Two Years Earlier
Tyler Stone was running a five-man team in the northern part of the Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Their mission was to conduct reconnaissance on a village where the Taliban was rumored to be stockpiling weapons. They’d been in position for three days and pinpointed a cave with a lot of suspicious traffic. Ty was fairly certain the crates being hauled into the cave didn’t contain cases of beer and bags of pork rinds.
Sometimes their job was to find the weapons and call in an airstrike. They’d paint the target with an infrared laser and air support would blow it back to the Stone Age. This mission was different. They were there to collect photographs and coordinates, then transmit the data back to command. Supposedly, folks higher up the chain would use that data to extrapolate a more complete picture of the supply chain in the region.
The mission was going smooth as glass, which made everyone jittery. Once they transmitted their data, they were ordered to return home. That was when they paid the price for the previous lack of complications. They were rucking out on a goat trail when their mission was blown in the same way so many other covert ops in the Afghan hill country were compromised.
Up until that point, they’d done everything right. They’d gathered their intel, avoided detection, and sustained no casualties. The two teenage shepherds wore drab pajama-like clothing and carried herding staffs, looking like two kids who’d just wandered out of some biblical tale.
“Keep moving,” Ty ordered his team. “Kamran, handle this.”
Kamran, their “terp”—interpreter—approached the boys and gestured wildly, warning the young men to remain silent or they’d be killed. Perhaps it wasn’t the approved, politically-correct method of requesting cooperation from locals but it was often the most effective. Ty kept his team moving while Kamran assured the shepherds that men would come back and wring their necks like scrawny desert chickens if they sounded the alarm.
The terp made a good show of it but you never knew how those threats would work. Sometimes the locals resented the Taliban for some atrocity they’d committed on their village and they’d keep silent. Other times, more scared of the Taliban, they’d raise hell, sounding the alarm as soon as you were out of sight. Ty thought they’d actually pulled this one off until they hit open terrain and he chanced a look back at the village thorough his M151 spotting scope.
“Son of a bitch,” he growled.
“What is it?”
Taco, a weapons sergeant, shaded his eyes and tried to make out what he was looking at. He was a tall dude, wrapped in tattoos and muscles, the man just as battle-worn as his gear. His nickname had nothing to do with ethnicity but instead came from his last name, which was Bell. “Please tell me that’s just a dust devil.”
“That’s a negative, Taco. I’ve got at least two dozen armed riders headed in our direction. Those fucking shepherds sold us out.”
Taco shook his head in disgust. “Why am I not surprised?” He threw up his rifle and studied them through the scope.
Ty packed up his spotting scope. “We need to haul ass.”
“Should we engage?” Taco asked. “If I can’t drop them, I can at least scatter them. Slow them down.”
“Negative on that. While we’re engaging, the rest will close around us and we’ll get penned in. Then we won’t be going anywhere.”
The two men ran to catch up with the rest of their team. Ty flagged down his commo sergeant, Hoot. “See if you can find us a ride out of here!”
A chopper could light those Taliban cowgirls up and haul the team back to base. Command was expecting their request for exfil, anyway. Surely someone was monitoring their op and waiting for the call.
Ty watched Hoot’s face while he talked, and after two minutes of agitated jabbering, he knew there was a problem. He started to get a sinking feeling in his gut. “What’s the hell’s going on?”
Hoot whipped off his headset, looking pissed. “Everything is grounded. Major fucking storm on our ass. Could be tomorrow before shit settles down.”
“Great,” Ty mumbled. “You tell them we had our own storm to worry about?”
“Affirmative. They suggested we request the QRF if we needed them,” Hoot relayed, referring to the Quick Reaction Force.
“Bernie’s unit is on QRF now,” said Taco. “You know he won’t put anyone at risk. They’ll drag their ass and get here tomorrow so he doesn’t take casualties.”
“Do it,” Ty said.
Hoot got on the radio and passed on Ty’s request. Ty could soon tell Hoot wasn’t having any more luck with this than the exfil request.
“QRF says they’ll contact command and advise us when they have their orders,” Hoot repeated.
Ty shook his head in disgust. He scanned the horizon and in the distance found the storm Hoot was referring to, a dark mass emerging on the horizon ahead of them like some enormous beast. “There’s your dust devil, Taco.”
“I still say we dig in and engage them. We got this. We can take them.” Taco’s speech was rushed. They were all huffing and puffing from humping heavy gear at a rapid pace, their adrenaline pumping. After sitting in those hills for three days everyone was jacked up and ready for a fight. Running didn’t taste good on anyone’s tongue.
“Negative,” Ty said. “They pin us down and there’ll be a hundred of them surrounding us by tomorrow. They’ll pound us with rockets and there won’t be enough left to bury. We’re going to outrun them, or at least try to.”
“You got to be kidding me,” Hartsock said. He was MARSOC, or Marine Special Operations Command, and had embedded with Ty’s team before. They got a laugh out of it because his name was Hartsock, making him Hartsock from MARSOC. Sometimes that shit was funny when you had nothing else to laugh at, but at the moment, nothing was funny.
“I’m open to ideas if you got anything,” Ty said.
“I don’t think we can outrun them. Those horsemen will ride us to ground,” Hartsock said. “We need a defensible position.”
Ty raised his shemagh and mopped at his face. “They pin us down, we die,” he countered. “We’re going into that storm. They probably won’t follow us in there, but if they do, they’ll lose us. Once we get on the other side, we’ll hunker down and call for a pickup. Maybe someone will be flying by then.”
“If we come out on the other side,” Taco griped. “We’ll be blind in there. We could go around in circles and run into the enemy head-on.”
“We’re better than that,” Ty told him. “We tighten up and make sure that shit doesn’t happen.”
Despite any reservations they had, Ty was in charge. They followed orders and ran toward the storm. Ty could see his men glancing nervously at the approaching weather conditions while monitoring the other ominous cloud rising behind them. Ahead was a menacing blizzard of dust and wind. Behind, a band of murderous Taliban intent on torturing them to death and posting videos of it on the internet. This was a solid team, tough men used to suffering, but Ty could tell the ticking clock was wearing on them. No one liked being sandwiched between those two threats. They were truly caught between a rock and a hard place.
They closed on the great storm as it closed on them. The wind picked up immediately and Ty began to have second thoughts about his decision. This was not thunderstorm wind. This was stepping out into a hurricane wind. Dirt pelted them like a sandblaster, making any exposed flesh burn as it was abraded away.
Although they had goggles over their eyes and filthy sweat-soaked shemaghs wrapped around their faces to filter out the dust, it was a futile effort. Their ears filled with grit and dirt. Before long, their clothes were covered with so much dust that each man looked like a boulder risen from the barren landscape and marching around of its own accord. It would be perfect camo if they survived, but that was a big ask.
Ty shouted at his men to stay together but the buffeting wind drowned out his voice. As they finally lost sight of the pursuing riders, the swirling storm consumed them totally. There was the faint sound of rifle fire behind them. Their pursuers were giving it one last college try before they lost sight of the enemy, sweeping the storm with blind barrages of AK fire.
“Anyone hit?” Ty barked.
No one answered. He doubted they even heard him. Ty caught their attention and directed them through hand signals to change course. He didn’t know whether the Taliban riders would charge into the storm or balk at its approach. While he doubted they would risk it, they were dogged fighters and it remained a possibility. The team slogged onward, the men shoulder to shoulder so that no one got lost.
Just as he thought it couldn’t get any worse, Mother Nature said, “Hold my beer” and they were startled by a bolt of lightning. Thunder shook the ground like mortar fire. If there was anything worse than a dust storm, it was when it intersected with a thunderstorm. The product was what you might expect. It rained mud.
A torrent of muddy rain slammed into them. It was like being hit with a firehose and they were quickly drenched, their sodden gear doubling in weight. Ty frantically yanked his shemagh down off his face, the damp cloth making him feel like he was being waterboarded. Mud streamed into his mouth, bitter and gritty. He used the back of a glove to swipe at his goggles but it was futile. He couldn’t see shit and they were running blind.
He was seriously beginning to question the wisdom of charging into the storm. Hell, could people drown while walking upright? It was starting to feel like a possibility.
Inside the storm, the conditions had not only impaired their visibility but had greatly reduced the amount of light reaching the ground. In those twilight conditions, with mud-encrusted goggles, Ty was placing tremendous focus on the terrain under his feet and keeping his men close. Touch was the only sense still working at full capacity. He noticed the terrain change under his feet and it stopped him dead in his tracks.
He grabbed Hartsock, the man nearest him, by the shoulder and pulled him to a stop. One by one, the men slowed their companions and circled up.
“I think we’re on the road!” Ty screamed, trying to overpower the wind.
“How the hell can you tell in this mess?” Taco demanded.
“I can’t be certain but the surface feels different. It felt like there was a shoulder at the edge. Let’s head south.”
Ty could barely see any of his men but he got the distinct feeling that they were looking at him like he was an idiot. That was a fair assessment of how he felt at the moment. “That way,” he said, pointing in the direction his smeared GPS assured him was south. “Move!”
They resumed their cautious advance and marched through the blinding slurry of desert mud. Ty took a sip from his hydration bladder, trying to rinse out his mouth, and it was vile, the bite valve nearly as muddy as his boots. Then, as quickly as the storm hit them, they walked out of it.
Except they weren’t completely out of it. Instead, they’d wandered into what appeared to be the eye of the storm. All around, completely encircling them, was the turbulent spinning blackness of the mud storm. They’d somehow landed in an insulated bubble of calm in the middle of it.
“Dude, this is fucking weird,” Taco said, spinning slowly, watching for the Taliban horsemen to come pounding into their little oasis at any moment. “I don’t like it.”
“Spooky,” Hartsock mumbled.
Ty took the opportunity to try to clean his goggles, smearing the mud from a thick coating to a thin veneer that he could almost see through.
“It won’t last,” Kamran assured them. “A minute or two. The storm is moving too fast.”
Aware that he was correct, Ty signaled the men to start moving again. They were halfway across the eye, on the surface of the road, when he saw a reflection in the darkness ahead of them. “What the hell?”
“What is it?” Hartsock asked.
“I thought I saw something,” Ty said. “A light or some kind of reflection.”
Then it was on them and there was no time to bolt for cover. They threw up their weapons and leveled them on the black Mercedes Sprinter van. It skidded to a stop in front of them, mud dripping from every surface. Inside, the wide-eyed man and little girl stared out through the smeared windshield at what probably looked like aboriginal mud men surrounding them with guns.
The terrified driver raised his hands in panic. He was screaming, jabbering, but Ty couldn’t hear a word of it. He moved around the driver’s side, his weapon never leaving the man’s face. Hartsock did the same on the other side. Ty heard the sliding door roll open on the far side as Hartsock checked the rear of the van. Ty pulled the driver’s door open and turned off the ignition. He scanned the driver’s lap and checked around the seat for any weapons but didn’t find any. The driver was frantically trying to explain something but Ty didn’t understand a word of it.
“Kamran!” he barked. “Get over here!”
The terp rushed to his side and looked from Ty to the driver.
“Tell him we need a ride. Now!”
Kamran spent a moment nailing down a dialect the two shared, then relayed Ty’s request.
“No,” the driver replied in English
“Uh, he said no,” Kamran replied.
“I think I understood that part,” Ty growled.
“He says he’s Pakistani and here on business. He’s already late for an appointment.”
The rain began to pelt them again as Ty stewed on their predicament. The eye was passing and the storm was nearly back upon them. He was not letting this vehicle pass unless he and his men were aboard it. Command would frown on stealing a vehicle, regardless of their situation. They never wanted you to do anything that might end up on the evening news. Ty was struggling to figure out a different approach, a bribe or threat that might make the driver acquiesce when a gunshot split the air.
Ty flinched and flattened himself against the vehicle, head swiveling for the source of the shot. Then he saw the column of Taliban riders had burst into the eye of the storm as well. They may have looked like a sodden mass of swamp creatures but they were deadly and only seconds away. Ty swung his rifle and tore off several shots in their direction. The rest of the team did the same.
Negotiations were over. Ty made a command decision, shoving the driver out of the seat and onto the floor. “Get in!” he bellowed, and his team scrambled for the side door, exchanging gunfire with the approaching riders as they piled in.
The terrified young girl screamed at the top of her lungs.
Taco pounded the back of the driver’s seat. “Go! Go! Go!” he barked.
There was the rattle of more gunfire and one of the back windows shattered, spraying the interior with pellets of safety glass. Ty turned the key but it wouldn’t start and his heart sank. They were dead.
“Go!” Taco demanded.
“Wrong gear!” Kamran shouted, leaning forward to place the shifter into the Park position.
Ty could have punched himself in the head. God, he was an idiot. Apparently he’d turned the key off when the van was in Drive so it wouldn’t start. He tried the key again and it fired right up. Ty stomped the gas pedal and the van slewed, the tires spinning on the mud road. He eased off until they gripped and the van lurched forward. The girl, still in the seat beside him, emitted another bloodcurdling scream. The sound was grating on Ty’s nerves. There was enough chaos without her adding to it.
“Take her!” Ty instructed her father, the man apparently too petrified with fear to act. He hadn’t moved since Ty shoved him onto the floor between the seats.
When the Pakistani man didn’t react, Ty shoved him, jarring him from his paralysis. He gestured at the girl. The father’s arms shot forward and collected his daughter. He pulled her to the floor with him and shielded her with his body. Her scream became a keening whine of terror, melding with the general state of chaos.
More gunfire sprayed the back of the van, punching holes in the sheet metal and remaining glass. Ty had hoped to gain distance from the riders but they lost visibility as they re-entered the storm and he couldn’t go much faster than they could. If he got the van stuck or went off-road and hit a rock, they were dead. Hartsock and Taco were wallowing on the floor, trying to peel off their soaked packs, slippery with mud. Hartsock came out of his gear first and rolled to his knees.
He aimed through a jagged hole in the rear window and started pounding out controlled bursts of 5.56 fire at the pursuing Taliban. The sound of the automatic fire in the enclosed space of the van was deafening. They all had hearing protection stashed somewhere in their gear but who the hell had time to look for it?
“Get’em, cowboy!” Taco hollered, finally making it to his feet and joining the fight.
He ripped the muddy goggles from his head and tossed them to the side, raised his boot, and stomped the shattered pane of glass from the opening on his side of the rear door. The addition of a second shooter only intensified the noise and bedlam in the van.
“Kamran! Ask him where this fucking road goes!” Ty bellowed, unable to judge the volume of his own voice since he couldn’t hear shit.
The terp shoved the Pakistani man to get his attention and launched a barrage of questions at him.
One of the pursuing riders got lucky and swept the rear of the van with another burst of gunfire. Ty had the sensation of being touched on the shoulder. He thought Kamran might be trying to get his attention but he was afraid to take his eyes of the road.
Taco cried out and collapsed to the deck. The girl screamed and Ty caught a flurry of movement in his peripheral vision. He spun to see what the girl was screaming about and realized the touch on his arm was the sensation of her father’s brain spraying onto the right side of his body. Ty was covered in gore, the dampness going unnoticed due to his already saturated clothing.
Ty roared from rage and frustration, pounding the steering wheel with his palm. He was splitting his focus between the road, where he couldn’t see shit, and the back of the van, where he had no fucking idea what was going on. “Taco? Talk to me!”
“Thigh wound!” Hartsock barked. “Missed the artery. He’s plugging it now. He’ll live.”
“Not if we don’t get out of this mess,” Ty countered.
The girl slipped from beneath the bloody crush of her father’s body and crawled into the passenger side footwell, pressing her tiny body as tightly as she could into the cramped space. She was no longer crying, her eyes squeezed desperately shut, tears streaking her stained face.
There was a jolt as a wheel rode over the nearly invisible shoulder. He jerked his eyes back to the road and struggled to correct the van without losing control. It slid dangerously, the back end slewing left and presenting just enough of its side to the enemy that they pounded it with 7.62 rounds.
Ty glanced back and saw holes punched in the van’s sidewall. He also noticed his terp gasping for air, frightened eyes opened wide. “Hoot!” Ty called to the commo guy. “Kamran’s hit!”
Ty wasn’t sure if Hoot could hear him or not. He had to be as deaf as the rest of them at the moment. He was in the back of the van trying to shoot out of the same holes Taco and Hartsock were but was having a hard time staying out of their way. There was too much flying lead in too small a space. Hot brass bounced in every direction and rolled around on the floor. It was like trying to stand on marbles.
“Hoot!” Ty repeated.
The commo guy heard him that time and sprang into action, checking the now-collapsed terp. “Got between his armor!” Hoot yelled. “I think he took one in the lung.”
Ty whipped his head around in time to see Kamran emit a cough that sprayed a mist of blood onto his already dirty face and gear. “Can you get a chest seal on him?”
“Look out!” Hoot screamed, gesturing frantically toward the windshield.
Ty swung his eyes back to the road in time to see they had driven out of the storm and he was about to crash into a HUMVEE stopped directly in front of them. Ty locked onto the steering wheel with both hands and stood on the brakes. The heavy van went into a slide and stopped mere feet shy of the armored vehicle. There were groans and cursing from the back as men fought to get on their feet, hot rifle barrels scorching them through their clothing.
The second HUMVEE in the column had a roof gunner and his weapon was trained directly on Ty’s window. They had no idea who he was or who the van belonged to. Ty raised his hand as soldiers spread around the vehicle, trying to figure out what was going on.