>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."