The planet’s rings are full of all manner of ores, minerals, and water ice. And the planet’s atmosphere is rich in many useful gases as well. Ships come from all over the quadrant to fill their holds with the resources harvested here, for which they pay a duty to the powers that control this system.”

“So there’s a government of sorts here?” Nathan was a bit concerned about the possible complications that might arise due to the presence of a local government.

“I wouldn’t call them a government, Captain. It’s more of a family business, so to speak. However, I would advise you to treat them with much the same respect that you might give to any legitimate government, if you understand my meaning.”

“Of course.”

“As far as hiding your ship, it is simply a matter of getting you authorization to harvest the rings like any other ship. As long as you have a proper transponder that identifies your ship, no one will give you a second look, I assure you. And there are so many ships traveling in and out of the rings on a daily basis that anything you do, short of armed combat, will go unnoticed.”

“And how does this arrangement benefit you?”

“Ah yes.” This brought a sly grin to Tobin’s face. “If you indeed intend to procure additional supplies from Haven City’s lucrative markets, you will need something of value to exchange. No offense intended, Captain, but your ship does not appear to be one that carries great wealth. While you are posing as a harvesting vessel, I will provide you with a harvesting team from Haven. They can use your ship as a staging platform from which to conduct harvesting operations. Some of the harvested materials can be used to purchase the supplies that you need, and some can be kept by you for your own purposes. And of course, some will be used to compensate the workers themselves, as well as a modest fee for myself, in exchange for acting as your intermediary.”

“I see,” Nathan responded. He looked at Cameron and Jalea. Neither of them offered any indication for or against Tobin’s proposal. He was afraid to look at Jessica, as he knew how she would feel about bringing more strangers on board. “Well, it is a very interesting offer. I trust you will not be insulted if I ask for a few minutes to discuss it with my staff?”

“Not at all, Captain. Not at all.”

“Thank you.” Nathan turned to Jalea. “Would you mind taking our guest for a stroll? We’ll contact you when we’re ready to speak further.”

“As you wish, Captain.” Jalea rose from the table and headed for the exit.

“I will await your decision, Captain,” Tobin announced as he stood.

“I’ll try not to keep you waiting.” Nathan offered a sincere smile as Tobin and Jalea left the room, one of the marines following them out the door. Nathan held one hand up, indicating for Jessica and Cameron to wait until after the door closed before speaking.

“Okay, let’s hear it,” Nathan said after the door closed.

“I don’t trust either one of them,” Cameron stated.

“Well that goes without saying,” Nathan agreed, leaning back in his chair. “But we have to do something. We can’t just sit out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“Why not?” Cameron asked. “Not forever, of course. But why can’t we just sit out here and fix everything we can before we move on? It’s safer than flying into that system full of who- knows-what.”

“What are we going to do for food, Cam? We’re down to nuts and dried fruit. And we’ll be out of that in another day or two.”

“I don’t know, Nathan. Maybe there’s something we can trade for some food. Maybe have this Tobin character ferry something out to us.”

“I don’t think that’s what he has in mind. He’s obviously angling for a larger score here.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m afraid of,” Cameron insisted.

Nathan turned to look at Jessica. “Well, you’re awfully quiet. Surely you’ve got something to say about all this?”

Jessica, who had been leaning against the wall the entire time, stepped over to the table and sat on the edge, turning to face the two of them. “Look, the whole setup stinks, there’s no doubt about it. But I don’t see as we have much choice. We need food. We need supplies. But more importantly, we need intelligence. And a hell of a lot more of it than Jalea is willing to dole out. We’re not gonna jump or blast our way back to Earth. We have to think our way home. And to do that, we need to know exactly what we’re up against. And that means we can’t just hide out here in the void. We have to bump elbows with the locals. We have to interact. That’s the only way to gather reliable intel.”

Nathan looked at Cameron. “She’s right, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.” Cameron was obviously frustrated. The situation they were about to fly into was full of unknowns, which was something Cameron did not care for. “I just wish we knew more beforehand.”

“I think that’s the point she’s trying to make.” Nathan turned back to Jessica. “So what do you propose?”

“We need boots on the ground. Our own eyes and ears soaking up as much intel as possible.”

“Are you proposing you go down to the surface?”

“I’m proposing we go down there. Along with some backup, of course.”

“Me? Why me?” Nathan was a bit shocked that she had suggested he go with her.

“Well, you seem to have a knack with negotiations. You’re good with people. But you’re not that observant of what’s going on around you.”

“I’ll try to work on that,” he promised.

“That’s where I come in.”

“You’re assuming he has room for all of you in that little ship of his,” Cameron pointed out.

“Well, if he doesn’t, I’m sure he can find one that does,” Jessica said. “It doesn’t sound like we’re gonna be too far away from this Haven place.”

“Then we’re agreed,” Nathan said, looking at each of them. It was obvious that Jessica was in agreement. It was equally obvious that Cameron was not.

“Sorry, Cam. Two against one, you lose,” he smiled. “Call them back in,” he said to Jessica.

“This isn’t a democracy,” Cameron reminded him, a scowl on her face. “You’re the captain. You don’t ask for a vote.”

“Hey, gimme a break. I’m new at this, remember?”

Moments later, Tobin and Jalea returned to the briefing room, their escort in tow. After routine pleasantries were exchanged, Nathan spoke. “We’ve decided to accept your offer, Mister Marsh. But there are a few conditions.” Tobin gave no indication that he intended to speak, so Nathan continued. “First, all personnel that you provide shall be restricted to the hangar deck, without exception. Anyone caught off the hangar deck will be forcibly detained, at a minimum. Second, all activity on the hangar deck will be closely monitored by armed personnel who will have standing orders to use deadly force if necessary.” A stern look came over Nathan’s face. “In this there can be no negotiation. We are in unknown space. And by your own description Haven is not exactly a safe place, especially for strangers such as ourselves. I trust these conditions will be acceptable.”

“Of course, Captain. I understand your need to maintain the security of your vessel. Especially considering your recent governmental entanglements,” he put delicately.

“And lastly, if there is room in your vessel, a few of us would like to accompany you to the surface, to take a look around, so to speak.”

This did cause a reaction from Tobin. “Captain, you yourself just acknowledged that Haven is not the safest of worlds, especially for strangers. Going there does not seem worth the risk at this point. Haven can be a very dangerous place.”

“I suspect we’ll be able to handle ourselves should something unexpected occur. But I appreciate your concern.”

Tobin could see that Nathan was adamant in his desire to visit the surface of Haven and decided it was best not to press him on the issue. “As you wish, Captain. I can accommodate up to six passengers in my ship. However, due to the space restrictions, I would suggest waiting until you are in position within the rings of Haven before transferring to the surface.”

“Of course,” Nathan agreed. “And as for your compensation. We are only interested in whatever portion of harvested resources are required to pay for what supplies we are able to procure while on Haven. Anything else you

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