively crouched as much as the back of the seat in
front of him allowed him to, but he kept his eyes ahead, where
a cloud of dust and smoke now plumed skyward.
The driver keyed his radio and veered to his right using one
hand to drive. “Convoy Echo-One, this is Three, come back.
What the heck’s going on?”
The radio crackled static.
“Crap.” Into the radio again. “Convoy Echo-One . . . this is
Three. Caboose, you got me?” Over his shoulder, to the sergeant, “Get up in the fifty, Tony!”
“I can’t see anything!”
Still nothing from either the lead vehicle or the one trailing
The dust directly in front of them cleared enough to reveal
a plume of black smoke boiling to the sky ahead. Orange fire
licked at the hot desert air.
“Crap, hold on, hold on!”
The Humvee swerved a wide right, then hooked to the left
in a tight U-turn. Ryan grabbed the door handle to keep himself
from plowing into the sergeant, who was plastered against
his window. Most vehicles would have tipped with such a sharp
turn, but the army’s workhorse loaded with nearly a half ton of
armor wasn’t easy to roll on flat ground.
Odd how different minds work in moments of sudden, catastrophic
stress. Ryan’s tended to retreat into itself, baring the
cold calculation that had served it so well in his intelligence
training. He had no clue how to extricate them from the present crisis, but he could analyze the attack better than most chess
players leaning over the board on a cool summer day.
One: They were taking enemy fire, a combination of shoulderfired
RPGs and machine-gun fire now slamming into the armor like pneumatic hammers.
Two: Both the lead vehicle and the Humvee that had brought
up the rear had likely taken direct hits.
Three: The absence of radio chatter likely meant that—
The glass next to the driver imploded. Blood sprayed across
the far window. The Humvee swerved off the road, into a short
ditch, and slammed into the far embankment.
Four: The driver of the second vehicle, the one in which Ryan
was riding, had been killed, and the Humvee had plowed into a
ditch, where it would be hit at any moment with an RPG.
Silence settled around him with the ticks of a hot engine.
Ryan lunged over the seat, grabbed the radio, and spoke
quickly into the mic. “Home Run, this is Echo-One Actual, on
convoy to Fallujah. We’re taking heavy fire, anti-armor, small
weapons. All vehicles down, I repeat, all three Humvees are out,
A moment’s hesitation, then the calm, efficient response of a
dispatcher all too familiar with similar calls. “Hold tight, Echo-
One, we are clearing close air support, and medevac en route.
ETA seventeen minutes. What’s your sitrep, over?”
“Assuming all personnel are KIA. My Humvee is sideways
in a ditch, four klicks north of the highway. You can’t miss the
“Roger. Hold tight.”
It occurred to him that he’d heard nothing from Tony. He
spun back, saw the soldier slumped in his seat, one hand gripping
his M16, the other stretched toward the canopy, as if still reaching up to deploy the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, topside.
No blood that he could see. Could be a nonvisible wound from
shrapnel, could be the impact had knocked him out.
“Sergeant!” Ryan slapped the man’s face several times, got
nothing, and quickly relieved him of his weapon. Images of
flames crackling through the cabin pushed him to the brink of
panic. He took a deep breath.
This is no different. Just another mission. One step at a
Never mind that this particular mission didn’t involve a pencil
or a computer, it was still just one step at a time.
Ryan reached over the driver’s corpse, took the modular
radio from the console, grabbed his door handle, cranked it
open, and rolled to the sand, relieved to be free of the coffin.
He lunged back into the Humvee, grabbed the sergeant by his
belt, and dragged him out. The soldier landed on the ground
Still, no more gunfire. Their objective was now simple. Stay
quiet, stay down, stay alive. Survive, watch, wait for the helicopters. Air support was now the only link to survival for either of them. Rising smoke from the wreckages would be visible from a long way off.
“Where are we?” Tony had come to.
“We were hit,” Ryan whispered, scanning the desert for any
sign of the enemy. Unlikely. They’d perfected the art of hitting
and running, knowing that when the Apaches showed up,
any attempt at fight or flight was doomed to failure. Insurgents
with the skill to remain hidden in a flat desert (likely under the
sand) and take out three Humvees definitely had the brains to
bug out so they could fight another day.
“We have support coming,” he said, turning back.
Something black, like a sledgehammer or a rifle butt,
slammed into Ryan’s forehead. Pain shot down his spine and he
fought to hang on to something, anything.
Another blow landed, and only now did his calculating mind
wonder if it was a bullet rather than a sledgehammer or a rifle
butt that had struck his head.
"This excerpt is used with the permission of Hachette Book Group and Ted Dekker. All rights reserved."