Freedom's Horizon by Cora Buhlert - Read Online
Freedom's Horizon
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Summary

Once, Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov were soldiers on opposing sides of an intergalactic war. They met, fell in love and decided to go on the run together.

Now Anjali and Mikhail are trying to eke out a living on the independent worlds of the galactic rim, while attempting to stay under the radar of those pursuing them.

After a run-in with a Republican spy on the rim world of Metra Litko, Anjali and Mikhail need to get off planet fast. So they sign on as security aboard the freighter Freedom's Horizon, which is supposed to transport a valuable cargo through pirate infested space.

But they have far bigger problems than pirates, for the Republic of United Planets sends no less than three battlecruisers after them, commanded by none other than Colonel Brian Mayhew, Mikhail's former superior and now their most determined pursuer.

The chase culminates in a stand-off in orbit around Metra Litko, where Anjali and Mikhail have to make a fatal choice. Fight and endanger the innocent crew of the Freedom's Horizon or surrender and face death and worse at the hands of the Republic.

This is a short novel of 55000 words or approximately 185 print pages in the "In Love and War" series, but may be read as a standalone. 

Published: Pegasus Pulp Publishing on
ISBN: 9781386368410
List price: $3.99
Availability for Freedom's Horizon: In Love and War, #4
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Freedom's Horizon - Cora Buhlert

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In Love and War

For eighty-eight years, the galaxy has been torn apart by the endless war between the Republic of United Planets and the Empire of Worlds.

Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov are soldiers on opposing sides of that war. They meet, fall in love and decide to go on the run together.

Pursued by both the Empire and the Republic, they struggle to stay alive and free and prove that their love is stronger than the war…

I. Erasure

On the outskirts of the main commercial spaceport of Metra Litko, an independent trade hub on the galactic rim, stood a row of pre-fab dwelling containers. They were intended as cheap temporary housing for transients — spaceport workers, spaceship crews between assignments, drifters on their way to somewhere else — rented by the week or even by the night.

Two figures, a man and a woman, both in their late twenties, stood side by side in the doorway of one of those dwelling containers.

The man was tall and muscular, with pale skin, striking blue eyes and long dark hair that he wore tied into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. This was Captain Mikhail Alexeievich Grikov, formerly of the Republican Special Commando Forces, now wanted as a deserter and traitor.

The woman by his side was a good head shorter, with brown skin, dark eyes and glossy black hair that fell freely down her back in gentle waves. This was Lieutenant Anjali Patel, formerly of the Imperial Shakyri Expeditionary Corps, now wanted as a deserter and traitor.

A little over two months ago, they’d met on a pleasure planet, the Imperial elite soldier and the Republican spy. Attraction had sparked between them at once, even though their respective governments were sworn enemies, locked in an eighty-eight year war. And that attraction only grew, even though he had been sent to capture her for his government, so the laboratories of the Scientific Council could cut her apart in a bid to uncover the genetic tweaks that made the men and women of Shakyri Corps the fearsome warriors that they were.

In the end, Mikhail had refused to carry out his orders and had instead set his prisoner free. In turn, Anjali had found that she could neither kill Mikhail nor consign him to certain death in the prison mines of the Empire.

Defying their respective governments meant that neither of them could ever go back. And so they had decided to go on the run together, heading for the independent worlds on the galactic rim to offer their services as mercenaries and guns for hire.

Their flight had brought them to Metra Litko, to this little dwelling container where they’d made their temporary home. A home they now had to leave behind with barely any warning.

I’m sorry, Mikhail said for what had to be the umpteenth time, I should never have brought you here. Should have known Metra Litko wasn’t safe, that it was too obvious a destination.

It’s okay. Anjali reached for his hand. We both knew this couldn’t last forever. Though it could have lasted a little longer.

In nine years with the Shakyri Corps, Anjali had never had anything like a stable home. Instead, she’d lived in a succession of barracks and spacecraft cabins. And in those nine years, she’d learned not to get attached to any one place, because she’d only have to leave at a minute’s notice anyway.

But in spite of all that, this little dwelling container on the outskirts of the Metra Litko spaceport was different. For even though they’d only been here for two months, the place had been more of a home to her than any other place ever since she’d left her parents’ house just before dawn on the day she turned fifteen.

One last time, Anjali surveyed the small twelve times six times two point four metres space that had become her home over the past two months. The locker that had held their meagre possessions, now packed up in two duffle bags and a float pallet. The stove — a proper stove, not a reheater — where she’d made dinner and introduced Mikhail to the joys of curry and dal and chana masala and aloo gobi matar. The same stove where Mikhail had made blinis for her, thin pancakes from his lost homeworld. The colourful posters on the wall, depicting the stars of her favourite vid dramas — a joy she found she couldn’t impart to Mikhail, though not for lack of trying. The bed — almost too narrow for two — where Mikhail had nursed her back to health when she was still injured and weak, where she’d made love to him, once her strength returned, and where she’d fallen asleep beside him every night regardless. The bed where he’d held her when she woke up screaming from the nightmares that took her back to her time as a Republican prisoner, stripped naked and locked in a sensory deprivation mask. The bed where she’d held him whenever the memories of a childhood full of abuse, memories of losing his homeworld and his entire family came back to haunt him like an old enemy. The bed where they’d told each other that it would be okay, that things would get better, that they still had a future even though they’d lost everything else that had once meant something to them.

When they’d first come to Metra Litko and rented this container, they’d been uneasy partners more than anything, two strangers thrust into a relationship of necessity, because there was nothing else they could do, nowhere else they could go, no one else they could trust. But in the cramped confines of this dwelling container, they’d become partners, friends and eventually lovers. Anjali might have been attracted to Mikhail from the very first moment she laid eyes on him, but it was here that she’d learned to see the man that he was beneath all the masks and lies. And that was why she didn’t want to give up this place, because she feared that if they lost this home, they’d also lose everything they’d built up for themselves. And Anjali didn’t want to go through this. Not again.

Anjali? Her hand was still in Mikhail’s. He squeezed it, very gently, to get her attention. Everything all right? Cause we really need to leave now, the sooner the better.

Anjali swallowed down some stupid tears that had decided to pick this very moment to make their way up her tear ducts. I’m fine, she said, Just give me a moment, okay?

Mikhail, being the man he was, gave her that moment. And through it all, he stood beside her and held her hand, the warmth of his body radiating through his fingers into hers. Anjali allowed herself to savour his warmth, his closeness, and realised that it wasn’t really their temporary home in the dwelling container that mattered to her. No, everything that mattered, everything that had made her life bearable these past two months, was standing beside her and he wasn’t going anywhere.

Anjali…? Mikhail began once more, Are you ready?

She nodded and wiped away the last of the tears that had managed to find their way down her cheeks. Ready. Let’s do it.

She stepped back to let Mikhail do his thing. After all, he was the Republican master spy who knew this stuff. And so she watched as he injected a powdery substance into a dispenser grenade, careful not to let even a single grain escape. The substance was DNA dissolver powder. It broke down organic matter until no trace of identifiable DNA remained. Ideal for criminals, spies and those who needed to vanish without a trace.

Mikhail primed the grenade, hurled it into the container and closed the door. A few seconds later, Anjali heard a muted pop.

How long? she asked.

For a room this size? Two minutes, Mikhail said, keeping an eye on his wrist unit, Three to make sure.

What if there’s still something alive in there? A spider, a fly, a mosquito, a moth, a silver fish, an ant, a dust mite?

Then it’ll get dissolved as well, Mikhail said, Can’t say I’m very sorry about that.

They waited the required three minutes, then Mikhail opened the door again. Anjali thought the room would look different, but it didn’t. The stripped bed, the empty locker, the tiny bathroom cabinet, the posters on the walls, the stove with its two cooking fields were all still there, unchanged.

Are you sure it worked? Anjali asked, Cause I don’t see any difference.

You wouldn’t, Mikhail replied, Since nothing still in there consists of organic matter. Now if you hadn’t given away your potted plants and the fresh food we had left… He paused. What did you do with those anyway?

I gave it all to Magda, the dockworker who lives two containers down. She likes cooking and will find a use for it. She shot a questioning look at Mikhail. That’s not going to be a problem, is it?

Mikhail shook his head. I can’t really see the Republican Special Commando Forces confiscating a few potted plants, half a cabbage, some potatoes and some bell peppers. And even if they do, there’s nothing useful they can learn from that. Still…

He handed her a vial of a blueish grey glittering powder, identical to the substance he had just injected into the dispenser grenade.

…you should always have some of this at hand. Useful for erasing all traces of your presence and disposing of inconvenient corpses, if necessary.

Anjali couldn’t quite tell if he was joking or not. Though his expression was deadly serious, so probably not. A chill ran down her spine, like always, when she caught a glimpse of the man Mikhail used to be, the icy Republican operative who always got the job done, no matter what.

So how does it work? Do I always need a dispenser grenade or…

If you want to clean an enclosed room, a grenade is best. Otherwise, just pour the powder on whatever you want to dissolve. And be careful not to get any of it on yourself.

Wasn’t intending to. Anjali pocketed the vial. So does this mean we’re finished here? she wanted to know.

Not quite, Mikhail said, There’s still one last step.

He picked up another grenade, primed it, hurled it into the container and closed the door. A few seconds later, there was a muffled explosion.

Did you honestly just throw an incendiary grenade in there? Anjali asked, eyes wide with disbelief.

Mikhail nodded. Best way to erase even the last traces of our presence. Standard operating procedure for the Republican Special Commando Forces. Noticing Anjali’s doubtful look, he added. Don’t worry, the fire doesn’t burn for very long and besides, it’s contained, cause the flames can’t break through the container walls.

This means we definitely won’t get back our deposit, Anjali said.

No, we won’t. But given the extortionate rent they charged us for that container, I don’t feel sorry about scorching it at all.

As if on cue, a fire alarm went off. Not long now and the fire fighters would be on their way.

That’s our signal to leave, Mikhail said.

Hand in hand, they walked away, a duffle bag slung over each their shoulders. A float pallet holding their gear trundled behind them.

II. Job Interview

Not long thereafter, Anjali and Mikhail were moving briskly through the labyrinthine passages of the main commercial spaceport of Metra Litko.

Few spared them a second glance. But those who did might have noticed that though they were dressed in civilian clothes, they carried themselves like soldiers. They might have noticed the slight bulk under Mikhail’s long black synth-leather coat, indicating a weapon in a shoulder holster, or that Anjali’s hand rested on her thigh, where she wore her dagger, the signature weapon of the Shakyri Corps. An observant person might even have noticed that they both seemed wary, constantly scanning their surroundings for the slightest hint of a trouble.

A shipboard security gig? Aboard a freighter? Really? Anjali exclaimed, looking up from her com unit.

Mikhail shrugged. It’s an honest job. And it pays decently.

Honest and boring, Anjali countered, We’re way too good for this.

We need to eat, Mikhail pointed out, We also need a ticket off planet and this is nicely inconspicuous.

He stopped, putting his hands on Anjali’s shoulders with the sort of easy intimacy that had grown between them over the past two months. He looked straight at her, blue eyes meeting black. "That Republican spy at the Plasma Café was a close call."

He didn’t recognise us, Anjali insisted, We handled it.

We did, Mikhail agreed, But it was still too close for comfort, especially with the prize on our heads. We need to get off this planet and fast.

I know. Anjali pulled away and resumed her stride as if nothing had happened. Damn, I hate it when you’re right. And I hate running.

Mikhail fell in step beside her. I know. Me, too. He reached for her hand, squeezed it. But then we always knew it would be like this.

Anjali turned to him and flashed him a quick smile. Yes, we did. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it.

In many ways, the Freedom’s Horizon was typical of the ships that kept the far flung worlds on the galactic rim supplied with anything the colonies couldn’t produce for themselves. It was a boxy mid-sized freighter, forty or fifty years old and in good condition for its age, though it had clearly seen better days.

Anjali, however, was not impressed. Really? This piece of junk was the best you could find?

"She’s a Beluga class long-haul freighter, Mikhail replied, They’re very reliable."

And ugly as fuck, Anjali exclaimed, But then that’s very typical of Republican design.

Unlike sleek, but barely functional Imperial design, you mean? Mikhail countered.

They exchanged a private smile.

Anjali sighed. All right, so let’s do this. Especially since it seems like we have no other choice. She strutted off towards the freighter.

Mikhail quickly caught up with her, his longer strides matching her shorter ones.

Assuming they’ll hire us, he said.

Anjali shot him a look before walking up the ramp. Of course they’ll hire us. After all, we’re the best.

The Captain of the Freedom’s Horizon met them in the cargo hold. He was in his fifties, dark-skinned, his closely cropped hair liberally sprinkled with silver.

One applicant at a time, please, he said, sounding like someone who was not overly impressed neither by the couple before him nor by anything else, because he’d seen it all before.

There’s no need for that, Anjali said, plopping down on the lone folding chair without even waiting for an invitation, We’re partners.

We’re a team, Mikhail added, positioning himself next to her.

A team, eh? the Captain said, So I get two mercs for the price of one?

No, you get two for the price of two, Anjali countered.

With a reasonable discount, of course, Mikhail added.

Hmph, the Captain grumbled and consulted his ledger. All right. Names?

Mikhail Alexeievich Grikov.

Anjali Patel.

The Captain looked up. Grikov? You’re Republican, aren’t you?

Mikhail nodded. I am.

Where from?

Jagellowsk, Mikhail said through gritted teeth. Anjali reached for his hand, squeezed it.

The Captain lowered his eyes, unable to meet Mikhail’s gaze. I’m very sorry, he said.

There is no need, Mikhail said, It was a long time ago.

The Captain turned to Anjali and narrowed his eyes. So what about you? From your accent, I’d almost say you’re Imperial?

Anjali crossed her arms over her chest. So what if I am?

The Captain shook his head. Nothing. Just surprised to see a Republican and an Imperial working together, considering your governments are at war and have been for decades now.

Our governments may be at war, Anjali said, We happen to disagree.

And besides, it’s your government, too, Mikhail added, resting his hand on Anjali’s shoulder, Your Republican accent is quite unmistakable.

So is yours, soldier, the Captain countered, You were in the Republican army, weren’t you?

Mikhail nodded, but volunteered no more information.

Seen combat?

Mikhail nodded again.

The Captain turned to Anjali. What about you, Ms. Patel? You’re ex-military as well, aren’t you?

Anjali gave him a curt nod. I am.

Not a lot of women in the Imperial military.

There are some, Anjali said, bristling at the interrogation. Yes, it made sense that the Captain wanted to know whom he was dealing with and whether he’d get his money’s worth. But that didn’t mean she had to like it. And before you have to ask, yes, I’ve seen combat. We both have.

Mikhail no more liked the way this interview went than Anjali did, for he said, So in short, we’re more than qualified for whatever job you have in mind for us. We’d be pleased to give a demonstration, if you wish. But if you want to see our military files, sorry, but that’s not happening.

The Captain held Mikhail’s gaze for a second or two and then relented. He spread his hands in a placating gesture. "All right, since you told me about yourselves, I guess it’s only fair if I tell you a little about me. So yes,