EXCERPTS (from Audiobook and text):

One

Emerging Skies

     It was the year 1917, and a beautiful dusk was settling in over the countryside of Royaumeix, France.  What used to be a picturesque landscape, dotted with dairy cows and checkered with alfalfa fields, was now a bleak and barren wasteland scarred with the trenches of war.  The peaceful, rural life that once flourished there had faded into memory.  A battle of a great war was raging. 

     Rolling farmlands and pastures of green, with fragrant and colorful wildflowers all abloom in the spring of the year, had been turned into dingy, mud-caked mires strewn with broken down battlements and barbed-wire entanglements.  Forests of trees, stripped of their foliage, charred and choked from blasts of ordnance and fumes of noxious gases, were reduced to snags and looked like thousands of grotesque splinters piercing the ground.  The sweet songs of birds perched on fences and the gentle whispers of wind in the tall grasses had long since been silenced – replaced by the loud and recurrent ‘ka-booming’ of artillery and ‘ka-banging’ of rifles.

     Foot-soldiers, shod in tightly-laced army boots, climbed up ladders and leapt out of trenches at the battle’s frontlines.  They were French, British, and American troops – they were the Allies.  They charged through the mud with such ferocity that globs of it splattered chest-high onto their tattered, brown uniforms.  Moments earlier, they had cinched their army belts tight around their waists with a determination charged by patriotic courage.  Then, after a prayer and salute from the chaplain, the bugle-call to combat sounded and whisked them away, up and over the top of the trench walls – out into each one’s unknown destiny. 

Thirty-eight
A Day of Destiny

     Hudson was observing the movement of an AEF artillery regiment a mile down the line.  It was on the move to a new forward position.  He thought he heard a faint, distant barking sound.  His first thought was how can dogs be up here?  Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, several bullets whizzed by the basket from above.  “What was that?” he said, surprised.

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     The Fokker D-7 opened up its machine guns on the balloon with a spray of incendiary bullets.  They flashed fire as they struck the balloon’s hide and punched holes along the top of the balloon.  They shredded one of the fins at its rear end.  Several flapping strips of the balloon’s tattered tail tenuously ignited.  Some of the flames began moving forward along the top of the balloon and grew larger as they spread.

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     Royce and Hudson quickly understood what was going on.  The machine gun fire grew louder.  Royce shouted to Hudson, “We’re under attack!  Jump!!!”  The Fokker flew right past the basket, and its engine revved to life.  They saw its tail pass by in a blur.

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     Down at the truck, Trammel could hear Royce’s voice shouting over the phone.  He immediately looked up and saw the balloon’s tail afire and the airplane that had attacked it swooping underneath it.  He heard the airplane’s engine revving.  In disbelief he cried out, “Where in the world did he come from?”

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     Up in the basket, Hudson scrambled to make ready for his jump.  He had to untangle his foot from his parachute’s tether.  It got twisted around when he ducked from the bullets and shuffled his feet.  He tugged at his harness to double-check that it was snug as he straddled the railing.  Just then he saw the pilot looping around for another pass at the basket.  He looked at Royce, who was checking his own tether.  Royce’s back was turned to the oncoming airplane.

     “Get down!!!” cried Hudson as he jumped on Royce’s back, thrusting both of them to the floor of the basket for cover. 

Bullets sprayed the basket, splintering wood and clanking off metal.  Several of them pierced Hudson’s parachute canister.  Royce’s headset wire was severed by a bullet.  Two of the ropes attaching the basket to the balloon were badly frayed, one remained intact by just a single strand.  Thankfully, neither man was hit.  They heard the roar of the Fokker’s engine whiz past the basket again.  They sprang to their feet and saw the tail-end of the plane.  The pilot was straining his neck to look back at the basket and assess the damage he had inflicted.

     “Jump now, Lieutenant!  Right now!!!” screamed Royce. 

Hudson hurled his lanky frame over the railing and out of the basket, into the seeming weightlessness of space.  After a brief free-fall, the tether that connected his harness to his parachute ropes quickly drew taut, and his chute pulled free from its bullet-riddled canister.

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