Short Story – The After-Dinner Speech Given at the Fourteenth Annual Superior’s Club Banquet

Recently I have got very into the wargame Horizon Wars, and as part of this focused on devising background for my army. I tied it into my recent Trails of Cold Steel inspired fiction, about the science-fiction / fantasy Habsburg Empire analogue, the Double Nations of Prenzer.

Now I am beginning to populate Prenzer with named characters, who will take roles in wargames played in the setting – first was Andrew Jackson, the Lawrence of Arabia-esque tanker who featured in a few of my short stories, and now there is Prince Matthias Valon – a fighter-ace, the son of the Archduke of Prenzer and an all-around rogue and playboy.

This story owes much to the excellent novel Winged Victory for giving me a tone to aspire to in writing about the pioneers of air combat, but equally much to the Trails games for their character Olivert…


 

“Ladies, gentlemen, all gathered here, this is I am sure the moment you have been waiting for this evening. I have but a few words to offer on recent events on this auspicious day, and so without much ceremony I shall begin.

I would probably have to say that this recent little expedition across the border has been the time of my life and none of it would be possible without the excellent assistance of Irina Holzen and her team at Heim Aviation. I know I have been, probably, Heim’s worst client throughout these last few years, placing impossible demands on their research staff as they mainly struggle to keep our air forces equipped and ensure that, rather than the curiosities and whims of the nobility, your hard-earned crowns are spent on protecting our borders. But Dr. Holzen and her team entertained my whims and I would hope that the sterling performance of the First Special Air Squadron is proof the money spent on my little project was not wasted.

Please, Dr. Holzen, do not be embarrassed. You and your team provided the Empire with a superlative aircraft.

If this is not enough to reassure you, let me promise this. Within a year, I will not be the only man in the Empire flying a Valon VF1. The Induction Engine will not be the sole preserve of one wealthy idiot, it will revolutionise air travel across the entire Empire. I have offered thousands of crowns of my own fortune – yes, a portion of which was won off you fine ladies and gentlemen at these very card-tables – to help Heim mass-produce the technology. And this is with the guarantee that we will see Induction-propelled passenger aircraft connecting world capitals. That our skies will be defended by a new generation of fighter aircraft.

We stand on the edge of an aviation revolution, one that I have tasted the potential of. None of you will understand – have been able to understand – exactly what the Valon VF1 brought to the table in this war. But again I point to a war record without compare. More aircraft downed to date than any other pilot in Prenzeran history could manage in the same time period.

But enough on the grand strategic influence that Dr. Holzen currently holds. None of you are here to talk budgets, or discuss the future of this empire’s infrastructure. There will be time enough for that in the doubtless interminable meetings my father is to hold. You came here on the expectation that I would charm you with some intriguing anecdote about my time in the desert, so without further prevarication let me tell you a little about a particularly fine mess I ended up in.

I would like to think my arrival at Armir Aerodrome was a particularly welcome one not simply by my bringing another six fresh, top of the line aircraft to the frontline, but because as anyone would expect from me I brought alongside them a few cases of rather excellent wine from my father’s cellar. As any of you who have enjoyed His Majesty’s company can confirm, the Castle of Keys’ wine cellars are expansive and well-provisioned. Now to a pilot, the usual festivities surrounding a new arrival are a raucous and highly-anticipated – in a fashion – affair. There is the opportunity to show off one’s own record and challenge – in friendly fasion – the potential of the new arrival. And, despite my high station, I was happy to join in this good-natured competition. Something I am sure you consider platitudinous is the idea that there is brotherhood in arms that transcends class; you all talk of it in your drawing-rooms, I am sure, but would still not precisely want to see your offspring serving alongside scholarship students to the Imperial Academy. That said I met an exceptionally charming girl from the provinces at Novis Eger, a scholarship student but more able than a number of the other officers I met. But that’s a different story and I’m not sure it’s one General Clausell would care to see repeated.

So, to the matter at hand. My arrival at Armir was followed by a reasonable meal enlivened by a particularly good 1919 vintage and some local dancing and the telling of good stories about the men I and my unit were to replace. It could not even be soured by the arrival of a message from Novis Eger informing us there was to be a job the following morning. That morning, I availed myself of coffee and, feeling human again, took to the skies doing some general patrol-work, which is where the interesting part of this begins. It started out as me, Schwarzer and Hartmann, but we hadn’t reached the front when Hartmann turned back saying his engine was misfiring. Schwarzer and I continued, and we ran into a Meravian reconnaissance flight headed out towards the border towns. The poor saps hadn’t encountered a VF1 before, or probably a Heim ‘twenty, and we did for them incredibly quick. I doubt many of you fly, so let me tell you there’s nothing like the sensation of diving from cloud-height onto an unsuspecting prop-type and seeing it fold in half as you fire. I let Schwarzer have the kills, the lad needed a few notches so to speak, but while he was doing the necessary I had my eyes on the next target. Off on the horizon, a bit across the line, I could see a strengthened patrol just looking for trouble. Full-strength, of course, which for the Meravians was eight birds. We could take them.

Now, in a straight flat race even a ‘twenty can’t keep up with the VF1 once I open up the engine, but the faster I’m going the less able I am to react to, say, another half-dozen Meravians dropping from the clouds behind me. Now that‘s a fine mess.

Schwarzer drops altitude like I taught him and loops back round towards the border-towns, hoping there’s going to be some machine guns or double-A waiting to help, but I’m, well, I’m offended by what’s just happened. Fourteen versus one – even fourteen versus two – isn’t sporting odds.

This is the part where a cockier bastard than I – and I wish to stress both my infinite modesty and absolutely legitimate birth here – would say they’re bad odds for the Meravians. That the should have sent twenty-eight, or forty-two planes against the great Matthias Valon. No. Fourteen was plenty enough for one day.

I said the VF1 could outrun anything they fielded. It could also, if it put its mind to it, out-turn and out-climb any of them. If the damn thing is working.

I said I wouldn’t puff up Dr Holzen any more this evening but I would like to say anyone who can design an aircraft that can out-fly a Meravian fighter patrol and put the wind up them while it’s leaking oil and losing that agility with every minute because a pipe burst in the rudder controls deserves a much higher salary. So I was looking at the gauges, and seeing that before long my plane wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as it should be, and realised what I needed to do was seem threatening. So I put up a hell of a lot of sound and fury, downing one of the Meravians double-quick, but didn’t exactly push it. Even when you’re holding back the VF1 can twist and jump like you’ve lit a firework underneath the pilot’s seat, and I sure as hell flew every fancy maneuver I knew to make them think this was the real deal, this was Matthias Valon flying out ahead and the rest of the Green Blaze Squadron would be following close behind.

It sort of worked, anyway. I got home, didn’t I?

But if you can believe it that wasn’t the end of this whole mess. I’d been dancing about so much with this damned damaged rudder that by the end of it, when they decided they were done trying to down me, I didn’t have a bloody clue where I was.

Now I’m sure any of you who do fly, or have talked to pilots not in my situation, know that when you’re lost you follow a road. There aren’t roads in the desert, or not exactly useful ones. A railway would probably take me to the capital, or deep into enemy territory. So I had a look for buildings, and eventually come upon something that looks like a hangar. And indeed it is, except every damned machine-gun and double-A piece is opening fire because it’s only a bloody Meravian forward observation post. So I turn tail, in not exactly my finest hour, and fly as fast as the bird will let me back towards what’s probably home.

Sure I didn’t land at the right airfield, and I put the fear of God into the poor mechanic I set to fixing a bird he’d never seen before, but just as I’m heading off to find some proper second breakfast – which is a vital part of early jobs – there’s suddenly fire-bells ringing all over the place and people running the hell away from my bird. Apparently there’s an ammunition cook-off inside it.

Now I knew I’d used all my bullets trying to scare off those Meravians, so I’m wondering what the hell they’re on about.

Well, you know I mentioned I brought a few cases of wine? I’d forgotten to unpack the bloody champagne last night. Awful waste.”

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