long we’re going to be out here or how often we’re going to have an opportunity like this.”

“Anything else?” Cameron asked, taking notes on her data pad.

“Yeah, Vladimir wants to go down and check out the local black market for useful technologies.”

Jessica had not been paying close attention to the conversation, until Nathan mentioned the black market. “Whoa, that might not be such a hot idea,” she warned. “Black markets tend to be fairly dangerous places to hang out. At least on Earth they are. And Vlad doesn’t seem like the right personality type to work the black market-too friendly and outspoken, you know?”

“He wanted to bring the rebel engineers with him as guides. He seems to have a lot of confidence in them.”

“I don’t know about that either,” Jessica warned. “I haven’t really dealt with them all that much. But if they’re anything like their lady friend, I wouldn’t trust them any farther than I can throw them.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Nathan admitted. “But the more I think about it, the more I think that Vlad is right. With their understanding of both the local technology and our own, they would be invaluable down there. Maybe it’s worth the risk?”

“Is there even room?” Cameron asked.

“Well, there’s only room for six passengers, according to Tobin. So maybe we leave some muscle behind?”

“No way,” Jessica insisted. “I’d rather take the muscle than some shifty rebel.”

Nathan was a little surprised by her characterization of the rebels, but he understood her point. He had selected her as his interim security chief because of her training in such matters, so he felt it best to heed her advice. “Very well, you keep your two guys. I’ll have Vladimir bring only one of the rebels with us.”

The comm-system buzzer sounded. “Captain, Bridge,” the communications officer called.

Nathan stabbed at the comm with his finger. “Go ahead.”

“Captain, communications. Incoming message from Haven Control, sir.”

“Very well, call Jalea and Tobin to the bridge. We’ll be there shortly.” Nathan broke the connection before continuing. “Then we’re settled on this?” Jessica shrugged in resignation. Cameron simply nodded. “Great. Let’s go see what Haven Control wants.”

Nathan, Cameron, and Jessica filed out of the ready room and onto the bridge just as the communications officer put the incoming message up on the loudspeaker.

“Volander, Volander, Haven Control, please respond.” The message continued to repeat, with the exact same cadence and tone, making Nathan wonder if it was a recorded hail. He was about to respond when Jalea and Tobin entered.

“Captain,” Tobin interrupted. “Perhaps it would be best if I spoke with them?”

Nathan looked at Jalea, who nodded, and then Jessica, who shrugged. “Very well,” he agreed, stepping aside.

Tobin stepped up to the communications station, waiting for the comm officer to indicate the channel was open and ready.

“Haven Control, this is Volander.”

“Volander, why was your response delayed?” There was a sense of urgency in the controller’s voice that worried Nathan and Jessica, both of whom were standing close by.

“Apologies, Haven, but our deep-space communications array suffered damage in transit.”

“Volander, state you reasons for approach.”

“We seek to harvest from the rings, and to procure supplies from your local merchants.”

“Understood. Will you require local crews?”

“Affirmative, Volander shall require local crews.”

“Understood. Transmit your desired quotas and we will assign you a harvesting position.”

“We will transmit our quotas shortly. Volander out.” Tobin turned to face the captain. “That should do it.”

“Who’s Volander?” Jessica asked.

“The ship that originally used the codes entered into your transponder. It was reported missing many months ago.”

“What’s this ‘quota’ they were asking for?” Nathan inquired.

“They wish to know the amount of material we plan to harvest from the rings, in order to calculate the fees that will be due them upon your departure. A few hundred kilotons is a common amount.”

“Seems like a lot,” Nathan observed.

“Too little, and they will be suspicious as to your true intentions. Too much, and your fees will be difficult to pay,” Tobin warned.

Nathan was uneasy with the whole arrangement. He was sure that Tobin was getting far more out of the deal than he had let on. Nathan figured, for now, it was best to play along. He looked over at Jessica, whom he guessed was thinking the same thing. “Very well, transmit the amount you think best.”

“Tell them our quota will be three hundred kilotons,” Tobin informed the comm officer before turning back to Nathan. “That should take no more than a day or two to harvest, process, and sell on the surface to pay for your supplies.”

“Can we up the amount later if we needed?”

“You may, but it would probably raise undue suspicion.”

“We’re receiving navigational instructions, sir,” the comm officer reported.

“Feed them to navigation, Ensign.”

Cameron went to the navigation station and began plotting a course change. “They’re sending us to a fairly dense part of the rings, Captain. Not too far from the Haven colony moon itself. Should be a pretty good place to hide out for a while.”

“Very well. Take us in, Cam.” Nathan turned back to Tobin. “So how’s this going to work, again? You’re going to bring up some workers or something, and they’re going to work from here?”

“No need for concern, Captain. Very few ships that come to harvest the rings bring their own harvesting equipment and crews. There are many teams available for hire on Haven. They will bring their ships and workers here. The harvester will collect material from the rings and bring it to your hangar deck. There it will be off-loaded, sorted, and repackaged. Some goes to your hold, some goes back to Haven where it will be sold to pay for your supplies, as well as the workers doing the harvesting. It is quite common, and we get ships from all over the quadrant. The material in the rings is quite rich with precious metals and water ice. It is a unique and rare combination, as you will soon see.”

Nathan nodded his understanding. “Are we all set?” he asked Cameron.

“Course plotted and ready.”

“I’ll take us in,” he insisted. “You go and take a break. Get something to eat. You’re going to be in command while I’m gone, so this may be your last chance for a break for some time.”

“Okay. Then I’m headed for a shower and a meal,” Cameron announced as she headed out.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Jessica agreed. “I think I’ll do the same.

“Actually,” Tobin interrupted. “Where we’re going, being too clean might attract attention. It might be best if those going to the surface refrained from bathing until they returned.”

“Okay, good to know,” Nathan said.

“If there is nothing else for now, I will prepare my ship for departure,” Tobin announced, stepping back towards the exit. He waited for any objections, and once satisfied there were none, spun around and headed out the door.

Nathan looked at Jalea, who had been silent the entire time. “This all sound about right to you?” he asked.

Jalea looked puzzled by his phrasing for a moment until she deduced his meaning. “This is the way it is usually done in this system,” she assured him. “As long as we do nothing to attract attention, I do not expect any difficulties.”

Nathan nodded his understanding, as Jalea also turned and followed Tobin out.

“I wish I was as confident about this plan as they seem to be,” Cameron muttered as she passed. “Come on, Jessica. Let’s go get something to eat.”

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