This Year Again, We Meet at the Round Table
-Alistair Vermilion, 13 years old-
As the engine of the Vassar 2.0 roared to life in the open hangar, I felt the hot air from the exhaust blow away the soothing ocean breeze. This was going to be the second test flight, hopefully the first successful one. The first test flight that I had conducted last year ended with a disastrous spiral into the ocean; the steering system malfunctioned mid-air, forcing me to eject and do a time-consuming ocean salvage operation.
However, this time would be different. Not only had I fixed the error in the steering system, but using a book on aerodynamics I had bought in Japan, I had completely overhauled the wings and nose cone for less drag. Surely this iteration of the Vassar would be capable of flight for extended periods of time with a higher speed and maneuverability than Redjuve’s steam airships.
Climbing into the cockpit, I felt a sense of pride as I gripped the two flight sticks. Everything in this machine was of my own design, so everything was to my satisfaction. Although it was true that the only thing I had been doing for two years was the construction of this robot, it was still a miracle to me that I had completed it by my lonesome.
As I stepped down on the gas pedal, blasting out of the hangar into the open blue sky, I felt the g-forces hit me like a steam locomotive, hurling me against the firm seat.
Urgh… Maybe I should replace the seat cushions with something softer…
Flying over the ocean to get out of the view of the island, I found myself unable to resist the urge to attempt tricks in mid-air. “You only live one time”… or something like that. Besides, I could crash in the ocean relatively safely with my implemented safety measures.
What did the aerobatics manual I bought say again? Gain speed before pulling the stick back to go vertical?
Yanking back on the flight sticks, the Vassar’s nose began to point upwards until the ocean disappeared out of sight. All that was left in view was the disorienting, horizon-less blue sky, dotted sparsely with clouds. Before I could gasp in shock at the unfamiliar sight, the Vassar began to complete the loop, flipping a familiar scene upside-down to put the ocean above the sky to confound me once again.
...I’m never doing that again, I thought to myself as I righted the Vassar, breathing in deeply to try and combat the nausea from having my vestibular senses thrown for a loop. Who knew aerobatics would be so stomach-churning?
Now that Redjuve was out of sight, it was time to test out the transformation mechanism. Letting go of the flight sticks for just a moment, I pressed a button in the middle of the control panel.
Click-click. Click-click. Whoosh… Thunk. Pshhhh… Thunk.
Sparks flew and steam hissed as the steel frame of the Vassar folded and shifted to change form. The wings folded inwards, leaving the role of staying aloft to the engines, now on the soles of the robot’s feet pointing downwards. For a moment, I clenched my fists tightly in fear that the transformation sequence would get jammed, but my fears were unfounded. Just a moment later, the cockpit clicked into place, completing the change into a humanoid form.
Once again, I gripped the flight sticks and let my feet rest on the pedals. Maneuvering the humanoid Vassar felt natural - it was as if it were an extension of my body itself. In mid-air, I hovered back and forth, testing the articulation and balance systems.
“I knew it - the engineers at the Clockwork Palace could never do something like this,” I said to myself. Succeeding in this test flight vindicated my view that the Palace was working with antiquated technology; they were stuck to their old ways, using steam engines so they could use a variety of fuels, even when we could acquire gasoline in trade.
Speaking of fuel… I glanced over to the fuel meter, expecting to still have a substantial quantity. Instead, the fuel was alarmingly low. My heart began to race; would I have enough gas to make it back to the hangar?
Only one way to find out…
Turning around in the direction of Redjuve without going through the transformation sequence again, I slammed the gas pedal to go full throttle. The scenery around me began to blur, the horizon disappearing as the lighter blue of the sky began to melt with the darker blue of the ocean to produce a beautiful gradient.
“COME ONNNNN!” I shouted against the g-forces pushing me into the seat. As the fuel meter began to dwindle rapidly, Redjuve came into view - but I was at too low an elevation to make it into the hangar. However, I couldn’t just land it anywhere; not only were there no other safe runways on this side of the island, but I could not risk any of the island’s engineers finding me. My only choice was to fly upwards and hope that I would be able to just barely make it onto the hangar runway with the remaining fuel.
Even though I had just vowed to not do any more aerobatics a couple of minutes earlier, I now found myself forced to jerk the flight sticks back, flying upwards at a steep incline. Once again, the ocean disappeared out of view as the horizon sank below the nose cone. The island grew larger as I approached it at top speed, and, with the fuel tank near empty, I braced for impact. I abandoned all hope for a smooth landing; I would have to slide onto the runway, possibly damaging the humanoid Vassar’s landing gear.
Finally, the fuel meter hit the bottom, and the engine began to sputter. Thankfully, I had made the right choice, and the Vassar’s trajectory was near perfect. I pushed the two flight sticks forward, and the Vassar held its arms out in front to provide a crumple zone for impact.
The metal feet of the Vassar ground against the concrete runway of the hangar, sending sparks flying across the workshop. One of the wheels on the landing gear, squeezed between the ground and the hydraulics, broke away forcefully causing the Vassar to lurch violently. With a thunderous bang, the outstretched hands of the Vassar collided with the back wall, the shock traveling through the machine’s frame and knocking the wind out of my lungs.
Ugh… there’s no way the castle staff didn’t hear that… I hope they dismiss it and don’t question me about it…
As the cloud of debris settled, I exited the shattered cockpit and climbed down the (thankfully) relatively undamaged legs of the Vassar. Inspecting the results of the crash, this would be a pain to clean up; not only would I have to sweep up all the concrete wreckage, but the arms of the Vassar were now mangled. They would need to be completely replaced. The glass panels of the cockpit would need to be refitted with something that broke into less dangerous shards, and the landing gear required an upgrade. All of this would probably take at least a couple of months, not to mention repairing the hangar wall… or maybe not. Maybe I could keep the massive crack in the wall as a reminder of my engineering mishaps.
A pang of searing pain ran across my forehead. Reaching up to touch it, my fingertips returned stained with the unmistakable crimson red of blood, definitely from the cockpit’s glass shards. Yet another thing for the maids to pick up on; I forgot to sneak a first-aid kit into the hangar, so I would have to visit the infirmary.
Anyway, the wreckage would be something to clean up another day. I didn’t have the resources on hand to make any progress on repairs, and leaving the cut untreated would be a bad idea. For the time being, I grabbed a scrap of cloth I used for cleaning panel lines on my plastic models and tied it tightly around the wound. In just a moment, I felt a bloody spot begin to spread across the quickly improvised wrap.
“... Young master, how did you even get this wound?” The head nurse, Wilford, clicked his tongue as he removed my makeshift wrap and replaced it with clean gauze.
“Let’s not talk about that,” I replied.
The infirmary was empty as usual - it would be cause for alarm if it weren’t. Redjuve didn’t have a military, as a pacifist nation; thus, a full infirmary meant a massive disaster had occurred in the Royal Engineering Research facilities.
Wilford sighed as he opened a drawer, pulling out a tin of ointment and a handful of adhesive bandages and handing them to me. “Are you sure you’re taking proper safety precautions when tinkering with your machines?”
“I promise you, I am. It was a malfunction, nothing more.”
“Alright, run along then. You don’t want to be here if some poor Royal Engineer gets a cut on his hand and comes in here, seeing you in the process.”
Leaving the infirmary, I speed walked for a while to get as much distance from it as I could. After all, the cover story was that I was studying; if the staff found out I was wounded and near the infirmary, they could suspect that I was partaking in activities that were not meant for the royalty. Thankfully, Wilford had been sworn to secrecy about everything, so he was in on the secret. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be friends with him, for obvious reasons.
I arrived at my room and quickly shut the door before any of the maids could see me. Looking in the mirror, I pulled my goggles and hair down over the wrap so it was no longer visible.
Ahhh… how should I go about cleaning the mess up? I thought to myself, lying down on the bed without taking off my shoes.
Obviously, I would have to clean the rubble away first, and detach the mangled arms before they became a safety liability. However, the massive crack in the hangar wall would be impossible to fix; I couldn’t simply hire a construction company to fill it in or replace it. Could I just slap a steel plate over the crevice and secure it with bolts? Would that be structurally sound?
Next was the issue of repairs; there were a lot of improvements I would need to make. For one thing, the landing gear would need to be able to deploy faster, so a landing like the one that happened earlier today wouldn’t be a fire hazard from metal-on-concrete friction. The windshield glass upgrade was a simple matter; I could get the material through the purveyor that had been assigned to me. I could add shock-absorbing mechanisms to the new arms I would have to create, just in case.
Lastly, fuel efficiency would be a headache to tackle. I didn’t think the Vassar would run out of gasoline that quickly; my methods of increasing efficiency must not have worked properly. None of the mechanics in Redjuve could help me, nor could I ask them in the first place. It would have to be up to the engineering manuals I got from Japan again; I wondered if I had somehow missed something in my first couple of reads. Would it be possible to seek out a top-class engineer in Japan for advice next year?
“Yes? Who’s there?” I hollered in the direction of the door.
From the other side came the muffled voice of Elizabeth. “Young master, I have a note for you from His Majesty.”
“Leave it in front of the door, please.”
I dragged myself off the bed to grab the memo, Elizabeth having already left before I turned the door handle. All the note read was “I have the report ready.” Not something I expected only a month after returning from Japan with Fior’s proposal; Father worked faster than I thought.
Father’s office, which he rarely used since he was often out-of-country, was on the other side of the castle, so the walk I had ahead of me was scenic. As I strolled down the hall looking past the arches and pillars into the heart of Redjuve, I noticed some sort of celebration going on in the city square afar. Colorful balloons were released into the air, floating up and bouncing off the steam airships harmlessly before disappearing into the sky. Moments later, some sort of large gadget was wheeled out on a cart, and the crowd moved back to give it space.
It unfolded into something larger and began moving around, although I was too far to see what performance it was putting on for the bystanders. What wasn’t too far for me to observe, however, were the deafening cheers from the crowd as the machine finished its routine.
Wilford talks with the Royal Engineers often… Maybe I should swing by in a week to see if he knows anything about that…
“Blast it!” shrieked a shrill voice somewhere to my front and right. A gaunt man wearing gaudy purple attire rounded the corner from Father’s office into the hall in front of me, followed by a short and squat man wearing an unreasonably tall hat. The two of them walked in a huffy manner, with the man in front biting his nails.
“How do you do, Duke Westoff?” I greeted the man in front, startling him.
“Oh… it’s just the young prince. You had me scared there for a moment. I’m fine, thank you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have more important matters to tend to.” He said to me with a fake smile on his face before quickly stepping past me, the short man waddling behind him after shooting a glare at me. As the two of them walked briskly down the hall behind me, I could hear Duke Westoff mutter expletives along with the words “that damn King”.
Well, that was weird…
Arriving at Father’s office, I found him smoking from a pipe while wearing a frowning expression. Spotting me, his face quickly switched back to one of business, and he motioned for me to take a seat.
“So, Alistair. After much consideration, the Kingdom of Redjuve will be partaking in these trade negotiations with the other worlds - the Deniev Empire and the Chartreuse Kingdom, correct?”
I had already expected this; if Father had decided to refuse to conduct trade, his notice would have come much earlier. Instead, on his desk sat a stack of papers, which presumably was the “report” that Father had mentioned in his note.
“If you don’t know already, Redjuve’s specialty products are our technology - many countries seek our automation, transportation, and communication technology.” Noticing the blank look on my face, he squinted and continued speaking. “...You have been reading the study materials I asked the maids to give you, right?”
The factoid about Redjuve’s exports was news to me because, in fact, I had not started reading the study materials. I had procrastinated on opening the paper because of the salvage operation from the first test flight, as well as the repairs and upgrades.
Inferring the truth, Father sighed and picked up the stack of papers on his desk, handing them to me. “Typically, we deliver already-manufactured products to our customers, and I believe that would be ideal in this scenario. However, the gate to Japan opens into the back alley of a restaurant; delivering our products would raise some eyebrows, which we cannot let happen.”
Confused, I pointed at the stack of papers. “So, what’s this, then?”
“Well, if we can’t deliver finished products, then all we can do is give them the instructions on how to construct the products, as well as operation manuals. That stack of papers is an organized catalog of technologies that I’m willing to exchange with them. You said one of the kingdoms mines a lot of metal, correct? You’d do well to negotiate with them for metal, as we have to import most of ours at high prices.”
It was too much information for me to absorb at once, knowing nothing about economics or trade. Stiffly, I bowed and left the office. Behind me, Father resumed smoking from his pipe, before shouting down the hall. “Make sure to actually read that guide on economics and trade!”