fully lit, and she made no attempt to conceal her position from their guest. As a counter to his arrogance, she wished him to be fully aware that his presence did not intimidate them. It was simply another angle of the psychological side of warfare that she had been taught in spec-ops.

The small ship rolled to a stop, its engines winding down as its systems vented unknown vapors. The ship had a long, cylindrical fuselage resembling a flattened cigar, with short stubby wings and a pair of tail-mounted engines. She had numerous maneuvering ports located all about her fuselage, but from what Jessica could see, the ship was unarmed.

A small boarding hatch about a meter aft of the cockpit windows suddenly swung downward, becoming a boarding ramp complete with small steps that folded out automatically as the hatch fully deployed. A slender man in his mid-thirties, with jet-black hair and a melodramatic goatee, stepped out through the hatch and looked about. He immediately saw the four weapons pointed at him from either side of the bay and assumed a submissive posture, his hands forward and held up, for all to observe their emptiness. “I carry no arms,” he announced. “I pose no threat to you.”

“Keep your hands up where I can see them, and we’ll have no problems,” Jessica instructed confidently.

The man looked at her for a moment, finally deciding that she was not the type that would have a problem pulling the trigger of her weapon if necessary. “As you wish,” he agreed, holding his hands up even higher and farther away from his body as he continued down the step ladder. “Please do not harm me. I am here at the request of Jalea Torren. She is with you. Is she not?”

“She is,” Jessica replied. The man continued toward her. “That’s far enough,” she added with more urgency. “Hands up on your head, please. Stay perfectly still, and everything will be fine.” Jessica rose from her cover and headed toward him, gesturing to Enrique to do the same. Weatherly and Holmes both stayed back, ready to cover the two ensigns should things turn bad.

Suddenly, the hatch to the man’s ship closed of its own accord, causing Jessica to stop in her tracks. “I told you not to move!” she warned.

“I did not. I assure you!” the man assured her. “It was automatic.”

“Is anything else going to move… automatically?” she asked, her weapon trained on his face.

“No, nothing. My ship was only securing itself.”

“Search him.”

Enrique approached cautiously and began patting him down, searching for hidden weapons.

The man looked surprised by the pat-down. “I assure you I am unarmed, as promised.”

“A girl can never be too careful,” she mused. The man returned her smile, recognizing her sarcasm.

“Indeed,” he answered. “I suppose you will now take me to see your captain?”

“Right this way,” Jessica instructed, gesturing for him to follow her partner.

Tobin Marsh strode confidently into the briefing room. Upon spotting Jalea, he extended his arms, taking her by the shoulders and giving her a polite kiss on each cheek as he spoke words that in their language were surely a charming and polite greeting. Their initial pleasantries concluded, she turned to face Nathan and Cameron, both of whom were standing on the opposite side of the table from them.

“Tobin Marsh,” Jalea began in English, “may I introduce Captain Nathan Scott and Commander Cameron Taylor of the Aurora.”

“It is my distinct pleasure to meet you both,” Tobin greeted in proper, although considerably accented English. His accent, although similar to Jalea’s, was somehow different. There was something a little less proper about his syntax, despite the fact that he was obviously trying very hard to speak perfect Angla, as they called it. “I trust my unorthodox arrival did not give you too much cause for alarm,” he added, casting a side-long glance at Jessica, who stood against the wall on the same side of the table as Nathan and Cameron. Tobin reached out his hand in greeting, shaking first Cameron’s and then Nathan’s.

“Yes, your style seemed a bit aggressive,” Nathan admitted politely. “But as we are new to this region of space, we tried not to attach undue significance.”

“You are? Of this I was not aware.” Tobin’s curiosity was evident. “From what region do you hail?”

Nathan could see the look of warning coming from Jessica’s eyes as he spoke. “Let’s just say, for now, that we come from quite far away.”

“Really? Now you do have my interest, Captain. Is your origin really such a secret?”

“We’ve only just met, sir. And for the time being, where we are from is not related to the services we seek. Unless, of course, knowledge of our origin is a condition of your service. If this is the case, we will not waste any more of your time.” Nathan was surprised at how easily both the statement and the appropriate body language he used to indicate his intent to depart the room had come to him. After all those years of watching his father in the political arena, apparently some of those skills had rubbed off on him.

“It is not a condition, Captain,” Tobin explained. He too was comfortable at such negotiations, showing no undue reaction to Nathan’s statements or posturing. “It was merely a curiosity, for which I apologize.” Tobin bowed his head in a polite gesture of concession to Nathan, indicating that he would yield to Nathan’s requirement for secrecy as to their point of origin. “Now, tell me, Captain. What services might you seek?”

“These people are in need of many things,” Jalea began. “Primarily a place of refuge where they might make repairs to their ship, as well as the procurement of food, and perhaps some supplies.” Jalea gave Tobin a stern look with her next statement. “And these services should be… discreet.”

“Yes, yes, as you said in your original message. These things are not difficult to provide,” Tobin assured them. “Especially in the Haven system. Discretion is why people come here, after all. However, as providing such services could put me at considerable risk, I would need to know exactly whose attention you wish to avoid.” Tobin smiled, knowing that on this point he could stand firm.

“We have had some unexpected, and unprovoked I might add, trouble… with a certain government,” Nathan explained.

“Yes. I observed the damage to your ship as I approached. It was quite a bit of trouble, it appears. I assume this government is the same one our friend Jalea here also does not have good relations with?”

Nathan found it amusing, in a disgusting sort of way, that negotiations, even on the other side of the galaxy, were still the same. “That would be a safe assumption.”

“I see.” Tobin stroked his goatee as he pretended to consider the request. Nathan knew full well that he would provide the services they were requesting. Tobin would not have flown for more than a day in a small ship had he not intended to conduct business with them.

“Then, you can provide these services?”

“Yes, Captain. I believe we can come to an agreement.”

“And what compensation do you require?” Nathan did not want to be surprised later.

“Please, Captain. I am only here because I have a life debt to not only Jalea, but many of her people as well.”

“No offense intended, Tobin. But surely, there must be a way for you to receive some sort of compensation. It seems only fair since your debt is not owed to us.”

“You understand me only too well, Captain. I can see that you are a man wiser than your years.” Tobin smiled again. Nathan decided not to speak further, waiting instead for the other shoe to fall. “You are correct. There is a way in which we can all come out ahead in this… situation. Tell me, Captain, how much has Jalea told you about Haven?”

“I’m afraid there has been little discussion about this system. We’ve been a bit busy the last few days. Perhaps you’d care to enlighten us?”

“Surely.” Tobin leaned back in his chair before beginning. “Haven is a refuge of sorts. It is a place where people, and ships, that seek safe and discreet harbor may come. It is also a center for unregistered trading, if you will, in various commodities.”

Nathan leaned toward Cameron as Tobin continued to describe his world. “Must be the space pirates you spoke of,” he jeered under his breath. Cameron rolled her eyes as Nathan turned his attention back to Tobin, who had not even noticed his sidebar.

“And it’s possible for us to hide there, even with so many ships in the area?”

“Haven’s primary business is the harvesting of her vast ring systems. There is only one planet in the Haven system, a gas giant with many moons. Haven City, and the only spaceport in the system, is on one of those moons.

Вы читаете The rings of Haven
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