Their conflicting styles aside, the events of the last few days had forced them to put their differences aside out of necessity. They were no longer in training-they were fighting to survive. Despite the fact that circumstances had thrust Nathan into command-a fact that he was sure still bothered Cameron-it seemed they were starting to get along. Captain Roberts would’ve been proud, he thought.

“One kilometer,” Cameron updated. Nathan finished pitching the nose of the Aurora downward. They were now diving nose first toward the rings below.

“How far is that ship?” Nathan asked Jessica.

“Visual in one minute,” she reported.

“Will he be above or below our altitude when he reaches visual range?”

“Huh? Uh, just about even, I think.” Jessica hadn’t expected that question, and it had caught her slightly unprepared.

“How long until we penetrate the rings?” Nathan asked Cameron.

“About ninety seconds,” she told him.

“No pressure,” he muttered.

The ship continued to dive toward the rings as the unknown vessel grew closer. At this point, it was a matter of timing. They needed to get to the rings and become hidden amongst the debris before the unknown vessel got a good look at them. Nathan wanted to kick in the main drive and race into the rings, but he knew that such a move would not only be incredibly dangerous, but would also appear quite suspicious to the unknown vessel as well as anyone else that happened to be watching. Thus he was forced to run this particular race at a snail’s pace, compared to their usual maneuvering velocities.

“One minute,” Cameron updated. “Five hundred meters.”

“Unknown vessel will reach visual range in thirty seconds,” Jessica reported.

“How are we looking, Kaylah?” Nathan asked, not taking his eyes off his console.

“With this narrow profile, you should be clear into the rings, sir.”

“Guess you were right,” Nathan mumbled. Cameron said nothing, only casting a quick glance followed by the slightest of smirks.

“Twenty seconds to visual range,” Jessica reported.

“Cam,” Nathan suddenly asked, “is it okay to roll on our way in?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so. Why?”

Nathan applied a slight bit of roll thrust. “I’m gonna show them our belly as they pass,” he explained, pleased with himself.

The Aurora began to roll as the unknown vessel reached visual range and passed by her. All the other ship ever saw was the Aurora’s nondescript underside as she rolled over, diving into the rings.

“Penetrating rings,” Cameron reported. “You can begin braking now, Nathan.”

“Just a few more seconds.” Although the rings were dense, they were only a kilometer thick. The last thing Nathan wanted to do was fly right through and come out the other side in front of who knew how many other ships. Finally, at the latest possible moment, he fired the braking thrusters and brought them up to full power, rapidly decreasing the ship’s forward momentum until she finally came to a stop deep within the dense rings of Haven.

The entire bridge sighed collectively as Cameron reported, “Confirming all stop.” Her fingers danced across her console, entering commands and calling up information. Finally she added, “We are now in synchronous orbit within the rings, on station at the assigned coordinates.”

Nathan turned and rose from the helmsman’s seat. “Jessica, I believe we have a flight to catch.” He then turned to Cameron, “You have the ship, Commander.”

“Aye, sir,” Cameron answered as she watched him go. Cameron caught Jessica’s eye on her way out, just in time to catch a half-hearted salute and a wink.

Tobin’s ship was already fired up, her engines idling in the hangar bay as Nathan and Jessica approached. Vladimir, Ensign Mendez, and Sergeant Weatherly were all standing near the ship, waiting until it was time to board. Each were wearing unmarked coveralls that were long overdue for the laundry, keeping in line with Tobin’s suggestion to not appear too clean.

“Well, aren’t we a motley looking group? Where’s your guide?” Nathan asked Vladimir as he approached.

“Inside, with Tobin and Jalea,” he said.

“Which one did you end up bringing?”

“Danik. Allet had no desire to go Haven. I do not think he likes the place very much.”

“That’s encouraging,” Nathan said. Just then, Tobin descended down the boarding ramp of his ship, dropping the last half-meter onto the deck.

“Is everyone here?” Tobin asked.

“Yeah, how do we look?” Nathan asked.

“Like any other freighter crew, I suspect. However, I will provide you with some cloaks to wear before we arrive. It is very common attire where we are going, as it offers an additional degree of protection against the environment on Haven. Other than all of your hair being a bit shorter than most, you should not attract undue attention.”

“And I thought my hair needed a trim,” Enrique joked as he followed Tobin up into the ship.

One by one, they climbed up into the long, compact ship, with Nathan being the last one aboard. The interior was cramped, with three seats along each side of the back cabin, all facing inward. There was a hatch on the back bulkhead that led to a small cargo hold, and another hatch at the front end that led to the cockpit.

Nathan took his seat by the cargo hatch on the opposite side of the cabin, next to Jalea. The seats themselves were rather firm, and not very comfortable, obviously not designed for a long journey. They also had some type of restraint system built into them, the belts appearing to have seen better days. Looking forward into the cockpit, Nathan could see that Tobin was not bothering to put on his restraints, so Nathan assumed that none of them would need theirs either. The fact that Jalea also did not feel the need to restrain herself only served to support his decision.

The sound of the idling engines became louder as the exterior hatch swung up and closed, sealing with a hiss of compressed air. Once closed, the whine of the engines was greatly reduced, however, the vibrations inside the ship told of the increasing strain on her engines as the small ship began rolling, making a u-turn to port and heading into the transfer airlock.

Nathan could see out the window built into the hatch on the opposite wall, watching as the frame of the airlock moved past them. Through the front windows of the cockpit, he could see the outer airlock door. It would take only a few minutes for the airlock to purge itself of pressure, and then the outer door would open and the transfer airlock would become one with the vacuum of space.

Again the small ship began to roll. Nathan watched out the side window as the ship moved out of the transfer airlock and out into the outer bay, eventually coming completely out into the open only a few meters from the aft edge of the flight deck. As they came out from under the canopy and into the open, the light reflecting off the reddish-brown and orange gas giant outside washed into the cabin, bathing them all in its eerie glow.

The little ship fired its thrusters, quickly climbing away from the Aurora and slightly to her starboard. The sound of her landing gear as it retracted up into the ship was unusually loud, as was the clunk that was heard when the gear locked into place. As they accelerated away, Nathan could see the numerous chunks that had been carved out of the Aurora’s outer hull by the many hits she had sustained during her recent battles with both the Jung and the Takarans. The sight of the damage to her exterior made Nathan ill, and he found himself thankful that they hadn’t flown over the port side of the ship where there was a huge hull breach in her bow.

Chunks of rock and ice of varying sizes and shapes drifted past them as they made their way down and out of the rings. Within only a few minutes of leaving the Aurora, the small ship had cleared the rings and was headed for the large moon called Haven. As they followed along the underside of the immense field of debris, Nathan and the others could see different ships conducting their own harvesting operations. They were of different shapes and sizes, ranging from ships not much bigger than the one they were on to some larger than their own Defender-class warships back in Sol.

Nathan could feel his pulse quicken, his heart beating in his throat as he gazed out the windows of the small ship. He had left the familiarity of his own ship to hitch a ride in this tiny, alien spacecraft. He was a thousand light

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