Count to Five.
I feel the fog of my breath leave my lips. The winter is unforgiving. Only those equally unforgiving are the ones who survive. I’ve learned that through my time here. I open my eyes and gently raise my head over the peak of the gray, icy, mud-covered boulder.
At first, I see nothing aside from the bleak, sunless, gray sky. The empty cotton colored field. And the trees. The trees at the field’s edge are tall, dark, frozen, and white. The ice capped mountains tower above everything else in the distance. Everything looks quiet. Everything looks deserted. But I know better. I can hear the small rustles and tweets in the branches. I can feel the sting of the thousand small, beady eyes waiting in tense, giddy anticipation. The eyes are on me and upon the now white field. I can only wonder how much longer that term, white can be used to describe its ground.
“It looks clear,” a hushed whisper says from behind me. I don’t respond, my eyes are too busy scanning the trees for what’s hidden.
“Eric, if we want to make a break for it, now is the time.” The sudden whisper comes again, more harshly this time. But behind that harshness, I sense a certain tinge of desperation. A desperation I too feel, what all of us feel. I study the field a moment longer before nodding and turning back to face my four fellow companions. All five of us are dressed in winter camo, head to toe. Apex, the one who spoke, stares at me from behind his goggled visor. The rest of his face is covered from the fatigues’ hood and scarf. My face is covered much the same way, minus the goggles while the rest of the group sport ski masks.
I look at each of them in turn, noting our weapons: two M4A1s, a single Remington Model 700, Apex’s MP5, and my suppressed UMP 45.
“Well?” Apex’s voice says again.
I take in another deep breath, glancing back at the field one last time before turning back to them. “Alright,” I nod then look to the soldier with the Remington, “Ron, stay here and cover our backs.” I gaze at one of the others, “You too, Jake. The rest of you, with me. I’ll take point.”
Without waiting for an acknowledgement, I turn and take another long breath while I try my best not to think about our previous commander from the night before. There had been ten of us initially, divided into two squads: two staff sergeants, two corporals, one PFC. and four privates. We’d been ambushed early in the night while making our way for the mountains. Things hadn’t gone well. The chain of command had been knocked out with a single, loud bang. One explosion. Now there was only one of us left according to rank, and that was me.
“On my signal,” I raise my hand giving my men a chance to prepare, then after a few seconds drop it and shout, “Go!”
I race forward with my two comrades trailing shortly behind me. After the first ten meters, I begin to think everything is fine. Nothing bad is happening. We may just make it after all. But then I am reminded of the harsh reality of this world, like this cruel winter. Immediately, the loud sound of gunfire fills the air and I hear a shrill scream come from one of my comrades. I don’t stop moving. To stop would be to die, movement is life. I race forward, adrenaline kicking in allowing me to sprint faster than I ever have in my life.
Within minutes, I reach the tree line and take cover before looking back to provide covering fire for whoever is left. It turns out there isn’t a need as Apex whirls by me just as I turn to take aim and places his back against a nearby tree, panting. The gunfire continues and my eyes see the boulder we’d taken cover behind only a few minutes earlier go up in a large splash of snow, mud, and blood. The sound of a large drum quickly follows it. I lower my head, clenching my eyes shut. Three more of us, I think to myself. Now down to only two. I look over to Apex.
“You alright?” I ask.
Apex is sitting, breathing hard, and leaning against the tree. He looks okay, shocked maybe, but okay. “Apex!” I hiss. His head snaps up to me. “We need to move. Now! We can’t stay here.”
I stand up to leave. I get ready for another hustle when I notice Apex doesn’t move. I look down at him. It’s only then that I notice he doesn’t have his weapon. His hands are clamped tightly across his chest. They’re both stained crimson. He looks up at me for a few seconds, then goes limp.
I crouch and place two fingers to his neck, to confirm what I already know. My hand falls back to my side as I lower my eyes and take in another deep breath.
Count to Five.
It’s only me now.