“Have I ever failed you, Desma?” Severance held out the package he had retained when the rest of the mail had gone into temporary storage at the terminal.

“Never. It’s one of the things that makes you so wonderful.” She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek in a motherly fashion, and then she smiled at Cidra. “Otanna, you are most welcome. You honor my home.”

The formal greeting was a soothing balm on Cidra’s ears. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed the small, socially comforting rituals of Clementia. Although she was no Harmonic, this woman obviously knew the ceremonies. With a sense of gratitude Cidra inclined her head.

“You are most gracious, Otanna Kady. I thank you for your generosity, and I regret the inconvenience of my sudden arrival.”

“The inconvenience is as nothing. Please do not regard it.”

Severance stepped in before Cidra could follow up with the next formal statement. He must have remembered that this could go on for a long time before a ritualistic conclusion was reached. “That’s enough, both of you. Desma, this is Cidra Rainforest. She’s not really a Harmonic; she just looks like one because she was born and raised in Clementia. A clear-cut case of an overeducated female. Cidra, meet Desma Kady. She’s another female with a lot of education. Mostly in the biological sciences.”

Cidra made some quick connections in her mind and then once again inclined her head, this time adding the nuance of deep respect. “Of course. Desma Kady. A most distinguished specialist in the field of bioluminescence. I read your last monograph when I was preparing to enter it into the Archive computers. The one on the Rigor Mortis Mantis.”

Desma laughed in delight, dropping the formality. “That’s me. The lady who works with bugs that glow in the dark. Where did you find Severance?”

“In a tavern,” Cidra said honestly.

“That doesn’t surprise me. What were you doing in the sort of place he’d hang out in?”

“Looking for transportation to Renaissance.” Cidra smiled proudly. “I’m a member of his crew.”

Desma flashed a quick glance at Severance. “Is that right?”

“She’s on a crew contract, Desma, not a convenience contract. Mind if we go inside? It’s hotter than a miner’s temper out here.”

“You don’t want to come into the lab. It’s no cooler in there.” Desma looked at Cidra. “Have to keep it at normal Renaissance temperature and humidity. The bugs like it that way. Let’s go to the house.”

She started off, leaving Severance and Cidra to follow her next door to a smaller, company-built structure that looked much like all the other standard-issue, company-built housing Cidra had seen in Port Try Again. The structure was the usual octagonal design, the rooms inside cut up like pieces of a pie under a convex roof. Deliciously cool air awaited beyond the invisible electronic grid of the deflector screens used to keep out small, flying insects. The invention of the screens was one of the technological advances that had made the exploration of Renaissance possible. When they were constructed along larger, heavy duty lines, the deflectors were capable of warding off most Renaissance wildlife. Huge networks of the screens protected the perimeter of Try Again.

“How long are you going to be in Try Again this time, Severance?” Desma led her guests into a wide, wedge-shaped seating area and punched up a selection of cold drinks from a serving tray. She motioned Cidra to sit down.

“I’m figuring five or six days. Long enough to find a few good shipments to take to some of the company outposts I’ll be hitting later.” He shrugged, helping himself to a mug of iced Renaissance Rose ale. “Maybe I’ll get lucky and pick up some mail for QED. We’ll be leaving Renaissance in a couple of weeks.”

“Did you want to stay with me while Severance is running around in the jungle, Cidra?” Desma leaned back in a chair and crossed her legs at the ankle as she sipped from a glass of fruit juice.

“Oh, no,” Cidra assured her quickly. “I’ll be going with Severance when he makes his trips to the outposts. I agreed to a crew contract with him because I want an opportunity to visit as many places as possible.”

“Off to see the Stanza Nine system after all those years stuck in Clementia, hm?” Desma was amused.

“Not exactly,” Severance answered in a flat voice before Cidra could respond. “She’s looking for something. Something she thinks will let her go back to Clementia as a full-fledged Harmonic. Waste of time, but she’ll probably learn a lot en route. Cidra’s bound and determined to expand her education.”

Cidra flushed under the thinly veiled derision. She was getting used to Severance’s remarks regarding her quest, but she was embarrassed that he would make them when others were present. “You must forgive him, Otanna Kady. His manners appear to be very unformed at times.”

“I know,” Desma said easily, ignoring Severance’s scowl. “I’m used to it. Don’t be embarrassed for him.”

Severance stood up without any warning. “I’ll let the two of you dissect my character in private. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got to find the local rep for ExcellEx and get his sensors off my hands. Cidra, you’re to stay with Desma until we’re ready to leave Port Try Again.”

“I understand, Severance.”

His glare intensified at her meekness. “And stay out of trouble.”

“Yes, Severance.” She deliberately made her voice even gentler and more acquiescent.

Severance seemed briefly undecided about what to say next. Finally he turned to the older woman, who was watching the exchange with barely concealed amusement.

“Thanks, Desma. I appreciate this.”

“Anytime, Severance. Anytime, that is, that you turn up with an intelligent, well-mannered houseguest. I’m sure it won’t happen often.”

“Sweet Harmony. Why is every female in sight picking on me today?”

“Probably because you make such a good target,” Cidra offered far too politely. When he swung around to confront her, she smiled her most brilliant smile. “Have a good time, Severance. I’ll be here when you’re ready to leave.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of.” He stalked to the door and disappeared into the glaring heat. The deflector screens hissed faintly as he passed between them.

A long, speculative silence pervaded the cool room. Through the window Cidra could see nothing except the row of octagonal houses and lab buildings across the dusty street. The street shouldn’t have been dusty. It was paved with an impermeable membrane that was almost as tough as the triaton and diazite of the structures. But there was a general grittiness in the air that hung over the entire town.