Collision Course - By Zoe Archer

Chapter One

Mara Skiren knew there was a venerable expression that perfectly captured her current situation: she was screwed. Completely, unreservedly screwed.

Walking down the corridor toward her ship, she should have been headed toward freedom. Instead, she was being forced into a mission she didn’t want.

The ranking captain briefed Mara as they headed to the docking bay. His words were clipped, efficient, and combined with his standard-issue severe haircut and his crisp gray 8th Wing uniform, made him exactly the type of person she avoided as much as possible. As they walked, they passed more people in 8th Wing uniforms, all of them staring at Mara with undisguised curiosity. Guess it wasn’t every day that scavenging smugglers like her were allowed to roam free through the station.

“Any questions?” the captain asked.

“Just one,” she said. “Why me?”

He frowned at her. “Clarify.”

“You’ve got dozens, maybe hundreds, of good pilots. All of them perfectly happy to take on this mission. Why do you need me to carry it out?”

He stopped walking, then glanced around and lowered his voice. “Our missing pilot and her ship disappeared inside the Smoke Quadrant.”

Mara couldn’t hide her wry smile. “The 8th Wing doesn’t know their ass from their nose inside the Smoke.”

“We’re not familiar with the region, no.” The captain pressed his lips together tightly. “Between the natural barriers and the information network in place, the 8th Wing lacks sufficient intel to adequately appraise the situation.”

“Meaning, you aren’t smugglers, scavengers or pirates, so the whole place is a giant question mark.” She chuckled. “That’s exactly why us scum like it there. Both the 8th Wing and PRAXIS leave us to drink, brawl and murder in peace.”

At the mention of the 8th Wing’s old enemy, the captain’s mouth tightened. “Even if the PRAXIS Group cannot breach that quadrant, either, it is vitally important that we locate and retrieve our pilot and her ship.” He consulted the readout on his digitablet. “Lieutenant Jur’s ship was damaged in an ambush. Her last communication indicated she and her ship were being overrun by scavengers. Her ship’s tracking device stopped functioning within the Smoke Quadrant. We can only assume she has been taken, but by whom and precisely where in the Smoke Quadrant is unknown.”

Mara processed all of this information. It made sense to assume that if the lieutenant and her ship had been seized by scavengers, they would be taken to the Smoke. It was the best place for dealing in black market goods. In the Smoke, no opportunity for profit was ever wasted. Mara never took on human cargo, but an 8th Wing fighter ship would definitely tempt her.

“This rescue mission must be conducted in secrecy,” the captain added.

“If the 8th Wing tries to move in force,” Mara deduced, “all signs of the good lieutenant will vanish.”

The captain nodded. He resumed walking. “At best, Lieutenant Jur will disappear and we won’t ever find her. At worst, she’ll be killed.”

That’s why they needed Mara. She knew the Smoke Quadrant better than anyone. That didn’t reflect well on her character. Fortunately, she didn’t give a damn.

“Your objective,” continued the captain, “will be to infiltrate the quadrant, then find Lieutenant Jur and her ship. You have already been apprised of the repercussions if you refuse to cooperate.”

“I’ve been apprised.” She’d be tried as an enemy combatant and most likely thrown onto a prison scow. Her beloved scavenge ship would be impounded, broken up and used for scrap. “It’s bullshit, you know. I’m not your enemy and I am definitely not a combatant.” She went out of her way to avoid a fight, any fight. She’d had enough of that in her other life.

“It would not be difficult for our courts to prove otherwise. You sell scavenged parts to the PRAXIS Group.”

“I sell scavenged parts to the 8th Wing too,” Mara shot back. “I sell to anybody, so long as they’ve got the credits.”

“Semantics. A guilty verdict can and will be found if you don’t cooperate.”

She fought to keep herself from snarling. Yes, she was truly screwed. She hated being forced to do anything. And she hated going into the Smoke as an operative of the 8th Wing. The Smoke was her place, damn it—rough, wild and unprincipled. Everything the 8th Wing wasn’t.

But she didn’t have a choice. Choice had been taken from her when the 8th Wing had found her in that Kauri bar and brought her in to their station on some flimsy tariff pretext.

“I’ll want an exoneration in writing.” She stepped closer to him,