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"We 're going in hot," Chief Warrant Officer Sarah Benson warned her two combat medics and air crew chief, who sat in the back of her Black Hawk medevac helicopter. Up ahead in dusk light, Sarah could see explosions caused by RPGs, rocket propelled grenades, fired by the Taliban into the Army forward operating base. Her heart rate picked up, her Nomex-gloved hands steady on the cyclic and collective of the helicopter. She used the rudders beneath her flight boots to maneuver it downward. This was a nine-line flight. Men on the ground were wounded and critical.
"This is going to be dicey," Pascal, the medic, warned via the ICS, inter-cabin radio system. Evans, the other medic in the rear of the cabin, nodded.
Sarah snorted. "What else is new?" Her whole focus was on the landing. The FOB, forward operating base, was on a hill at eighty-five hundred feet. It protected one hundred Army soldiers. With the FOB three miles from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, this was one of the most dangerous areas to fly in. Pascal wasn't happy to hear they would be picking up two wounded soldiers instead of the original one. By the time they'd left Camp Bravo, thirty miles inside the Afghan border, the vicious firefight had escalated and more soldiers were wounded.
"Dammit," Roger Tait, her copilot griped, "this fire-fight's heating up! Look at those RPGs being lobbed into that base!"
Sarah saw it. "Never fails," she muttered to herself, keeping her focus on the several green chem lights where they were to touch down. They were landing on the "safe" side of the FOB. If there was such a thing as any safe place during a firefight. The dusk was lit up with red tracers from the FOB, the Army trying to knock back an unknown Taliban force climbing the hill toward them.
Watching the ground coming up, Sarah knew it was Tait's job to work the overhead twin throttles as they were landing, plus watch the whirling blades of the Black Hawk to make sure they wouldn't strike anything. He also had the responsibility, once they landed, to keep the throttles at just this side of takeoff speed.
"Eyes on the ground, Tait," she told him quietly.
Dusk was a particular visual hell for pilots. It wasn't dark enough to wear NVGs, night-vision goggles, and it wasn't light enough to clearly see the surrounding ground where they were going to land. Worse, the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan were nothing but rocks and more rocks. The blades would be whirling at over a hundred miles an hour upon landing, and that force of wind would kick up dirt, stone and brush in every direction and give it wings to fly. Sarah always had to worry a pebble would get hurled up into the air, lodge into the Jesus nut or rotor assembly, which held the blades to the top of the bird, and then shatter the ball bearings. If that happened, the rotor assembly would explode. So no matter how much Tait strained looking out his side of the bird, he wasn't going to get the whole picture. The soldier on comms on the ground bringing them in, might not be trained to help them land, either. Rocks were a real problem. An RPG landed fifty feet away from the landing zone.
Evans cursed, flinching, throwing up his hands in front of his face.
Sarah flinched, too, but kept her focus. Sweat was beginning to run down the inside of her flight suit, trickling over her ribs. Her mouth was compressed, her eyes narrowed on the ground coming up. The nearby explosion lifted rock and dirt. A pressure wave slammed into them, rocking the Black Hawk. A cloud of dust rolled toward them, the blades instantly dissipating it. All she needed now was to make a brownout landing. The shaking and shuddering of the Black Hawk increased as she slowed it and brought it in, all three tires touching the earth simultaneously.
"We're down," Sarah announced to her medics in the back.
Pascal instantly slid open the door. He and Evans leaped out, running hell-bent-for-leather toward the comms soldier. Now there were three wounded men nearby, either sitting up or lying unconscious.
"Keep watch," Sarah warned Tait. "Taliban can sneak up on us, on our six." Plus the Army soldier helping the medics was too busy helping to carry the wounded to really be of help watching for the enemy. Sweat popped out on Sarah's upper lip. Lifting her glove, she quickly wiped it away. The red tracers fired from the FOB looked like fireflies winking in the dusk. Some were going down the hill, fired by Army soldiers. The rest were coming from the Taliban fighting their way up the hill. It looked like the Fourth of July in early August.
The running back and forth beneath the blades took a toll on her struggling medics. The eighty-mile-an-hour wind created by the whirling blades blasted the men bringing the wounded on board. Pascal, who was thirty years old and had plenty of tours on medevacs, knew speed was essential. The longer they stayed on the ground, the greater a target they became for the Taliban. Sarah twisted around, watching the wounded Army soldiers starting to crowd into the rear of the bird. There was blood spilling across the deck. The metallic smell filled the entire cabin. It always made her gut clench. She fought the urge to vomit and turned forward.
Three bullets smashed into the Plexiglas on her side of the bird. She jerked a look to the right. Down below on the slope, she saw six Taliban racing up and firing at them. Son of a bitch!
"Tait, get your pistol out! We have tangos at four o'clock! Waste 'em!"
Tait quickly unstrapped from his harness, pulling the .45 out of his shoulder holster. He squeezed between the seats and lodged himself between the back of her seat and the opened door. Taking both hands, he began to fire systematically at the charging Taliban.
Hurry! Hurry! Sarah wanted to scream at Pascal, who was getting the last man up to his feet. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Tait take out two of the Taliban climbing the hill toward them. AK-47 bullets raked the Black Hawk, the pinging sound echoing within the cabin. The wounded men inside were trying to hide or crawl away from the door, knowing they were targets, as well.
The thumping of the blades matched the beat of her pounding heart. Pascal dragged the third man on board.
"Shut that door, Tait!" she snapped, hands gripping the cyclic and collective more firmly. She notched up the speed on the fuel throttles overhead, the blades whirling faster and faster.
"Door secured," Tait gasped, pushing to his feet and squeezing back into the cockpit. He shoved the .45 back into the holster, grabbing his harness as he fell into the copilot's left-hand seat. Instantly, his gloved hands reached for the throttles overhead between the seats.
"Lift off!" Sarah growled over the intercom. She could feel the chaos in the rear, behind them. Pascal and Evans had three men to triage-the two worst cases would be put on the litters attached to the bulkhead. The Black Hawk's two turbine engines thundered as it lifted it off. Sarah couldn't head down slope to pick up air and speed this time. The pinging sounds of bullets striking the bird continued. She wasn't about to fly right over the Taliban since that presented too easy a target for them. Whipping the tail rotor a hundred and eighty degrees, she ordered Tait to push the engine to the max, lifting quickly and heading south over the narrow valley.
A valley presented a whole new set of dangers. Taliban hid in the mountainous slopes, ready to fire an RPG, bullets or, worse, loose a Stinger missile at them. The Black Hawk shuddered and groaned. Sarah knew they had a near-maximum weight load with everyone on aboard. Her gaze flicked over the instrument panel. She was watching engine temperature, afraid one of those AK-47 bullets might have hit something critical on one of the two fuel cells. Taliban knew where the Achilles' heel of the Black Hawk was: the rotor assembly on top of the bird. They would throw an iron curtain of bullets at it, in hopes of destroying the assembly above the cabin. If they did, the medevac team was pretty much DOA.
"Chief Benson," Pascal said, his voice tense, "can you spare Mr. Tait? We've got our hands full back here."
"Roger that," Sarah said, her voice cool and calm.
"I'm on it," he said, unbuckling.
Sarah took the Black Hawk up into the darkening sky. The sun had gone down long ago. She pulled her NVGs on her helmet rail, settled them over her eyes and flicked them on. The entire cabin was dark and the two medics were also wearing their NVGs in order to treat the wounded.
She pushed the Black Hawk to top speed, one hundred and fifty knots. They needed to get to Bagram hospital on the base as soon as possible. For just a moment, her mind fled to Ethan, her fiance. Was he back at the SEAL HQ listening in on their transmissions? Her heart yearned to see him. Their schedules conflicted all the time because they were at an FOB, in the thick of daily combat.
* * *
Ethan Quinn sat in the ready room of SEAL HQ along with Master Chief Gil Hunter, listening in on Sarah's transmissions. He tried to appear cool and casual, but hell, it was impossible. Getting up, he moved around, wiping his damp palms against the sides of his camos. It had been Hunter who got a hold of him and told him Sarah was taking the mission. His heart was beating hard in his chest.
"She's all right," Hunter said.
Ethan grimaced. Hunter was the boss and manager of the SEAL platoon. At forty-five years old, the lean master chief had done and seen it all as a SEAL. The only people above him were the three officers, and they often deferred to him, anyway. "It's hell listening," Ethan mumbled, pushing the sweat off his brow. He felt as if he was in combat, the adrenaline leaking into his bloodstream as he heard Sarah's helo taking enemy fire. Dammit! His heart hurt. His soul screamed out that he couldn't lose Sarah. He'd just found her three months ago.
Hunter leaned back in his chair, observing the first class petty officer, one of their comms-communication SEALs-for the platoon. He looked at his watch. "She'll fly those poor bastards into Bagram and turn around and come back here to Camp Bravo. Why don't you meet her over at Ops? She'll probably arrive around 2200."
Ethan halted and looked out the door of the office. He heard his brother SEALs in the big room playing poker, the guffaws, the brutal teasing, their voices competing with one another. He gave Hunter a wry look. "This is hell. The woman I love is always in danger. And I get to sit and hear it blow-by-blow over the radio."
Hunter nodded. "It's going to happen more and more, Hawk. There are married couples at other FOBs right now. Not ideal, I agree with you. I'm glad my wife is back in the States with our three daughters, to tell you the truth."
Snorting, Ethan muttered, "I hear you." He wanted Sarah out of combat, but dammit, she had months before her squadron rotated back to Fort Rucker in Alabama. "I'm going for a walk," he muttered. "I need to ramp down." A restless breed, SEALs couldn't sit still for more than ten minutes anyway.
Out of SEAL HQ, the Afghan night sky was a deepening cobalt, the shimmering stars like shards of scattered diamonds above. He could hear some Apache helos spooling up to take off, part of the all-female Black Jaguar Squadron. The smell of kerosene was always in the air, aviation fuel for the helos.
His heart ached in his chest and Ethan absently rubbed the area. At twenty-nine, he had found the woman he'd been looking for all his life. Sarah Benson was a take-no-prisoners medevac pilot with the squadron stationed here at the forward operating base composed mostly of black ops groups. And now she was in danger. Walking silently down an avenue of camouflage tents, he scowled.
In late August, the Hindu Kush mountains surrounding the FOB got very cold at night. Bravo sat at eight thousand feet, thirty miles from the Pakistan border. Ethan's heart was finally easing its beating. Sarah had duty until 0800 tomorrow. He would meet her when she landed tonight. He wished they could have privacy but that wasn't going to happen. It didn't matter, Ethan was a SEAL and he was going to kiss the hell out of his woman once she was back out of harm's way.
Sarah could hardly wait to get out of the Black Hawk after landing at Camp Bravo. Her crew and copilot had already left. God, the coppery odor of the blood was more than she could handle. The deck had been slippery with blood after they'd landed at Bagram, and they'd taken a hose, trying to wash it out of the helo. But it was never really all gone. She exited the Black Hawk, pulled off her helmet and stuffed it in her helmet bag. Pushing her fingers through her loose, black hair, she quickly stepped away, the cloying scent of blood too much. The night was black, the wind cold and gusting from the west. And, oh, God, she was going to throw up.
Ethan walked silently out of the shadows of the Ops building as he saw Sarah leap out of the Black Hawk. She was in her flight uniform, helmet bag in one hand. He could barely see her since there were no lights on the FOB at night; they would draw Taliban RPGs or mortars. Or both. He hurried out onto the tarmac, heading her direction. She suddenly dropped her helmet bag, bent over and vomited.
Ethan quickly jogged up to her. Sarah was leaning over, hands jammed against her bent knees, head down. He could hear her rasping breath as he drew close.
"Sarah?" Ethan halted and put his hand on her back. "What's wrong?" He couldn't see her face, the curtain of her shoulder-length hair hiding her features from him.
Groaning, Sarah managed, "It's the blood God I can't stand that smell " She began to dry heave again, wrapping her arms against her stomach.
Damn it. Ethan moved next to her, one hand against her sweaty brow, the other around her waist to steady her. She gagged and choked, wearily leaning against his solid frame when the second wave was finished. His heart twisted in his chest. Sarah was so damned sensitive in some ways, yet absolutely fearless when it came to flying her medevac helicopter in to rescue wounded soldiers.
"It's okay, angel. Okay," he rasped, his voice unsteady. Hell, it wasn't! He'd never seen Sarah in this condition before. He didn't know the stench of blood affected her like this. She trembled and he could feel her knees going weak.