Sky Pascal moaned, tossing in her sleep on the hotel bed. Her stomach was in knots, with the pain
radiating outward. She flinched and drew her legs up toward her body. The vibration of the Black Hawk helicopter surrounded her. She could smell the sweat from the bodies of the air crewmen on this flight to Forward Operating Base, or FOB, Charlie. The odor of the kerosene aviation fuel was always present.
She was asked to fly along with Dr. Aaron Zimmerman to take a look at an Army soldier who was thought to have appendicitis. They had been over at FOB Charlie when the call came in. The FOBs were only forty miles from one another, and they were the closest medical team that could respond.
Now the vibration of the Hawk skittered through her. Sky was on the metal deck of the medevac helicopter as it raced through the darkness to reach the soldier.
She was an emergency-room trained R.N. and Zimmerman, who sat near the door, was a surgeon, specializing in internal medicine. Two other combat medic crewmen, whom she could not see, were nearby. The two pilots to her left were wearing night-vision goggles.
The tension was so thick it felt like a wet blanket around her hunched shoulders. Her mind raced.
She was assigned to the Army hospital at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, Afghanistan. A first lieutenant, she had three years under her belt in the U.S. Navy. It wasn’t unusual for different military services to have personnel assigned to the huge, busy hospital. She loved her job in the E.R. Sky was good in a crisis—cool and calm. That’s why Zimmerman had asked her to go with him as he visited the outlying FOBs. If he had to perform surgery on the spot at the FOB, he wanted someone like her with him.
But now her mouth was dry, and her heart was skipping beats in her chest. She was dressed in Navy fatigues, the “blueberries” coloring standing out starkly against others who wore desert-hued uniforms. Glad to have the forty-pound Kevlar vest on, Sky lived for missions like this. They were exciting and scary as hell.
She knew there was danger with any helo flight. The Black Hawk Army pilots, who were from the black ops Night Stalker squadron, were flying high enough so the Taliban couldn’t send grenade launchers up at them. However, the Stinger missiles were always a threat. One could blow them out of the sky regardless of their altitude. Sky was a knot of excitement and fear, adrenaline leaking through her bloodstream.
She couldn’t see through the darkness because she wasn’t wearing night-vision goggles. Only the four crew members were wearing NVGs. The flight wasn’t long to FOB Charlie, located three miles from the Pakistan border. There were only two platoons at the Army base.
Sky was told this particular FOB was an essential stopgap measure to halt or slow down the Taliban and al Qaeda soldiers trying to sneak into Afghanistan. FOB Charlie was an important deterrent.
Zimmerman had warned her beforehand that this would be a dangerous mission because of the FOB’s location. Sky had leaped at the chance. Maybe she was bored. But that couldn’t possibly be. She lived on the same dicey border of stress and pressure in the E.R. Night and day, men and women were brought in chewed up by the weapons of war. She felt no small amount of pride in being part of the E.R. team who helped save those lives. Now she was going to help a young soldier with appendicitis.
The sound of the engines changed on the Black Hawk. Sky felt a sudden lurch, the nose suddenly dropping. She inhaled sharply, throwing out her hand on one of the litters against the wall. Wearing a helmet, she heard the tense, short exchanges between the two pilots.
Something was wrong.
She caught a whiff of what smelled like burning oil enter the cabin. Her pulse ratcheted up.
A sudden shrieking, screaming noise blasted through the cabin of the Black Hawk. The bird banked sharply right and plunged downward. It happened so fast. The thumping of the blades. Being thrown up against the skin, striking her head hard on the bulkhead, nearly losing consciousness. Suddenly, they were upside down. She hadn’t been able to wear the seat belt. The other crewmen were thrown around, as well. Yelling and sharp orders from the pilot filled the ears of her helmet.
They were falling out of the sky. The screeching of metal upon metal continued to shriek through the cabin.
Her mouth went dry. Sky bit back a scream. Oh, God, they were going to crash! It was some sort of mechanical malfunction. Her mind swam with terror. Where were they? She couldn’t see out the window! Gravity was shoving her hard against the aluminum skin of the Black Hawk. She was scared. She was going to die!