“The Righteous Stuff” – Chapter 6September 18, 2009
The Righteous Stuff
by Jeffrey D. Waggoner
based on characters and situations in the
“Domination of the Draka” novels written by S.M. Stirling
DOMINATION OF THE DRAKA
Newly-minted Centurion Augustus Jaeger strode up to the glossy mahogany main doors to Robert McPherson’s main house as the sun touched the horizon. At least, they called it the “main house,” probably to distinguish it from the three guest houses on the plantation grounds. Any one of the three was larger than Jaeger’s father’s home in East Africa, and the mansion was large even by Draka standards.
Jaeger stopped for a moment before entering the house, turning and looking back over the grounds. There were at least fifty autosteamers on the grass or on the brick driveway; another twenty or so had been parked further down the drive as Jaeger walked up to the house. It was most likely a very large party, and everyone who was important in Syria province would be there.
Jaeger tugged self-consciously at the collar of his dress blacks, took a deep breath, and walked past the stiff-backed doorserf into the foyer. In keeping with the oversized dimensions of the house, the entrance seemed large enough to play polo in. It was also completely empty, both of people and of furnishings.
“Hello? Is anyone theah?” Jaeger took a few steps inside onto the marble floor, looking around.
“Down on the far end, suh,” said the serf who manned the door, almost causing Jaeger to jump. “They-all be waitin’ for you there.”
I guess I’m just a little nervous, thought Jaeger. It is my first formal party, after all.
Robert McPherson stood just inside an ornate pair of hand-carved wooden doors, greeting his guests as they entered. He was a big, florid-faced man, in his mid-fifties, with thinning sandy hair and light blue eyes. He was dressed in a very conservative tuxedo, with a minimum of lace on the cuffs and with only a single ruby earring in his left ear – but the ruby was about a centimeter and a half in diameter.
Jaeger was always less confident around big men. While he was strong, and wiry, he hated looking up at someone. McPherson seemed to be an extremely confident man, and he had every reason to be; he was fabulously wealthy, even by Draka landowner status; he was a decorated war hero, and he seemed to move in circles most Draka citizenry could only dream about. It had been said that Robert Angus McPherson was one of a handful of men who could tell the Archon what to do, and Jaeger could believe it. While McPherson was smiling, shaking hands, patting friends on the shoulder, all the while talking in a low, sincere voice, he simply radiated power and privilege. Jaeger found himself drawn toward the man in spite of himself.
The light blue eyes turned on Jaeger and seemed to search though to the back of his head.
“Centurion Jaeger, isn’t it?” McPherson said in a remarkably soft voice, oddly free of the usual Draka drawl. He had very little need to speak louder; the room, while floored in marble, only contained about fifty people when it could easily hold three times that many with comfort.
“That’s correct, suh, Augustus Jaeger, Air Forces, currently attached to the Research Division at Odenathus, suh,” said Jaeger, with as little tremor in his voice as he could muster. “Ah really appreciate havin’ the opportunity to attend, suh.”
“We’re glad to have you, Centurion. I’ve watched your progress with the Inkanyamba project. It’s a stone bitch to fly, I assume.”
Jaeger’s eyes narrowed. How to set this up, so I don’t step on myself. “Well, suh, it’s a high performance aircraft. Mebbe the highest-performance we have. When y’all fly somethin’ that fast, and that maneuverable, bad things can happen when the slightest thing goes wrong. It’s mah job ta see what those slightest thing are, and if ah can stay alive in the process, so much the better.”
McPherson chuckled. “Well said, young man. I see why your superiors are so happy with your work, even if you rarely bring a prototype back in one piece!” Before Jaeger could respond, he turned him by a light touch on the shoulder, and pointed at a cluster of low couches in a far corner of the room. “Why don’t you stop over there first, this evenin’. There are a number of younger people like yourself over there, including my daughter, Lillybeth. I’m sure you will enjoy yourself more with them than with the old gray-headed folks like me!”
“Suh, as ah said, ah’m just delighted to be heah. Ah certainly will go seek out your daughter an’ present mah respects.”
McPherson clapped him on the shoulder. “Do more than that, young man! They ah extremely bored here, ah’m sure, and would love to hear of your exploits! You would be doin’ me a great favor!” He turned away, greeting another guest, leaving Jaeger with no recourse except to continue moving in that direction.
The young people were sitting on three overstuffed couches upholstered in muted greens and golds. The couches were arranged in a U shape with the open side away from Jaeger as he approached. Three young women sat on one, two young men on another, and a couple sat close together on the center couch, facing away. Jaeger walked around to the open side just as they burst out in laughter.
“An’ then he ran away, the sissy,” a thin blond woman hooted, clapping her hands. She looked to be about twenty, with her long, straight hair done up on the top of her head. She was wearing a dress that seemed to be all ruffles; a frilly, frothy thing in light blue. She had a straight nose and chin, with a profile that could be called sharp. Jaeger thought she would age into a fierce, haughty woman much like his mother’s friends from the African plantations.
The others laughed with her. The blond girl stopped laughing and turned toward Jaeger with a somewhat predatory look. “Excuse me! And who do we have heah?”
“Augustus Jaeger, Centurion, Domination Air Forces.” Not knowing the real age or marital status of the young woman made it hard for Jaeger to be as gallant as he wanted to. How to refer to her? Or to the rest? He had too little experience with people close to his age who were not wearing a uniform. “Ah’m lookin’ for Miz Lillybeth, if y’all can point her out to me.”
The girl on the center couch spoke up. “That would be me, Centurion. I am Lillybeth McPherson.”
She was sitting back on the couch, ankles crossed demurely. The man next to her had his right arm around her shoulders, somewhat possessively, Jaeger thought. He was tall, definitely over Jaeger’s height by centimeters; he was dark-haired with heavy brows. He seems broad-shouldered and muscular, but not fat. Jaeger wondered briefly if he could handle himself in a fight, then turned to the girl who had spoken.
Lillybeth McPherson was not a short woman herself. Even seated, Jaeger assumed she was at least as tall as he was, if not taller. She, too, seemed about nineteen or twenty. Her auburn hair was pulled back with a blue ribbon, and she was wearing a floral print party dress. She smiled up at him, but made no effort to stand or even offer her hand.
Maybe the customs really are different here, or maybe they’re all testing me, Jaeger thought. Jaeger looked directly at her, focusing on her dark green eyes, and, trying to keep his voice level, said, “I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, mistis. Your father thought I might be entertainin’ to you and your friends.”
“And you might jus’ be, Centurion Jaeger.” She gestured at the others. “This bunch of deadbeats are all tellin’ me the same stories ah’ve heard over and over anyways. By the way, that brayin’ donkey ovah theah is Lucy Winters. Next to her is her ‘friend’- though we all know what she means by that – Francis Mackenzie. The man-killah is Frannie’s sister, Sarah. An’ that-there is Jack Steuben and Billy Winters, he havin’ the misfortune of bein’ Lucy’s baby brothah. And this…” she leaned her head onto the man’s shoulder “…is Thomas Allen Baird.”
“Nice to meet y’all. You from around heah?” Jaeger directed his question at Baird, but he knew the answer from hearing his name.
“No, ’course not. My family’s from Archona,” he said calmly.
Yeah, and you don’t have to say your father is head of the Tesla Electrical Combine, Jaeger thought. One of the three or four most influential men in the Domination, assuming your thought the current Archon was influential. He wasn’t, always – not as influential as John Allen Baird. As the Domination increased in size and population, the need for radio and televisor communication was increasing dramatically. Baird’s factories were turning out thousands of family radio systems that were often the only lifeline new plantations had with the outside world. They also manufactured hundreds of models of military radios, from the handheld models used by Draka infantry to the versions installed in almost every plane Jaeger tested. They were also manufacturing televisors, but they were too expensive for most plantations to own, as yet. Jaeger didn’t doubt that there were likely several such sets in this plantation house, however.
“Sit down, Centurion, please,” purred the younger Mackenzie. She slid up onto the arm of the couch and patted the spot she had just vacated. She had a clear, pink complexion and raven-dark hair, arrayed in curls that could have been natural, or just very skillful and expensive artifice. She looked to be in her late teens, with minimal makeup, tastefully applied. “Tell us some stories. It’s jus’ soo borin’ here lately. Ya’ll been in combat, hey?”
“I’ve seen some combat, yeah, but Ah’s test-pilotin’ now, workin’ out at Odenathus. In a bit of trouble, lately, that’s for certain-sure. Kinda broke a pretty expensive airplane the othah day.”
“A test pilot!” Sarah Mackenzie clapped her hands. “Why, you must be much braver than these layabouts!” She waved at the other young men seated on the couches, all of whom glared at her. “Billy, he did his two years on a coastal monitor ship, off Angola. Never even saw a submarine! And Jack, he…”
“…was injured in trainin’ and just got out of a support job, here in Syria,” Steuben interrupted. He frowned out from under heavy brows at the young girl, who ignored him completely.
“So what’s it like, flyin’ such dangerous planes?” She almost batted her eyes at Jaeger, leaning over at him, making sure he knew of her obvious interest in him.
Just ’cause she’s a bored rich girl, and I might be amusin’ for a bit, he thought. Well, we’ll just see. “Well, y’all know that experimental planes crash about half the time…”
“Thanks for comin’ to our little party,” Lillybeth said at the door, as other partygoers passed them going out, paying their respects to her father. She was free of Baird for a few moments for the first time all evening. He seemed bored by the formalities of the goodbyes, and had wandered off for another drink as the party began breaking up. He had had little to say, all the way through the evening; he mostly just glared at Jaeger as he entertained the others with stories of his exploits on the Front and as a test pilot. Clearly Baird was concerned that Jaeger would be some sort of competition, thought Jaeger thought that was simple paranoia. Perhaps he thought Lillybeth was only interested in him because of his father’s position. From what Jaeger had seen of him this evening, there was little other reason to be seen with him. He was rich, young, and good-looking, but as a MacPherson surely the young lady had no problem finding appropriate suitors, even in a relatively unsophisticated place like Syria Province.
“Ah’m very glad Ah was invited, and thanks for all the hospitality,” Jaeger responded, looking appreciatively down at her. She still looked as fresh as she did hours ago. Easy, boyo, y’all know ya have a better chance of flyin’ back to the barracks from here than gettin’ that one interested in ya, he thought.
She took both his hands for a moment and smiled. “Perhaps y’all could come back sometime, when it’s quieter, and we could really talk.”
Hmm. Y’all playin’ with fire, boy. “Why, certain-sure, Miss Lillybeth, if your father approves.”
She laughed, a light, musical sound. “Ah don’t think he would be too happy, ’cause he wants me to be some kinda business merger, but he knows Ah have mah own mind!”
Jaeger felt his heart suddenly pounding in his chest, something that didn’t even happen that much when flying untested aircraft or being shot at. “Ah will call on you next weekend, if it’s all right. Ah will certainly call first.”
“Oh, Gus, don’t be so damnably formal!” she lightly swatted at his chest in mock-seriousness, then chuckled. “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry. Ah just really enjoy talkin’ to someone who isn’t mostly concerned with parties and mergers and government all the time.”
“Goodnight, Lillybeth. Ah really enjoyed this evening.” Jaeger knew he had to pull away from her quickly, now, before things got completely out of hand. He walked out the huge main entryway doors and down the marble steps, then turned around on the drive and looked up. She was standing in the driveway, waving, just like it was a motion picture scene. “Next Sunday,” he said to himself. “Fly the planes all week that could kill you, then walk into a house where people could kill you faster on your day off. You’re just a little centurion, and these folks—they can make the Archon sit up and beg.” He returned the wave, then walked down the drive to his motor-pool-issue steamer.