Authors: Ted Dekker
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Ted Dekker
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced,
distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior
written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: April 2009
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.
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
, 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.
Ryan was an analyst, borrowed from the navy to serve with the army. He read reports, examined evidence, and poured more reports
upthe 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
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 his superiors.
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
“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
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
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,” he said.
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
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.”