VERDUN, FRANCE. FEBRUARY 26, 1916
The cordite-clouded sky flashed sparks of primordial fire. And Earth’s anvil shook with concussions that pounded his body and soul as though smithed by Thor’s angry-red hammer. In terrified awe, Dr. Jonathan S. Chalmers Jr. watched as blinding artillery bursts and dismembering detonations reinforced the enemy’s specter of Death that he felt already overshadowed him.
Cold, wet, wounded, and a lifetime’s distance from his family in New York, Chalmers gripped the steel barrel and bloodstained stock of his 8mm French Lebel, but he would gladly have swapped the rifle for a crystal brandy snifter.
A brilliant mathematician, Chalmers was a scholar and gentleman completely out of his affluent Long Island element. Against reasonable odds or definable logic, he was also a private in the U.S. Army and at present trapped in a gash of dangerous dirt between France and Germany known as the Western Front. Here, a form of human slaughter called trench warfare raged unabated with the rising sun of each new day in a world at war with itself.
Chalmers knew that the gruesome horror of this historic killing zone was already immortalized in the battlefield term no-man’s-land—a realm that his knotted guts and analytical mind told Chalmers was nightmarish beyond even his own vivid imagination.
THE TRENCHES. 0215 HOURS
Chalmers clutched his circular ID tags, their cool metal a talisman for him. He surveyed the trench to his left and right. Flanked by shattered bodies, he saw his dead friends as harbingers of his own anticipated fate.
Chalmers had been sent up to reinforce the 407th French Rifle Regiment two weeks ago with a platoon of American volunteers, including longtime friend and fellow New Yorker Paul Baker, as well as some British regulars. He’d been under siege and without sleep for so long that he’d lost all track of time.
“So tell me again, John,” Baker said. “What the hell are we doing here?”
“Saving the French by holding this line. Didn’t you listen to that lieutenant’s briefing, le bâtard who sent us into this rats’ nest?”
“Yeah, right. Guess I overlooked the part about the Krauts trying to wipe us out.”
Both men were scared, though they tried not to show it.
They winced, recoiling again from the thundering bombardment now under way to destroy fortifications and trench systems along a twenty-mile front from Bois d’Avocourt to Étain.
German Krupp howitzers, called Big Berthas, should have finished the demolition in a matter of days. But both of them were still here, still alive and holding this line—even though the French fortification at Douaumont had been captured by German infantrymen.
Chalmers knew it was only a matter of time until the Krauts pushed them back or overran the allied stronghold here in Alpha Sector. If they survived the night, their orders were to go over the top at first light and claw across a five-hundred-yard-wide strip of barbed-wire hell. And if they made it to the other side, fight the Fritzies man to man with bayonets, and then bare hands.
The killing zone, Chalmers thought. A suicide charge into no-man’s-land.
Chalmers touched his heart, then pulled a photo of Margaret from his tunic’s breast pocket. He could make out her features in the sudden glare of a bomb’s blast. He loved her deeply and felt this was probably his last chance to look upon her face.
Chalmers felt his friend nudge him. He quickly replaced the photo.
“Seems like an eternity since we enlisted, huh?”
Chalmers nodded. “Maybe longer.” He scoured mud from his rifle breech with his sleeve. “Sorry I snookered you into this latrine. Rotten thing to do, Paul.”
“Aw, it’s all right. I’ve always been your shadow. You couldn’t have come without me … just don’t leave without me, okay?” he said with a weak grin.
* * *
Chalmers and Baker had been neighbors and inseparable pals since they were still in short pants. Two years older, Chalmers had always been like a big brother to Baker.
Tall, lanky, and with angular good looks, Chalmers had excelled in lacrosse in his early years but quit the sport in favor of academics.
Baker was short and stocky, and though quite smart, he tended to muscle his way through life’s challenges, having eventually earned his law degree and joined his father’s practice more through sheer grit than a scholar’s grasp of jurisprudence.
A year ago, they’d been safe on Oyster Bay, Long Island, secure in the warmth of their parents’ love and their families’ wealth, power, and influence. Although he’d recently married, Chalmers still lived in the stone mansion that had housed generations of Chalmers families. Baker still lived just down the road with his parents as well.
It was a near perfect world they’d willingly left in favor of this deadly trench.
Even more than Baker, Chalmers had been born and raised in privilege, with every advantage of wealth and sophistication his parents could give him. Chalmers’s father, the man he’d been named after, was a successful ship line attorney and investment banker. Chalmers’s French mother had always been a tender caregiver to her son. She was a consummate homemaker and devoted wife.
She’d told her son, when he was just a young boy, that she’d met his father on one of his business trips to the Continent. They’d fallen in love at first sight. He was their only child, and he’d always tried his best to live up to their love and expectations. He had set a high achievement bar for himself as well, especially in the field of education.
Most who knew Chalmers described him as being blessed with extraordinary, if not incomparable, intelligence. When Chalmers was only a few months old, he’d already begun to demonstrate awareness, physical prowess, and nascent communication skills that astounded his parents and the family physician.
* * *
Now twenty-six years old, Chalmers held doctoral degrees in mathematics and engineering physics from Columbia University. Before enlisting, he’d been a professor, head of his department, and the youngest man to hold that job. His students and university colleagues believed Chalmers was a true savant, the most brilliant individual they had ever known.
He’d never set a foot off the path his parents had planned for him, nor his own pursuit of knowledge, until the day he’d seen the recruiting poster. Its patriotic message spoke to his idealism and sense of adventure, and constituted what Chalmers called the convergence of coincidence—a force majeure of unrelated events that shaped one’s life, that perhaps defined the concept of life itself. He believed in the power of that force.
Chalmers Senior believed that his son’s abrupt decision to enlist would, “in hateful fashion,” as he’d put it, change the young man’s life, and he had argued vehemently against it. Jonathan Chalmers had stood his ground—and now occupied it in the soggy bottom of this trench.
Baker was here too, having followed Chalmers’s lead by signing up the next day. Both of them now faced another moment of convergence, waiting for the only thing they knew could ever end their friendship … Death.
Copyright © 2012 by Chase Brandon