Specialist Max MacGregor couldn't shake the feeling he was going to die.
Of course, that was a silly thing to say. It was war, and his unit was only about 25 miles from the Chinese and Russian Rebel forces massing at what used to be Area November. From the intel they'd recieved that morning from Captain Yarborough, their CO, an attack on Firebase Comanche (located in the woods just southeast of Sokolovo) was almost guaranteed in the next few days. Of course he had a good chance of getting killed.
But even before the briefing that morning. Max had the same feeling. He'd had it for weeks now, and it just got worse every day. When he'd joined the Army -- knowing full well that there was a war on and wanting to serve his country -- he'd not felt this way. He'd felt like he could take on the world, and knew that he would come back home as soon as the war was over.
Something had changed, though, and it wasn't because of the fall of Area November, or the Battle at Neryugn. Both stories had instilled a little more respect for the Chinese and Russian forces, sure, but they hadn't convinced him he was about to die.
"You know how people say 'I didn't just wake up one morning feeling this way?'" Max asked his buddy Seth as the two of them walked their guard shift just outside Firebase Comanche.
"Sure. Hear that all the time," Corporal Seth Adkins answered, spitting out a piece of gum he'd been chewing and putting in a new piece.
"Well, I did just wake up feeling this way. One morning, a couple of weeks back. I woke up in my bunk and just knew I was going to die soon."
"You're freaking me out, brother," Seth said, shaking his head. "Bad enough we're waiting on Big Red and Little Red to steamroll through here like they did November. Now I gotta worry about your premonitions of impending doom, too."
"Well, to be fair, I don't think you're gonna die. Just me," Max said, managing a smirk.
"Oh, just you? That's all right, then," Seth grinned. "Come on, man. Our watch is almost up. Time for some horrible food and not enough rack time."
"Yeah, I suppose," Max said, slinging his M249 SAW over his shoulder and following Seth back to the front gates. When they got there, they saw the base was jumping.
"What's going on, Private?" Seth asked Felicia Kaling, a rifleman in their unit.
"We're loading up, Corporal. UAVs picked up 20 CDMs and 50 T-90s heading this way," Kaling told them. "Our armor's getting ready to roll out and meet them -- 1st ID is going to hold the gates in case some of 'em get through."
"Right. Looks like dinner is on hold, then," Max sighed, unslinging his SAW and checking his ammo.
"Hey, at least there's good news," Seth said, following Felicia to join the rest of their 1st Infantry Division unit. "At least now, you'll probably get your wish."
* * *
"1-4 Cav, on me!" Captain Ruez yelled, and a sea of dark green ACUs flowed toward him, Max, Seth, and Felicia among them.
"Listen up! Our Strykers, M1s, and Razors are keeping the enemy armor busy, but a large number of ground forces have managed to punch through," Ruez told them. "I need first and second teams to line the perimeter with Claymores. Third and fouth teams will cover your backs. Clear?"
"Clear, sir!" a chorus of voices yelled back.
"First team always gets the fun jobs," Seth sighed, grabbing one of the packs filled with Claymore mines and slinging it over his shoulder.
"Hey, man. Better back here fighting man-on-man -- no offense, Felicia -- than out their getting our asses shredded by CDMs," Max said, lifting his own bag of mines.
"None taken, Specialist. And I agree with you."
"So let's go out there and set up some traps," Max said.
"You ever use these things before, man?" Seth asked as they double-timed through the front gates.
"Yeah, sure. In training. Never live-fire, though."
"OK, so how do you set 'em?" Felicia asked.
"Simple. Look at one of your mines, Private," Max said, trying to hold in a smirk.
"Oh. Yeah. Printed right there on the mine, isn't it?"
It took Max only five minutes to empty his bag and set up all of his mines -- he set them about 50 meters apart, all facing away from the base. Once they saw the enemy coming, he figured they'd trigger first team's mines, then second team's as the next wave came through. It would definitely cut down on the number of enemy soldiers they'd have to engage -- when he'd detonated the mines in training, he'd been surprised at just how much power came from such little devices.
Max checked on Felicia to his left and Seth to his right -- both were still setting their mines. He walked out past the line he'd just established with his own Claymores and unslung his SAW from his shoulder -- he knew third and fourth teams were watching their backs, but still, it wouldn't hurt for him to give his buddies some cover fire if the enemy showed up right that second -- and the SAW was a hell of a weapon for doing just that.
He could hear the American and enemy armor beating on each other a few miles in front of him -- the high-pitched whine of the CDMs' front-mounted gatlings, the loud, echoing booms of the M1s' massive front cannons. He heard exploding rockets, but he couldn't tell by sound alone if they came from the Razors or the CDMs. Probably both, he figured.
As he scanned the treeline, he saw movement coming through and dropped to one knee, sighting his SAW on the rustling leaves in front of him.
"You got something, Max?" he heard Seth call from behind him, but he stuck one hand up in a "stop" motion.
Time seemed to slow down for Max McGregor then -- he knew, logically, only a couple of seconds could have passed, but it felt like ages. For some reason, he flashed back to his childhood in Arlington Heights, Illinois -- when he was playing hide and seek with some of the neighborhood kids, and he knew his friend Billy was hiding in the bushes because of the way the leaves moved.
He saw the helmet first, covered in dark green camo like the US used in the 80s. Chinese regular Army. It was one man, staying low to the ground, with a QCQ-05 held in front of him. The Chinese soldier hadn't seen Max yet, and the Rules of Engagement were clear -- shoot hostiles on sight. Max opened up with the SAW, shredding the young soldier almost in half. He felt Seth drop into a crouch at his side and sight his M4 on the treeline, and that's when everything went sideways.
One second, there was trees and a fallen Chinese soldier. The next, there was nothing but Chinese soldiers, more than a thousand of them, pouring out of the woods and headed right for the three soldiers.
"Fall back!" Seth yelled over the din of automatic weapons fire. He kept his front side -- and the thickest part of his body armor -- toward the advancing horde as he quick-stepped backwards, firing off bursts from his M4 as he went. Max did the same, trying to throw as many bullets as he could, staying in front of Felicia and Seth as the three of them retreated behind the first line of Claymores.
"Firing! Firing! Firing!" Max faintly heard his squad leader, Staff Sergeant Levinson, yelling.
The first line of Claymores exploded, each of them sending 700 ball bearings flying at the advancing enemy line.
"Run! Back to the base!" Felicia yelled, and Max turned and ran. He tried to fire the SAW from his hip as he sprinted, but he was out of ammo. He made the mistake of looking down at his weapon for a half-second and lost his footing, sprawling on the ground.
"Firing! Firing! Firing!" he heard SFC Grimes -- second team's squad leader -- yell. He pushed himself up and tried to get to his feet -- but right in front of his face, he saw the last three words he'd ever read on this planet.
The 700 ball bearings, coupled with the explosive force of the mine, ripped through anything resembling Specialist Max McGregor in less than half a second. He didn't have time to process what was going on before he was virtually vaporized by his own unit's mine.
The last thought that Max McGregor had were those three words he'd just read, hardly a fitting epitaph to his short life:
"Front toward enemy."