Freedom's Horizon - Cora Buhlert - ebook

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.  

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Freedom’s Horizon

by Cora Buhlert

Bremen, Germany

Copyright © 2018 by Cora Buhlert

All rights reserved.

Cover image © Grandfailure, Dreamstime

Pegasus Pulp Publications

Mittelstraße 12

28816 Stuhr


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, I was born in the Republic, Nuruba to be exact. But I got tired of the war and all that bullshit and left. So did you, I guess?”

Mikhail and Anjali nodded in unison.

“Anyway, I’m a spacer now and don’t worry, I’m not judging. I’m just curious. I mean, a Republican trooper and an Imperial soldier… — how the hell did that happen?”

“We met during the war…” Mikhail said, “…on the battlefield.”

“Well, not really the battlefield,” Anjali corrected, “Actually, we were on leave… Well, I was.”

Mikhail reached for her hand. “She was my prisoner and I was supposed to deliver her to my commander…”

Anjali squeezed his hand. “…and I gave him a very hard time about it.”

“She tried to escape and fought me every step of the way…”

“…but he always caught me again.” Anjali flashed Mikhail a private smile.

Mikhail returned her smile. “Eventually, we realised that we liked each other a lot more than we liked our respective governments…”

“…so we decided to run away together,” Anjali concluded.

“And you ended up here on the galactic rim where all the flotsam and jetsam of the galaxy eventually washes up,” the Captain continued, “Just an observation. Like I said, I’m not judging. But…”

He narrowed his eyes, his gaze wandering from Mikhail to Anjali and back.

“…you said you’ve seen combat and I’m pretty sure you weren’t just a regular grunt. Some kind of special forces, if I might hazard a guess…”

Mikhail said nothing.

“And whatever she is, she’s clearly something special, considering she gave you a hard time. Which means that the two of you are probably very, very good.”

“We’re the best,” Anjali and Mikhail said in unison.

“So what in the universe brings two mercs as good as you to my humble freighter?” the Captain wanted to know, “Cause I’m pretty sure I can’t afford to pay whatever price you two normally ask.”

Anjali and Mikhail exchanged a glance.

“We… um… happen to find ourselves quite urgently in need of a ticket off planet…” Mikhail said.

“…which is why we’re willing to take a job below our usual pay grade,” Anjali added.

The Captain’s mouth twitched into a smile. “The way I understand it, you’re both deserters. And I guess there’s a wanted poster with your names on it somewhere.”

“More or less.” Mikhail coloured ever so slightly, made more notable by his pale skin.

“And Metra Litko is full of spies,” the Captain continued, “Which explains your urge to leave.”

“Our respective governments don’t exactly like us,” Mikhail said.

“They want to make an example out of us…” Anjali added.

“…and we’d rather not find ourselves on the wrong end of a firing squad.”

“Actually, the Empire doesn’t do firing squads. We have beheadings for honourable villains and hangings for dishonourable traitors.”

“I’d rather not be beheaded either.”

“You wouldn’t be, cause we both no longer qualify as honourable.”

“Stop.” The Captain held up a hand. “You’re kind of freaky, do you know that, the way you finish each other’s sentences?”

“Sorry,” they both said in unison.

The Captain rolled his eyes. “Like I said, I’m not judging, I’ve had it with the war and all that bullshit and I no longer feel any loyalty towards the Republic. I also know a good opportunity when I see one and I know that you’re a lot better than the usual class of mercenary I can afford. So here’s the deal…”

The Captain held up his thumb.

“One, I give the two of you passage off planet, no extra fees and no questions asked.”

The Captain held up his index finger.

“Two, you work for me and protect my ship, my crew and my cargo to the best of your abilities.”

He held up his middle finger.

“Three, in return I’ll pay you what I had budgeted, which is what I can afford, for your services. The usual penalties and bonuses apply within reason. If it’s lower than your usual pay — well, take it or leave it.”

The Captain held up his ring finger, on which he wore a plain golden wedding band.

“Four, I only have one spare cabin and one bunk. I trust that sharing is not going to be a problem for you.”

Mikhail and Anjali shook their heads in unison.

“No problem.”

“Not at all.”

The Captain broke out into a broad grin. “Goodness, you people really are freaky.”

He settled back in his own folding chair. “All right, so here’s what this job is about: I’ve been hired to deliver a cargo of assorted medical supplies to Djamila. It’s rather urgent and pays quite well.”

Anjali shrugged. “Sounds good. So what’s the problem?”

“The problem, Ms. Patel, is that in order to get to Djamila, we first need to pass through the asteroid field of Yunzel IV. And the asteroid field of Yunzel IV is the prime hunting ground of the Forsaken Corsairs.”

Anjali and Mikhail exchanged a glance. The Forsaken Corsairs were a notorious pirate fleet that preyed on trade vessels passing through its territory.

“All right. So that is a problem.”

“What is more, I’ve had certain… differences with the Forsaken Corsairs in the past.”

Anjali and Mikhail exchanged another glance. “Definitely a problem.”

“Isn’t there a way around the asteroid field?” Mikhail wanted to know, “After all, Djamila is a busy trade port. Surely not every ship that travels there will have to pass through pirate-infested space first.”

“There is,” the Captain agreed, “But it also takes three times as long as the direct route. And like I said, the cargo is kind of urgent. So they’re paying me a hefty bonus to deliver it on time and I’m willing to use part of that bonus to pay the two of you.”

He held out his hand. “So do we have a deal?”

It was Mikhail who took his hand first and shook it. “Deal.”

Anjali followed a second later. “Deal.”

The Captain smiled. “Welcome aboard the Freedom’s Horizon. I’m Elijah Tyrone, by the way.” He checked his wrist unit. “The cargo will be delivered at fifteen hundred. We’re leaving as soon as everything is stowed. So get your gear and meet me here at fifteen fifteen latest. You can meet the rest of the crew en route.”

III. Close Quarters

Mikhail and Anjali returned to the dock at five past fifteen hundred, each carrying a duffle bag which held their scant personal possessions. Behind them hovered a float pallet which carried their weapons and equipment, all neatly packed away in cases and crates, so as not to run afoul of local regulations regarding heavy weaponry. Because if there was one thing they couldn’t afford, it was drawing attention to themselves.

When they returned to docking bay 52, the cargo had already arrived and so the bay was full of containers and crates. Captain Tyrone stood next to the ramp, directing dockers in exo-suits, because the ramp was too narrow for automated cargo loaders.

The dockers, being dockers, were arguing amongst themselves. Anjali caught something about union-mandated break times and rolled her eyes. Something like this would never happen in the Empire where workers actually worked instead of endlessly complaining.

One of the dockers whistled after her, as she and Mikhail walked past. “Hey, baby, why don’t you come over here and keep us some company?”

Anjali ignored him. What else could she do? Beating him up would only make the loading process take even longer. Besides, it would attract attention and bring spaceport security running and that was one complication they could not afford.

“We’ll be sure to show you a good time, sweetheart…”

Next to her, Mikhail seemed unperturbed, but then he’d always been the calm and collected one. Though he did move closer to her and reached for Anjali’s hand in a gesture that was both protective and possessive.

“Cute arse, sweetheart,” one of the dockers hollered. He really did have a death wish, didn’t he?

“Calm,” Mikhail whispered to her, “Remember, we can’t afford any uproar.”

“Oh, I remember,” Anjali whispered back, “Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

She stopped abruptly, set down her duffle bag, stood on tiptoes, slung her arms around Mikhail and kissed him hard on the mouth.

For the space of a heartbeat, Mikhail just stood there, stunned. Then he wrapped his arms around her and responded in kind, his kiss telling Anjali and the dockers and the whole damned universe, “You’re mine. You’ll always be mine.”

Somewhere in the background, the dockers howled like hungry wolves. Anjali barely heard them. They didn’t matter. Nothing did except Mikhail.

Eventually, the need to breathe reasserted itself and they broke apart, reluctantly. Beside them, Captain Tyrone cleared his throat.

“Cute. But keep it to your off-duty times.”

“We’re not on duty yet,” Anjali pointed out.

“As soon as you get settled in, you will be,” the Captain countered, “I see you got all your gear.”

Mikhail and Anjali nodded.

“Travelling light, I see.”

Mikhail gave him a smooth smile. “Best way.”

Anjali pressed a button on the control unit and the float pallet began to trundle up the ramp. Or at least it tried to, for unfortunately, one of the dockers objected.

He grabbed Anjali by the arm, trying to wrest the control unit from her hand. “No self-loading, honey. According to union rules, only licensed dockers are allowed to…”

He never got any further, because all of a sudden the docker found himself on his back with Anjali’s knee on his chest, pinning him to the ground. His heavy exo-suit didn’t help either, rendering him as helpless as a beetle who’d fallen onto his back.

The other dockworkers stepped in to aid their fallen comrade, but Mikhail swept his coat aside, letting them catch a glimpse of his blasters. The dockers caught the hint and backed off.

Meanwhile, Anjali drew her dagger and placed the tip at the exposed skin of the docker’s throat.

“If you ever lay a hand on me again, I’ll cut it off.” To emphasise her point, the tip of her dagger nicked his exposed skin, drawing blood. “And if you as much as touch our stuff, I’ll kill you. Is that understood?”

The docker groaned and nodded, so Anjali sheathed her dagger and stepped off his chest.

The docker was still on his back, unable to get up. However, he was also an idiot, who didn’t know when to let go. And so he had to open his big mouth again before he was even back on his feet.

“What sort of man are you?” he sneered, not at Anjali but at Mikhail this time, “To let your whore fight your batt…”

Again, he never got any further, because Mikhail brought his foot down on the man’s wrist. “Anjali can take care of herself,” he said, his voice eerily calm, “But if you ever speak of her like that again, you’ll find out exactly what sort of man I am.”

He shifted his foot, earning him a pained groan from the docker. “And now you will apologise.”

Mikhail stepped back to stand beside Anjali again. Meanwhile, the docker was helped up by a colleague, mumbled “Sorry, Miss” and returned to work. There was no more talk of union-mandated breaks after that.

Captain Tyrone gave them both an appreciative nod. “If that little display was for my benefit, then all right, I am impressed.”

Anjali shook her head. “It wasn’t for your benefit.”

“It was for theirs.” Mikhail pointed at the dockers who had resumed loading the cargo, though not without grumbling about it.

“Nobody touches our gear,” Anjali explained.

Mikhail put a possessive arm around her waist. “And no one touches her.”

“Or him.” Anjali placed her hand over his.

The Captain just rolled his eyes.

The float pallet had made its way into the cargo hold by now, unimpeded by the dockers who seemed to have learned their lesson. As soon as the pallet had settled down, Anjali pressed a button on her control unit and the lash webbing dissolved.

They got to work immediately. Mikhail bent down, picking up a heavy missile launcher as if it weighed nothing, while Anjali grabbed two gun cases and carried them into the ship.

Captain Tyrone whistled, clearly impressed. “You’re enhanced, aren’t you?” he asked, as Mikhail slung the launcher over his shoulder and picked up another case with his free hand.

Mikhail flashed him a quick smile. “We both are,” he said and nodded at Anjali who had set down the gun cases and grabbed an armour case clearly intended for someone twice her size.

“Where can we store our gear?” Anjali asked, all business-like once more.

“Well, I have to supervise those idiots…” The Captain flicked a finger at the dockworkers in their exo-suits. “…lest they damage the cargo, so I can’t show you around myself, but…”

He spoke into his com-unit, “Hannah, get your butt up here. I need you.”

The float pallet was almost entirely empty, its contents stacked against the bulkhead of the cargo hold, when a woman sauntered into the hold. She was in her thirties and dressed in a mechanic’s coverall that looked in dire need of washing. Her face was pleasant, her rosy cheeks freckled and her brown hair was pinned back in an untidy knot.

She walked over to stand beside the Captain, craning her neck at the dockworkers. “Wow, they’re actually working,” she exclaimed, “Whatever happened to ‘contractually mandated break times’ and all that bullshit?”

Captain Tyrone flashed her a smile. “Looks like someone scared them into productivity.”

“So what can I do for you, Captain?” the woman asked. She was watching the dockworkers like a hawk, probably due to prior bad experience. Given her brief encounter with them, Anjali couldn’t even blame her.

“Hannah…” The Captain indicated Anjali and Mikhail who were still stacking up the crates holding their gear. “These are Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov, our security team on this voyage.”

At the mention of their names, they both looked up.

“Anjali and Mikhail…” Tyrone began. Apparently, he was one of those captains who preferred to address their crew by their first names.

Anjali suppressed a scowl. Typical spacer. No sense of hierarchy and proper behaviour at all.

“This is Hannah Green, our chief engineer.”

In response, the woman — Hannah — reached into a pocket of her coverall, pulled out a rag and wiped her hand before holding it out for Mikhail and Anjali. “Pleased to meet you.”

They both shook her hand, Mikhail first and then Anjali, trying to ignore the fact that the rag hadn’t done a very good job and that Hannah’s fingers were still stained with grease.

“So we’ll be having two security people on this trip,” Hannah said, “I feel safer already. Come along now.” She gestured towards the blast door at the far end of the cargo hold. “I’ll show you to your quarters.”

The tour of the Freedom’s Horizon didn’t take long, partly because it wasn’t a very big ship and partly because it was a fairly standard set-up for freighters of its class with the bridge up front and the engines in the rear, connected by a central corridor flanked by cargo holds and living quarters. Though the interior of the ship was in much better shape than the exterior.

What was more, Mikhail, being Republican, was familiar with this very type of freighter. Anjali, being Imperial, was not acquainted with this particular model, but then there were only so many ways to build a freighter that made sense.

Hannah Green, on the other hand, was as proud of the Freedom’s Horizon as only an engineer and a spacer could be and happily rattled off tech specs. Mikhail nodded politely in response, while Anjali tried not to look too bored, even though all that really mattered to her were the specs of the onboard weapons systems. Luckily, as a few questions quickly clarified, the weapons systems turned out to be a nice custom job and quite powerful at that.

Hannah, on the other hand, was quite interested in everything about her new crewmates.

“So you’re Imperial, he’s Republican, and you’re a team?” she asked Anjali, after they’d finished discussing the weapons systems.

“A team and a couple,” Mikhail answers, putting his arm around Anjali.

“That’s really fascinating,” Hannah said, “I mean, you don’t see a lot of mixed couples, even out here on the rim. Not that I mind, of course. I’ve always been against the war. Put in my two years of compulsory service and got the hell out…”

So she was Republican by birth, but then most spacers were originally. Imperials rarely left the Empire behind, unless — like Anjali — they had no choice.

“And no offence, but…” Hannah flashed Anjali a smile that was pleasant and open. Her coverall was studded with enamelled pins. Logos of various tool and engine manufacturers mostly, but also a stylised poppy, symbol of the galactic peace movement. “…I think you’re the first Imperial I’ve ever met face to face.”

“Don’t worry,” Anjali said, “Most of the rumours aren’t true. And I don’t bite… at least, not unless someone else bites me first.”

It had been intended to be a light-hearted remark, but though Hannah laughed in response, she did look a bit nervous about it. But then propaganda ran deep, even in those who opposed the war.