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Captain Devon "Spike" Crawford's hands sweated inside her flight gloves as she awaited the tower's response to her request for clearance. Through her night vision goggles she watched the relentless wall of fog outside the cockpit thicken. It crept over the ground like a shroud, swallowing everything in its path.
Her pulse drummed in her ears. Visibility was bad here, but even worse where they were going.
The answer she'd been waiting for finally came over the radio. "Angel one-niner cleared for takeoff."
She let out a slow breath. "Roger that."
Her co-pilot, Will, glanced at her but she ignored the questioning look. Heavy fog made the flight dangerous, but American soldiers were dying in that remote mountain village. They were counting on her to evacuate them to a hospital.
Willing her pounding heart to slow down, she raised the collective until the wheels were clear, checked her center of gravity and pushed forward on the cyclic. The Black Hawk lifted off the tarmac and cruised forward, gaining altitude. The pitch of the engines changed, rising with the power increase. The bird climbed steadily into the night air, strong and smooth. Above the occasional traffic on the radio, her three crew members remained deathly silent.
Their unspoken tension weighed on her with each passing kilometer. As pilot commander, she was responsible for the safety of her aircraft and crew. Their lives were literally in her hands.
But so were the lives of the wounded out at the distant LZ, waiting and praying for medevac extraction. She owed them her best shot, no matter how bad the visibility was.
The steady hum of the engines filled the cabin as they left the relative safety of Bagram behind and banked southeast toward the darkened mountains. Their snow-capped peaks were obscured by the ever encroaching fog. It made navigation next to impossible and increased the chance of clipping a rotor blade when they cruised through the narrow mountain passes. By the time she hit the first waypoint, near zero visibility made any further attempt practically suicidal.
Her damp hands tightened around the controls as she put the bird into a hover. "I can't see shit out there." She clenched her jaw, battling the gnawing fear and guilt. "Will?"
He glanced over at her for a moment, and then shook his head. "This is crazy. Call it, Dev."
Dammit. Her gaze strayed to the south. Out there somewhere beyond the crippling low cloud cover, men were dying. It tore her up that she wasn't going to get them out, but she had no choice.
She spoke over the intercom to the crew chief and medic. "That's it guys, I'm calling it off. We're outta here." Was it her imagination, or did a collective sigh of relief follow her words? She dialed in the frequency for the ops center. "This is Angel one-niner. Visibility is compromised. We're returning to base." Sorry, she added silently to the men she was about to abandon. But she couldn't risk her crew and the bird by going any further.
"Copy that, Angel one-niner."
With a heavy heart, Devon turned the Black Hawk back. The fog continued to roll in on the return trip, and when she finally touched down at Bagram her hands and armpits were soaked with cold sweat. She reached overhead to shut off the power and removed her helmet. Damn, she was glad just to be on the ground without incident after flying through that.
A hand settled on her shoulder, and she looked over to meet Will's knowing stare.
"Hey. We gave it our best."
Yeah, but tell that to the wounded men in the village. She rubbed her gritty eyes.