and your people are able to haul away you are welcome to divide however you wish.”

Tobin’s eyes widened slightly at Nathan’s surprising offer. “That is very generous of you, Captain. Might I inquire as to how long you intend to remain in our system?”

“Only as long as is necessary to obtain the supplies we seek. To remain longer would be… unwise.” Nathan smiled.

“Very well then, Captain. It appears we have an arrangement,” he stated, standing and offering his hand to seal the deal.

“It appears so,” Nathan agreed, shaking Tobin’s hand.

“Might I inquire as to how long it will take your ship to reach Haven?”

Nathan turned to look at Cameron. “About seven hours,” she told them.

“I understand that you have a transponder for us to use?”

“Yes. Once installed, it will identify you as a Volonese cargo ship,” Tobin explained. “They are varied and not uncommon in this region of space. Even if inspected visually, it is doubtful anyone would become suspicious. And if they did, Volon is sufficiently distant that verification of your identity would take far longer than your planned stay in our system.”

“And how long will it take to install this device?”

“Less than an hour, I would expect. I will require the assistance of one of your technicians.”

“I’ll see to it,” he assured Tobin. “Jalea, would you please take Mister Marsh to Engineering. I will contact the chief engineer and let him know you’re coming.”

Jalea nodded, rose, and led Tobin out of the room, again with their armed escort trailing them. Once they had left the room, Nathan turned to Jessica.

“You don’t have to say it,” she said before he could speak. “I’ll make sure they’re both under constant scrutiny,” she promised on her way out.

“Thanks.” Nathan turned to Cameron. The look on her face told of her disapproval of his plan. “I know, Cam. I’m not crazy about it either. Just tell Abby to always have an escape jump plotted and ready, just in case.”

“You bet,” she agreed as she rose to exit.

“We’ll get underway just as soon as that transponder is installed and working.”

“Yes, sir,” she half-heartedly agreed as she headed out of the briefing room. “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So do I,” he admitted. Nathan leaned back in his chair and let out a long slow breath. His mind was racing at the thought of what lie ahead. Only days ago, they had left Earth on what they thought was a routine training cruise. After an unexpected string of events, they were now stranded a thousand light years from home, in a busted up ship, with only a fraction of their crew-and they were almost out of food. And they still had no idea how they were going to get home. At least now, however, they might not starve to death.

“Perhaps the code you entered is not working?” Vladimir was frustrated. They had been attempting to get the transponder provided by Tobin to work with the Aurora’s navigational beacon for over an hour, and he was beginning to lose his patience with the alien technology.

“It will work,” Tobin insisted. “It will just take time. Your ship is still well outside the system. At this distance, it will take several hours for the signal to reach Haven, and then for the confirmation signal to travel back out to us.”

“And why do we need this device?”

“All ships entering the system must register with the system controllers. This requires you to spend several hours in port undergoing thorough inspections, creating trader accounts-it is all very involved and would not serve your need for discretion. This device will identify your ship as belonging to a small company that occasionally comes to harvest the rings. When they receive the signal from this transponder, the controllers will simply log you into their tracking system, tallying up charges as you conduct business within the system. No one will ever give you a second glance.”

“Charges? We have to pay charges? What happens if we cannot pay?” Vladimir wondered. He was pretty sure there were no funds to speak of on board the Aurora.

“That would not be wise,” Tobin warned. “The family that currently controls Haven is not known for their forgiveness.”

“How did you get this device?”

“Anyone can purchase a transponder,” Tobin explained. “It is the codes that are difficult to acquire without going through the registration process. Luckily, I know the right people, in the right places.” Tobin smiled.

“It is that easy?” Vladimir wasn’t sure he believed everything the stranger was telling him.

“I did not say it was easy,” Tobin corrected. “But Haven offers many things, if one knows where to look.”

Vladimir also smiled, as he realized that no matter where you went, there was always a black market of some kind. Apparently it was no different in this part of the galaxy.

“I believe everything is in working order,” Tobin assured him as he punched in a code. Upon pressing the last key, the display on the device went blank for a moment, and then a single word appeared. It was in bold and flashed three times before becoming steady. But it was in Angla, which although similar in its spoken form, used some odd variations in characters.

“What does that mean?” Vladimir asked.

“The device is now locked,” Tobin announced nonchalantly.

“Locked? In what way?” Vladimir was not sure he liked the sound of that.

“Unless the code is locked, it will not appear to be valid to the controllers.”

Vladimir still did not like the idea of anything being locked. But Tobin’s explanation made sense. “How will we know it is safe to proceed?”

“When your ship approaches Haven, if you are not attacked, you will know.”

Vladimir looked at Tobin, his eyes wide and his brow raised in doubt.

“Do not worry, it will be fine. I have done this many times,” Tobin assured him.

“I’m sorry. I do not mean to doubt you. It just seems too easy.”

“Yes, of course. But you must understand, the family does not really care if you are who you say you are. They only care that they get paid. As long as they receive their compensation, they will not question your identity.” Tobin chuckled. “Corruption has its advantages.” Tobin stood, satisfied that the installation had been completed. “You may tell your captain it is now safe to enter the system.”

“Bridge, Engineering,” Vladimir’s voice called over the comm-system.

Nathan stood beside the communications officer, who was still using the port auxiliary station until the regular comm station at the rear of the bridge was repaired. He gestured to the comm officer to open the channel before he spoke. “Yeah, Vlad. Go ahead.”

“Nathan, the transponder is installed, and I am told it is working properly. Tobin says we can get underway whenever we are ready.”

“Very well. Bridge out.” Nathan turned back toward Jessica, who was standing at the tactical station. “Any contacts in the area?”

“Not since Tobin arrived,” she answered.

“Kaylah, is that thing transmitting?” Nathan asked Ensign Yosef, the science officer who had been manning the sensors for the last few days.

“Yes, sir, it is. Regular pulses, wide band, omni-directional. However, that signal will take several hours to reach Haven, sir.”

“So we’ll arrive shortly after the signal does?”

“Yes, sir, by a few hours, depending on our approach velocity.”

Nathan turned to look at Jalea, who was standing at the rear of the bridge, near the port entrance. “Can they see us out here?”

“I do not believe they regularly scan this far beyond their own borders. They would have no reason to do so. And even if they did, a single ship this far out would be difficult to spot. Especially one that is not moving.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t look like we’ve just been sitting out here all this time,” Jessica added. “It might look suspicious.”

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