Sweet Starfire (Lost Colony #1)

Chapter 16

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“Well, you’ll have plenty of time on this trip to fool with your hair. How’s the head?”

“Better.”

“Good. With any luck no one will find those two fake guards for a whole day or two. They won’t have any ‘gesics to help with the headaches.” There was a certain distinct satisfaction in Severance’s voice.

Cidra looked up at him as her hair loosened beneath his touch. “Fake guards? They didn’t represent port security at Lovelorn?”

“No more than I represent a convention of Saints. Good ID, though. I’m not surprised you bought their story. And they must have had some good connections too. It’s not that easy to get hold of an official mail ship bypass.”

“Why were they trying to steal your cargo?”

“Those sensors we’ve got on board are one of a kind gadgets. The latest designs out of ExcellEx labs. The company wants them shipped to their exploration post on Renaissance.”

“I’ve never heard of ExcellEx.”

“It’s a small outfit run by a tough little guy who left one of the big exploration companies a few seasons ago to start his own firm. His name’s Quench. He’s shrewd, and he’s willing to slit throats when necessary. I’ve handled a few private shipments for him lately. He seems satisfied. If he can get ExcellEx up and running within the next three or four seasons, he’ll own one of the hottest exploration companies in the system.”

“And you’ll be one of his most trusted mailmen. He’ll give you the most lucrative runs. Maybe even employ you full-time so you won’t have to scrounge for shipments.”

Severance showed his teeth. “Nobody ever said Harmonics aren’t as fast as everyone else when it comes to figuring out a business deal.”

“Harmonics have to be fast at analyzing business situations,” Cidra informed him demurely. “If they weren’t, they’d get eaten alive by unscrupulous Wolves.”

“They seem to do all right. Where do you think the phrase ‘rich as a Saint’ comes from? I don’t know of too many poor ones, except perhaps for the young ones who are still doing research or perfecting their art and music.”

Cidra shrugged and instantly regretted it as the pain flared back to life in her head. Severance was right. The Harmonics participated in the freewheeling business practices that dominated commerce throughout the Stanza Nine system. Clementia produced and marketed the results of scientific research, as well as fine art, poetry, and music that thrilled the senses. Wolves were a ready market for the talents of Clementia. But when it came to business, Harmonics couldn’t rely on the customary goodwill of the general population. Agents who were Wolves, themselves, were used for the often fierce negotiating that took place when a Harmonic product went up for sale. Her own father had made a sizable fortune selling sophisticated investment strategies. Constructing and analyzing complex economic models of the wide-ranging commerce of the worlds of Stanza Nine was a hobby for Gam Oquist. He was a mathematician by training and inclination.

Cidra considered what she had just been told. “So someone else wants those sensors?”

“Looks like it. Since they’re supposed to be top secret, that presents an interesting problem.” Severance finished untwisting one long braid. He drew his fingers down through it slowly. There was an oddly preoccupied expression on his face as he watched the red highlights hidden in Cidra’s hair come to life in the thick stuff.

Cidra, herself, found it difficult to maintain a casual conversational tone as she asked, “If the sensors are so valuable, why weren’t they shipped out on a commercial freighter under company guard?” Instead of answering right away, Severance began to work on the second braid. This time his hand seemed to be almost resting on her breast as he began unwinding the strands. And when he spoke, Cidra heard a new harshness in his voice.

“In addition to the fact that it costs three times as much to ship that way, Quench wasn’t sure it would really buy him any protection. There’s no method of keeping that kind of shipment secret. He was hoping that if he sent the sensors with me on a normal private mail hop, no one would notice. It was a risk, but that’s how you make good credit.”

“Well, someone did notice.” Cidra began to breathe again as Severance’s fingers moved upward. A part of her felt strangely disappointed, but another part was appalled at her own sensual curiosity. She had been so sure she had outgrown the very un-Harmonic desire for physical knowledge that had tormented her socially as a young girl. “Do you know who?”

“Who knew the shipment was traveling with me? No. I have no idea.”

“Those men who came into the ship…”

“Were probably mercenaries. No telling who hired them.”

“What did you do with them?”

“Stuffed ‘em into a storage locker outside the terminal at Lovelorn.” He finished his self-appointed task and sat back on his haunches to survey the effect. Cidra’s soft red-brown hair flowed in a cape over her shoulders. He stared at it for a moment, and then his eyes shifted to catch her questioning gaze. “They’re lucky I didn’t leave them with something more permanent than a killer of a headache.”

The coldness in him reached Cidra in a wave, chilling her to the bone. For the first time since she had left Clementia she allowed herself to remember that murder was not an unheard-of crime among Wolves. A movement around her ankles broke the spell. Grateful for the small interruption, she turned her head to see Fred undulating into a more comfortable position across her legs.

“Fred was quite a hero. You should have seen him go after that one guard,” Cidra said with a weak smile.

Severance’s attention stayed on her profile. “I saw what he did to the renegade’s leg.”

“I wondered earlier if Fred might bite. I guess I know now.”

“He did a little more than bite the bastard. Fred’s got three layers of teeth. When he starts chewing on something, he makes a real meal out of it.” Severance stood up beside the bunk. “Think you’ll be okay?”

Hastily Cidra nodded. “My head is much better, thank you.”

Severance leaned forward, his face suddenly very intent. “It wasn’t Fred who was the hero. He was only acting out of instinct. You were the one who had to go against some fairly strong conditioning to try to stop those two renegades. I know Harmonics normally don’t get mixed up with safeguards. I owe you, lady.”


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