Whew. At this point Gaston's going to win the war for us!
Raine - Great storytelling as always, and congratulations on the promotion!!
Harry - Fantastic introduction to the new man. Looking forwards to more!
As for myself, I'm a little lost at where to go with Fullard's tale. I didn't quite expect "Michael", personified by the AI wingman, to go West so quickly.
Adj. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Americaine' Behonne Aerodrome, France.
June 5th, 1916.
I ate my breakfast quietly at the dining table. The mood was irritatingly tense - it was the first time in three days that the men of the Escadrille had seen me outside of my room. Grief came first, then anger. Anger at the damned Bosche, anger at Michael, anger at the world at large. For those three drunken days, locked in the solitude of the shellshock that my room had become, Lemoine’s hip-flask and its cheery inscription had become my closest friend. Yesterday, however, I had resolved that, for Michael, I had to keep on fighting. I reversed our places. Had I crashed and died, would Michael lock himself away in a tomb of pity? No. He would show the Bosche his fury. With that realisation, I retrieved my tunic from where it had laid in a heap on the floor of my room, pulled the discarded sheets back onto the bed and made it, and emerged.
Understandably, some of the pilots had grown mistrustful of me. Not as a person, but as a flight leader. They thought I was no longer capable. It was a bitter feeling. But in my head I had a new determination, borne of the confused anguish. I would become that pilot Michael, Victor and I had dreamed of becoming at the G.D.E. Pilots such as Garros, Navarre, Voscadeaux, Nungesser.
The rain beat heavily against the windows of the villa, and we looked doubtfully up at the grey, overcast sky when Capitane Thenault arrived in the dining hall. “There will be no flying today” he told us calmly, before circling to the left of the table to find his seat. As he passed me, he clapped me on the shoulder once. Bert Hall leaned back in his seat, his impish face contorting into something resembling a smile. “Well, in that case, I’m off into town! I betcha those Caudron drivers from Escadrille 13 will be there, and they are lousy at cards. I’ll be coming back rich at the end of the night, boys!”.
Norman Prince chuckled. “A trip to Chalons for the day? I’m game. Say, Bill, you coming?”. Thaw grinned and nodded, as Victor Chapman and Chouteau Johnson voiced their agreement. Thenault drew himself up. “So, it is settled. We’ll spend the day in Chalons!”. James McConnell held his hands up. “Not me. I’ll stay here. I have some letters I need to write”. There was a collective groan, as Hall shouted out “Prude!”. Excitedly chattering among themselves, the pilots came up from their seats and begun moving towards the door. Clyde Balsley, the shy little Texan, paused beside me. “You should come with us, James” he said quietly, with an awkward smile. I nodded in agreement. “Okay, Clyde. I’ll come along”.
Bill Thaw, De Laage and Victor Chapman rode with Thenault in his car, while the rest of us piled into the back of an old Ford. I studied them, excitedly chattering. At Michael’s funeral, they had been the picture of misery, shock, heartache. For the first time they had lost a comrade. But, they refused to wallow in that feeling. I suddenly realised that this was the way to go on - to live to the fullest for those who couldn’t.
Even in the rain, Chalons-en-Champagne was a beautiful town, dressed in the elegant French architecture I had come to love. Through its centre ran the river Marne, which rocked and swelled in the inclement weather. We stopped off in its main square, overshadowed by the City Hall, its domed roof glistening with rain. As we piled out of the truck, we deliberated on our first course of action, eventually splitting our separate ways. I went with Kiffin Rockwell and Alfred De Laage to a small Cafe just off of the town centre, in which a few Escadrille pilots were having their lunch. As we took our seats and the waitress came out to serve us, I caught a French pilot staring at us. As I turned to face him, he exclaimed “tu n'es pas Francais!”. “Non. J’suis Americain”. The pilot’s face lit up. “Oho! You are from the American Escadrille?”. Rockwell swelled with pride. “We are!”. The Frenchman pulled up his chair to our table. “Is it true that you have the new Nieuport?”. Rockwell nodded. “Yes, we have one or two Nieuport 16s. Very fast, but too nose-heavy for my liking”.
“Non! Not the Nieuport 16! The Nieuport 17!”. We looked at each other in puzzlement. “Nieuport 17?” I asked, and the pilot’s eyes gleamed. “Mais oui! The finest machine ever built! It has the same engine as a Nieuport 16, but the airframe is different, and it is not nose-heavy at all! She can manoeuver just like a [i]Bebe, but she is better in every other respect. I had heard that Les Americaines had been sent some of the first ones!”. De Laage laughed out loud. “Mon Ami, if we had such a machine the war would have been won yesterday! I should very much like to fly one of these Nieuport 17s”. He then turned to us. “Say! Tomorrow we should ask for an early patrol and afterwards take a trip to Le Bourget! I bet there we could fly one!”. Rockwell promptly agreed, and the two looked at me expectantly. For the first time since Michael’s death I smiled genuinely. “Sure. What the hell. Let’s do it”.