Jessica turned to follow Cameron out. “That’s gonna be a long, smelly shuttle ride,” she said.

“Let’s go try out some of those meal kits they retrieved,” Jessica suggested as she caught up with Cameron in the corridor. She had grown tired of the nuts and dried fruit just like everyone else on board. Jessica noticed Cameron’s expression. She usually had a serious look on her face, but her current expression was more serious than usual, even for Cameron. “What’s bugging you?”

“I’m worried about your trip to Haven,” Cameron admitted.

“Piece of cake, boss. We swoop in, do a little shopping, ask a few strategic questions, and then haul-ass outta there. Standard tourist op,” Jessica assured her.

“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Cameron told her. “It’s Nathan. Or more specifically, it’s Jalea. I don’t like the influence she seems to have over him. I don’t trust her.”

“Well, duh. Who does?”

“He does,” Cameron stated.

“No, he doesn’t. At least not as much as you think,” Jessica insisted. “He’s just playing along with her, seeing where it takes us. He’s not as gullible as everyone thinks he is. He’s actually pretty good at reading people.”

“Yeah, I know he is. But he also tends to act too quickly, without thinking things through first. And from what I’m hearing, Haven is not the kind of place where you want to be acting impulsively.”

“Not to worry, Commander. I’ll have his back the whole time.” Jessica looked at Cameron, who said nothing. “Seriously, Cam. This is what I do, okay? He’s not going down there alone, you know. He’s going to have two spec- ops, a marine, and an ex-ground-pounder backing him up.” Cameron looked at her with a puzzled look on her face. “Oh, you didn’t know? Vlad spent four years in greens before he got into the academy. So you see, you’ve got nothing to worry about. If any trouble starts, Haven won’t know what the hell hit’em!”

Cameron was a bit surprised at her enthusiasm, unaware of Jessica’s desire to do field work. “Just don’t let him wander off by himself, or worse, just him and Jalea. I still don’t trust her.”

“You’ve got it, Commander. Eyes on the skipper twenty-four-seven,” she joked.

Cameron stopped in the middle of the corridor. “I mean it, Ensign.” Cameron looked dead on into Jessica’s eyes. “You stick to him like glue. Understood?” she ordered.

Jessica straightened up, her expression becoming more serious. “Yes, sir.” The two of them stood there staring at each other for a moment before Jessica finally spoke up again. “Can we go eat now?” A tiny smile began to form on the corner of Cameron’s mouth, as she turned to continue down the corridor toward the mess hall.

— 2 -

“You wanna give me a hand over here?” Nathan asked Cameron as she entered the bridge. “It’s gettin’ a bit crowded out there.” Cameron made her way over and took a seat at the navigation console next to Nathan.

“Damn,” Cameron exclaimed. She had never before seen the navigation screen with so many ship tracks displayed. “I guess the rings of Haven are a popular place.” Nathan wasn’t really listening, instead choosing to concentrate on flying the ship using the course plots Cameron was already feeding him. There were at least fifty ships in their general area, and despite the great distances between them, they were all moving fast enough that a few seconds hesitation could spell disaster.

“Suggest you maintain a considerable distance above the rings until we reach our harvesting zone,” Ensign Yosef reported from the sensor station. “There are quite a few stray rocks floating just outside the normal plane of the rings. And they’re a bit hard to detect until the last moment.”

“How much longer until synchronous orbit?” Nathan asked.

“Two minutes,” Cameron answered calmly.

“We’ll come in high over our assigned parking spot. Once we sync our orbit, I’ll translate down slowly into the rings.”

“Copy that.” Cameron closely monitored the ship’s rate of deceleration, making sure the flight computer would match their forward velocity to the proper orbital velocity for their assigned altitude. Although they were still traveling at considerable speeds, in relation to the rotational speed of the gas giant below them, it was no more than a diminishing crawl.

“One minute,” she announced.

“I’ve got a ship approaching from astern, slightly to starboard,” Jessica warned. “She’ll have a visual on us in five minutes.”

The last thing they wanted was for other ships passing by to get a good look at them. Although the Aurora had been designed to have a less threatening appearance than the Earth’s Defender-class warships, she still looked more like a warship than a freighter. Though all her weaponry was recessed into her hull and covered up when not in use, anyone with a bit of knowledge about ship design would be able to pick out her weapons emplacements with ease. Even if they didn’t, the battle scars and the huge hole in her bow would be enough to raise suspicion on its own.

“We may have to translate down faster than I’d hoped,” he warned Cameron. “I think it’s best no one gets a close look at us. Not if we can avoid it.”

Cameron said nothing. She knew why he wanted to duck the ship into the rings as soon as possible. The rings were just as dense as Tobin had described, and it was not something that you wanted to fly into too quickly. If someone did get a good look at them, and then reported what they saw to the family that controlled the Haven system, things could become a lot more dangerous than a quick-drift down into the rings.

“Synchronous orbit achieved,” Cameron reported.

“Scan directly below us, Kaylah,” Nathan called out. “And don’t be afraid to alert me if we’re about to hit something big.”

“Yes, sir,” Ensign Yosef responded.

“Translating down.” Nathan fired the docking thrusters, pushing the ship straight down towards the rings. He held the thrust far longer than usual, picking up considerably more speed in his translation than anyone, especially Cameron, could feel even remotely comfortable about.

“Easy, Nathan. Back off a bit.” There was genuine fear in her voice. It was unusual to hear an emotional tone from Cameron, especially during flight operations. Considering how fast they were dropping toward the rings, it was understandable, even if a bit unexpected.

“Come forward two hundred meters, quickly,” Kaylah ordered. Nathan didn’t ask why, the urgency in Kaylah’s usually demure voice was reason enough. Nathan blasted the thrusters again, this time pushing them forward as they continued to translate downward toward into the rings.

“One fifty,” Kaylah reported. “Come slightly starboard now.”

“I see it now,” Cameron reported. The moment Kaylah had barked out her recommendation, Cameron had switched her display over to track only what was nearby. Now she was starting to pick up the small and medium- sized rocks that made up the rings of Haven. “That’s awfully dense, Nathan.”

“How far?”

“Two kilometers. Rotate two degrees to port.”

“Rotating,” Nathan acknowledged as he applied a tiny amount of thrust.

“That’s good.” Cameron watched as the details of the field of rocks below them began to resolve into greater clarity. “Maybe you’d better pitch down and dive in nose first?”

“Our undersides are thicker,” Nathan objected.

“Maybe, but if we come in nose first, we’ve got a much better chance of not colliding with anything. And if we do, it’ll be at a shallow angle instead of ninety. Less likely to cause damage?”

“Pitching down,” he responded without hesitation. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but Cameron had made the suggestion without being argumentative. He had followed her advice on instinct, without thinking twice about it.

During their training, they had been unable to work together effectively as a team. Their operational styles had been in complete conflict. Despite the assertions of Captain Roberts that each of their strengths offset the other’s weaknesses-making them the perfect team-learning to work together without wanting to kill one another had been nearly impossible.

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