Sweet Starfire (Lost Colony #1)

Chapter 21


Severance lifted his dark brows. “It’s a possibility. It’s more likely that they were working for a rival of ExcellEx, though. I’m going to collect good credit for the delivery of those sensors, but I don’t think it’s enough to get killed over. The shipment has great value to an exploration company in competition with ExcellEx but not to another mailman. I’ve carried cargo that’s paid better than those sensors will.”

Cidra decided that she would not ask what that cargo had been. “All right, I think I understand the scope of what you want done. You’re going to go into the private post business in a big way. Hire other pilots to work for you. You want to create a computerized inventory system, a payroll system, a general information and retrieval system for business and scientific data, and a personnel file.”

“Those are the basics. I want to offer a professionally operated service, one companies and individuals can count on instead of having to take their chances with the schedules and the personalities of whatever independent postman happens to be in port at the moment.”

“Don’t the commercial freighters already offer that alternative?”

“They’re inflexible. The ships are limited to the biggest ports, and they don’t offer door-to-door delivery anywhere. And they aren’t willing to take risks for a single patron. The reasons the independents stay in business is because they make it a point of honor to do whatever it takes to deliver the mail. My goal is to maintain the versatility the independents offer but add the elements of reliability and dependability.”

“What are you going to call this empire?”

“The same thing I call it now. Severance Pay, Ltd.”

“That name doesn’t allow equal billing for any partners you might decide to take on in the future,” she pointed out.

He gave her a hard look. “I don’t plan to take on any partners. I had one once. Once was one time too many. Severance Pay, Ltd. is all mine and it’s going to stay all mine.”

Cidra smiled. “Another Wolf on the prowl.”

“Anything wrong with a little ambition?”

“Of course not. Our whole economy is based on ambition, although I don’t think your idea of ambition qualifies as ‘little.’”

“Stanza Nine is a big system, Cidra. Lots of room to operate for a man who’s willing to work hard.”

“And you’re willing to work as hard as it will take to build this kind of business?” She held up her hand. “No, forget I asked that. I can see the answer is yes. I do have one other question, though. Most of the systems you want designed from scratch could be purchased already set up and running. Why create your own?”

“I don’t want a system anyone else uses or understands. I need something tailored to the way I operate, something unique. I realize that for things like the payroll package I can use the fundamentals of a commercial design, but I’d rather start from the bottom. I can handle changes and modifications to the programs, and anyone with a decent education can program a Conny, but the basic design of a new system is something else. It takes a special kind of ability, a special way of thinking.”

“It takes someone who’s been thoroughly trained to think both logically and intuitively.” Cidra felt some of her earlier assurance slip away. “You’d be better off hiring a true Harmonic, Severance. This is the kind of thing they do so well.”

“It’s also the kind of thing for which they’d charge more credit than a miner could pull out of QED in a year. I can’t afford a true Harmonic, Cidra, but I seem to have someone on board who thinks she’s almost a Harmonic. Someone who says she wants to work for her passage. Give me two weeks’ worth of basic design work, Cidra, and we’ll call it even.”

She gave him a knowing glance. ‘Typical fast-talking Wolf, h will be a little more than even if I give you what you want. You said yourself that this kind of design work costs. I’m not familiar with your postal rates, but I have the feeling that what you want would cost you a great deal more on the open market than the price of a passage to Renaissance.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t exactly an open market, is it? You’ve said you want to pay your way. This is what I need. It’s the only option I’m offering at the moment. Take it or leave it.”

Her head came up proudly. “I’ll take it, of course. I’ll do the best I can for you, Severance. You have my oath on it.”

“The oath of a true Harmonic is solid credit,” Severance mused. “But you’re not quite a true Harmonic, are you?”

Cidra fought back a rush of anger. She had spent her whole life learning to moderate her emotions. She would not let this Wolf upset the careful balance she worked so hard to maintain. “No, Otan Severance, I am not a true Harmonic. Until I am, you will have to trust me.”

“That’s asking a lot,” he drawled. “I make it a practice not to trust anyone completely.”

“I’m aware that among Wolves trust is always a grave risk.”

“I suppose you trust your friend Mercer in the Archives?”

“He’s a Harmonic,” Cidra reminded him calmly. “I trust him absolutely.”

“But you wouldn’t think of trusting a Wolf that way, would you?”

Was he deliberately goading her? Cidra turned back to the computer. “No more than you would. If I am to design the fundamental approaches of the systems you want, I had better get started. Two weeks is not very long for this kind of task.”

“Work hard, Cidra. I want my credit’s worth.”

Cidra bit back the retort that jumped into her mind. Taking firm hold of the intense concentration the Harmonic educational system had bred into her, she immersed herself in the monumental job Severance had assigned. It would take a lot more than two weeks to do it properly, but she was determined to give him as much as she could. She would not have any Wolf saying that she had tried to cheat him.

Severance worked beside her, describing his needs in detail and explaining the idiosyncracies of the Consac Four-ten system. Their conversation became businesslike and efficient, but by the time Cidra was ready to break for a meal, she had a new image of Teague Severance. He was a man with a goal, and he was willing to do whatever it took to achieve it. A part of her understood him on that level. She had her own goals. But Cidra couldn’t help wondering what Severance would be like by the time he had built his dream. His ambitions were the sort that gave free license to a Wolf’s most competitive, combative instincts. The worlds of Stanza Nine provided the kind of anything-goes, make-it-any-way-you-can atmosphere that encouraged people such as Severance. But an unrestrained Wolf was a dangerous creature.

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