James Howell watched the view screen as the shuttle slid up from just beyond the terminator, glittering as it broke into the unfiltered light of Hearthguard's primary, and tried not to show his uneasiness.
Hearthguard was a sparsely populated world, for it had little-aside from truly spectacular mountain landscapes and particularly dangerous fauna-to attract settlers. Visitors, now, those were another matter. To date, Hearthguard's wildlife had accounted for about one hunter in five, which, humans being humans, produced a predictably perverse response that amused the locals no end. And it was profitable, too. If putatively sane outworlders wanted to pay hefty fees for the dubious privilege of hunting predators who were perfectly willing to hunt them right back, that was fine with the Hearthguarders. But even though more and more of their guests were imperial citizens, the life-blood of their new, tourism-based prosperity, theirs was a Rogue World, independent of the Empire and minded to stay so.
Thrusters flared as the shuttle swam towards rendezvous with the freighter. Howell would have felt far happier in his flagship, but Hearthguard was too heavily traveled to take such a risk. On the other hand, this meeting had the potential to dwarf the dangers of bringing in the entire squadron. If anyone was watching, or if word of it leaked … .
The shuttle coasted to a halt, and tractors drew it in against one of the freighter's racks. Howell watched the personnel tube jockeying into position, then sighed and turned toward the lift with squared shoulders.
It was time to hear what Control had to say to him. He did not expect to enjoy the conversation.