Action, espionage, and romance in an alternate version of World War I.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Europe is at war. Bloody trenches on the front lines form a new kind of hell that has never before been seen on the battlefield.
Computational machinery has allowed great technological leaps on both sides—and trench warfare is even deadlier for soldiers at the front.
Some men go to war to defend their homeland or to prove themselves. But Robert Preston flees America and joins the French Army to escape heartbreak.
He's placed in the 5th Aeronautic Corps, an elite unit that specializes in using high-tech jetpacks to leap over trenches and the No Man's Land between them. It's a dangerous job with a low survival rate, but Preston is determined to make a difference.
There, he meets a man he calls his best friend, and a woman he believes is the love of his life. But a top-secret mission behind enemy lines, and a heart full of jealousy, threatens to tear the three of them apart forever.
"Bryan Young is an imaginative writer who has a director's eye, a film historian's perspective, a critic's cynicism, and a genre fan's enthusiasm. It's an interesting mix and I look forward to seeing everything he writes."– Aaron Allston, New York Times Bestselling Author and author of more than a dozen Star Wars novels
My name is Robert Preston and my first real day on a trenched battlefield of the Great War seems as good a place as any to say things started. All the travel and training to get to that spot seems so inconsequential now, and so do the few days I spent there in the trenches before the actual battle. Suffice it to say that I got there, to that deep cut of Earth in the French countryside, and it was the first time I met a man named Andre LeBeau. Our fates would be linked inextricably, though I didn't know that at the time.
To be sure, he's the one who helped set me down my path.
The only person who might be more important to the story is Sara, but I wouldn't meet her until much later, in the wounded fall of 1915.
I was naive then to think the war would fix my problems, but as I spent my time nursing a shattered heart, fighting the Central Powers seemed as good a way to mend as any. When I left the States, I knew my heart could never soar again, but I wanted to know the rest of me could. I wanted to fly and the French Army promised me they could make it happen, even if they didn't quite tell me how.
Risking the U-boats, bomber zeppelins, and skyships that blockaded passage across the Atlantic, I booked my ticket, leaving America behind to take France as my adopted country.
Andre LeBeau and I were jumpers in the 5th Aeronautic Division and our chances of surviving even a single battle were low. After one combat jump, we lived on borrowed time and we knew it.
Our job was to provide a psychological and logistical advantage to the Triple Entente in every battle we fought. French scientists, working around the clock for years, cloistered away in rooms full of computational machinery, had cracked a scientific code the Germans hadn't: they had designed and manufactured individual jump packs.
It was with one of those scientific miracles strapped to my back that I started my first day as a man and a soldier in the war. With that pack resting tightly and heavily over my shoulders and tied across my middle, I found myself standing next to Andre LeBeau and a hundred other soldiers to each side besides. LeBeau was a handsome fellow with an oily wave of brown hair and a jaw too square for a Frenchman. The uniform made him look bulky, but his frame was wiry, thin in the middle.
With all the metal plating sewn into the canvas-and-asbestos coverall, we jumpers all looked much bigger than we were. Add all that padding to the pack itself and we looked absolutely monstrous.
The packs were massive, unwieldy, and more than a little awkward. They were twice the width of a man and of a polished alloy casing, watertight to hold all the gasses and gears it needed to create the jet stream for its propulsion. They were rocket-powered and made me feel like I was living in the future, like a hero in a novel by Jules Verne. Fueled by hydrogen peroxide and nitrogen gas, the combustion gave a jumper exactly sixty-three seconds of flight time; just enough time to jump from one side of a battlefield to another and then back again.
Every piece of the uniform, from the armoured metal vest to the loose-fitting pants that concealed pockets of leaden asbestos armour, were the same horizon blue every poilu wore. I'm told the pants used to be red, but the Germans, in all their chemical superiority, controlled the dye, and so the uniform became blue all over.
The smell of the packs, of the peroxide and oils, overpowered the smell of the peat and loam of the trenches, but we knew that wouldn't last long. Soon, all of those smells would give way to gunpowder and ozone and death.
To arm us, the French Army had seen fit to give us pistols and flamethrowers. In theory, we would land quickly, roast the Germans in their trench until the fuel had run out, then we'd turn our backs to the enemy, and jump back to our own trench.
In practice, we would probably die before we made it across.
By that time, the rest of the poilus would have made it across hell as well, and then the grand army of France would be victorious.
That's how they explained it would happen, but no plan ever survived contact with the enemy. Standing there in the mud, in a line with a hundred other jumpers and heartache burning a hole in my middle, victory did not feel possible or even necessary.
The letter I carried in my breast pocket seemed so important then, so important that I didn't care if I jumped from the ground and only came down with the impact of a bullet. It's said that time heals all wounds, but I didn't want to be healed.
Maybe not even now.
I've since known hurt more deeply than any I'd experienced then, but I had been convinced that I was the most wounded among those in line that day.
What a fool I was. Am.
"It would not kill you to smile a bit," the man next to me whispered.
"Keep it to yourself," I told him back.
These were the first words I exchanged with Andre LeBeau.
He smiled at me, as if to lead by example. "If you insist, monsieur. But I think it would do us all a favor if we smiled for the Germans. They're so serious that even a crack of a smile will send them into fits, giving us the advantage."
I tried my hardest not to smile back, turning the corners of my mouth down. It didn't work very well, though. How could I not have been won over by his easy charm?
He offered his hand to shake. "They call me LeBeau."
"Preston." I clasped his hand in mine and shook.
"Is this your first jump, Monsieur Preston?"
I hesitated to answer, but nodded once, solemnly. "Oui. And you?"
LeBeau nodded his head in the affirmative as he pulled his goggles over his eyes. "In combat, yes."
I clutched the flame rifle they'd given me, hoping to draw strength from it. It felt solid in my hands and was of the most simple design in the world. Atop the rifle was a bulbous cylinder of flammables that sprayed through a pilot flame at the end, just before the bayonet. We jumpers had less than a minute's worth of fuel in our rifles, but that's when we had the choice of sticking Germans with our white-hot bayonets or drawing our pistols and shooting what few bullets we had.
The flame rifle, as they related to me in my too-brief training, was the key to the French psychological advantage. The Germans had superiority in many ways, but the French had the Aeronauts who would rain fire on the enemy.
It seemed to me that we were a limited resource. We could only fly for a little bit, our fire ran out quickly, and there we were, nakedly mortal and left standing at the lip of German trenches just waiting for them to kill us.
Maybe that would have been an easier ending to my story.
But there we stood, ankle-deep in the muck, waiting for the whistle to blow and the captain's hand to drop, letting us know it was our turn to go.
I'll never forget the scene in front of us, across the span of the trench. Lined four or five men thick was the group of blue-clad poilus that would be climbing up over the edge of our trench, raising their rifles and charging.
They were cold and tired and filthy, just like the Aeronauts. And frightened, just like us. I don't think either group could figure out who had it worse. They weren't going to have explosives propelling them over the battlefield, but they were going to have to cover all that distance on foot. They didn't have to carry rifles full of flammable fluid that would ignite with a single stray bullet, but they were a lot easier to hit.
I remember shrugging, and LeBeau put his hand on my shoulder as though he could read my mind. "Don't worry. We all have it equally bad. We'll get through this, though, you and I."
"What makes you so sure?"
"You're lucky. I can tell."
"If you insist."
Much as I tried to ignore him, I could almost make out my reflection in LeBeau. My frame matched his, though my shoulders were broader. My hair was brown like his, though it was kept too short to wave. One could almost mistake us for brothers at first glance.
But in a war, we all looked the same anyway.
If there's one thing I've learned about trench warfare, it's that you're never ready to go over the wire. Ever. When you're waiting for the whistle, there's never enough time to brace yourself. One second you're standing there in the mud, terrified, adjusting your goggles and scarf, and the next second you hear the whistle and you're already halfway over the battlefield. That first time was no exception. I don't remember engaging the thruster on my pack, but I do remember my heart plummeting down into the pit of my stomach with the force of gravity as I blew out of the trench with the rest of my brothers, hoping my pack wasn't about to explode.
Cresting the edge of the trench, the space between the French and German positions looked about as inviting as an abattoir. That first jump was in the morning. It was in the bright, reddish-yellow part of the morning hardest to stay awake through, the kind meant for sleeping in next to someone.
Hell was defined by gnarled coils of sharpened metal and bombed out craters in the mud, punctuated with long forgotten bodies of soldiers of both sides.
Smoke and mist seemed always to cling low to the ground in the small hours, which made us twice the target as we jumped.
But jump we did, and the wind gusted past us. We were free as birds, sailing through the air. Gravity pushed my guts down into my groin as I ascended. It was easy to want to throw up if you weren't used to the sensation of flying with a pack. Or flying at all.
In those early days of the Aeronautic Corps, the Germans weren't quite sure what we were doing. They had no idea we were sparrows on the attack. Who expects to see a few hundred men hurtling toward you in mid-air? I wondered that first time if we seemed hurled by catapult. None of us were good with our packs yet, which made it easier for those few Germans with sense to pick us out of the sky.
The symphony of a hundred jump packs drowned the din of battle. I'm not sure I could hear the bullets whizzing by us as we flew, but it seems I filled in the sound in my memory. Halfway over the trench we could finally see the pointed tops of the German helmets, peeking from behind their trench, a trench they would defend valiantly.
Most of the German soldiers were not looking up to us in the sky, more concerned about the charging poilus behind us, but enough of them had taken us in their sights. Had I any peripheral vision through my goggles, I would have known that I lost three men to my immediate left and two beyond LeBeau.
I wouldn't discover that until much later.
Landing with a jump pack was tricky enough without men shooting at you. We heard the alarm in our helmets saying we were close to using half our fuel supply and knew it was time to land. The method for landing they taught us was to continually ease back on our thrust until our feet gently hit the ground, but in the panic of battle many of us cut our thrusts altogether until we reached a few feet from the ground and then blasted the thrust to soften our landing.
Once I was on my feet, looking down into the German trench, almost identical to the one we'd just left, I brought my flame rifle up to bear. Pulling the trigger, I set all of my heartache ablaze, but all of it looked and sounded exactly like boiling German soldiers.…