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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. On their way back from a mission, Anjali and Mikhail are ambushed by a squad of bounty hunters. Wounded and hunted through a frozen landscape, they find shelter in a mountain lodge. But their pursuers are still out there, tracking them. And with Anjali too injured to fight, Mikhail must face down seven bounty hunters on his own… This is a novella of 21000 words or approx. 75 print pages in the "In Love and War" series, but may be read as a standalone.
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Hunter and Hunted
by Cora Buhlert
Copyright © 2018 by Cora Buhlert
All rights reserved.
Cover image © Grandfailure, Dreamstime
Pegasus Pulp Publications
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. Snow Ride
A ground glider shot across the snow-covered surface of the independent rim world of Harketon, en route from the luxury resort of Furuholmen back to the planet’s main spaceport.
The glider was small, a two-seater. Beneath the transparent canopy, the passengers, a man and a woman, sat huddled together in forced proximity. Not that either of them minded. After all, they’d spent the better part of the last year in close proximity, so that by now it was no longer forced, even if it had started out as less than voluntary.
The man was tall, with pale skin, striking blue eyes and long dark hair that he wore tied back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. He was clad all in black, a bright blue scarf the only flash of colour. 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 down her back in gentle waves. She was clad in grey utility pants and a light blue sweater, topped with a shawl in a somewhat darker tone of blue. This was Lieutenant Anjali Patel, formerly of the Imperial Shakyri Expeditionary Corps, now also wanted as a deserter and traitor.
Almost a year ago now, Anjali and Mikhail had met during a mission. And even though their respective governments were at war with each other and had been for eighty-eight years now, Anjali and Mikhail fell in love and decided to run away together, leaving behind the only lives they’d ever known. They’d fled to the independent worlds on the galactic rim, eking out a living as mercenaries, doing any odd jobs that required their particular skills. And today, one of those jobs had brought them to Harketon.
The mission in question was a simple courier job. Deliver a sealed box containing some data crystals to a man called Norland, who was currently on vacation in Furuholmen, on behalf of a smuggler captain called Pekkalainen and return to Pekkalainen’s ship, the Jewel of Leskinen, in under ninety-six hours. All expenses paid, no questions asked. As jobs went, this one was as good as it got.
“Now that…” Anjali remarked, “…was almost too easy. Especially since we’ve still got…” She checked her wrist unit. “…almost forty-four hours until the Jewel of Leskinen leaves port.”
Mikhail briefly looked up from the controls. He was flying, because he had more experience with this particular glider model, a Republican manufactured Astral Avalanche.
“Would you rather have something go wrong?” he asked.
“No, but we could’ve spent another night in Furuholmen, especially since the client is paying all our expenses.”
Mikhail flashed her a quick smile. “Yes, the those thermal baths and the sauna were really nice.”
“Though they would have been even nicer without potbellied gangsters,” Anjali said with a shudder. Cause Norland, the recipient of the data crystals, was not the sort of person you wanted to see dressed only in a towel.
“But actually, I was thinking more of the hotel room…” she added, “…and particularly of the bed.”
By now, Anjali and Mikhail were both used to living and sleeping rough. After all, they’d been on the run for the better part of a year now and soldiers for most of their lives before that. That meant hard bunks, cramped barracks, tiny cabins or sometimes just a rough shelter and a sleeping bag on the ground.
Most of the time, Anjali did not mind. This was the life she’d chosen for herself, after all. But nonetheless, she appreciated a proper bed with a good mattress, fluffy pillows and a soft blanket on occasion. And the bed in the hotel room they’d shared in Furuholmen had all that and more.
Mikhail’s smile broadened, while his cheeks flushed ever so slightly. “Yes, that bed was… very nice indeed.”
Anjali reached out, her hand brushing against his. “And we put it to some very good use, didn’t we?”
Mikhail smiled at the memory and focussed his full attention on the controls again, as he piloted the glider through a narrow and winding canyon.
After a few kilometres, the canyon ended and the glider shot out onto a pleasant snow-covered slope lined with clusters of bluish trees.
“I’ve been thinking,” Mikhail said, “Maybe, once we’ve made it back to the ship and collected the rest of our payment, we could check into a hotel at the spaceport for a few nights. A proper hotel and not one of the flophouses we normally use.”
“Sounds tempting.” And it did. “But we don’t have the money for this. We need new power-packs and grenades and ammo for my Marcasona Mark IV sniper rifle and nano booster shots and…”
Mikhail put his hand on top of Anjali’s, silencing her. “I know. I just want to do right by you, want to give you the life you deserve, at least for a little while.”
“It’s all right. I have everything I could ever want.” Though a big soft bed now and then would be nice.
“Maybe, when once we’ve gotten all the supplies we need and we still have some money left over, we could check into a nicer hotel for a night or two,” Mikhail said.
Anjali did not reply, because at just this moment something attracted her attention. A gleam in a copse of trees, like sunlight striking the sight of a rifle.
Barely a second later, the drive exploded and the glider spiralled out of control straight into a snowdrift.
When Mikhail came to again, he was lying facedown in the snow. He was wet and cold and hurting. There was a dull ache in his chest and a sharp pain in his calf.
Only a second ago, he’d been piloting the glider down a slope, talking to Anjali and remembering everything they’d done last night in that big, wide bed in their luxury suite in Furuholmen, while looking forward to everything they’d do, once they got the funds for a decent room again, and then suddenly everything went dark.
What the hell…?
In spite of the pain, Mikhail forced himself to get up, spitting out a mouthful of snow and shaking the rest from his hair and coat.
Still dazed, he looked around. The glider — or rather what was left of it — was reduced to a smouldering wreck, half buried in a snow drift. He’d been thrown clear during the crash, but he hadn’t gotten off quite without injuries. For as he cautiously examined the tender spot on his chest, the dull ache intensified, indicating a cracked rib or two. The sharp pain in his leg was worse news.
With some effort, Mikhail pulled his leg free and spotted a shard that had embedded itself in his right calf, dripping dark red blood into the pure white snow. The wound wasn’t deep and the military grade nano-agents would take care of it — in time. But for now, it would slow him down. Not to mention that they’d just lost their ride.
Anjali! Where the hell was Anjali?
Mikhail called out her name, trying to ignore the lump of fear that threatened to close up his throat. What if she was still trapped inside the smouldering wreck? Or badly wounded? Or…?
Mikhail breathed a sigh of relief, when he spotted her crouching behind a rock randomly jutting out of the snow a few metres away. She was dishevelled and had drawn her blaster, but seemed otherwise unharmed.
She waved at him. “Get down! Sniper!”
Mikhail hit the ground, once more taking a mouth and nose full of snow. Barely a second later, he heard the boom of a sniper rifle, somewhat muffled by the snow, and felt a bullet whizzing over his head.
Anjali returned fire, the distinctive pew-pew sounds of her Marcasona Imperator III blaster echoing across the hill. In response, the sniper fired again, once more narrowly missing Mikhail.
This was not good. He was too exposed out here, with nothing but powdery snow for cover. Anjali was drawing the sniper’s fire for now, but sooner or later a bullet would hit true. And unlike what Anjali occasionally seemed to think, the nanos did not make them immortal. One bullet to the head or the heart and that was it.
He had to get away from here, had to get under cover. So he lifted his head just a fraction, just enough to catch Anjali’s eyes. She nodded and they both sprang into action.
Anjali jumped up, drawing the sniper’s fire, while blanketing the slope with blaster fire of her own. Mikhail emerged from the snow drift, rolled and finally ducked behind the same jutting rock where Anjali had found cover.
She crouched down beside him, blaster drawn, as bullets whizzed over their heads, striking the rock, the blueish trees and the slope, sending puffs of snow flying in all directions.
Once more, Mikhail sought her eyes. “Are you…?”
She shook her head. “Just a few cuts and bruises. Plus, I’m fucking cold and wet.” Concern lined her face. “But you’re hurt.”
Mikhail nodded. The manoeuvre to get under cover may have saved his life, but it had also cost him. His cracked ribs were aching like hell and the wound in his calf had left a trail of dark red blood in the pristine white snow.
“Took one in the leg,” he said, trying to wave her concerns away, “Nothing bad, but I need to patch myself up. Can you give me cover?”
Anjali nodded. She positioned herself and blanketed the slope with blaster fire again. In a fair fight, sniper against sniper, Anjali could probably have taken the enemy sniper out. But here she was at a disadvantage, armed only with a standard sidearm, even if — as Anjali liked to claim — the House of Marcasona manufactured the finest weapons not just in the Empire, but the whole galaxy. Their antagonist, however, had a precision sniper rifle, Marcasona or not.
While Anjali was firing, Mikhail took a can of instant bandage from a pocket of his long black synth-leather coat. He pulled the shard out of his calf, suppressed a wince and tried to ignore the spurt of blood that gushed out of the wound. Then he applied instant bandage to the wound, the spray quickly forming a firm but flexible layer to staunch the bleeding, while military grade painkillers seeped into his system to numb the pain to a dull ache.
“Can you walk?” Anjali asked between two bursts of blaster fire.
Mikhail nodded. “Just give me a second.”
“Good.” Anjali fired once more into the general direction of the sniper. “Cause we need to get away from here. We don’t know if he has backup.”
“What makes you think the sniper’s a man?”
“He’s impatient, not to mention imprecise,” Anjali said and fired, “Trust me, it’s a man.”
“I bow to your superior judgement,” Mikhail said.
While Anjali was exchanging fire with the sniper, Mikhail scanned their surroundings, looking for an avenue of escape. Not far from them, the blueish trees were thickening, providing plenty of cover. Of course, they’d have to cover about ten metres of open space to get there, but that should be doable. Provided his leg cooperated.
In the cover of the jutting rock, he tested his leg. The pain had dulled by now and the nanos were kicking in. The leg should be able to take pressure, provided he didn’t have to run for too long. But then, ten metres wasn’t very far.
Mikhail drew his own blaster — the standard sidearm of the Republican Special Commando Forces, which he still used, even if he no longer had any reason to and even if was bulky and ugly and Anjali’s Marcasona blaster was clearly superior.
He nodded at Anjali. “On my mark, we make for the trees.”
He counted and they got up, blindly firing back at the sniper, as they made their way across the long ten metres of open space headed for the cover of the trees.
They dove into the copse of trees and kept going, ignoring the branches that hit their faces and the snow that seeped into their clothes and the occasional stabs of pain in Mikhail’s wounded leg. Behind them, the sniper kept firing blindly into the trees, but all he hit was wood.
When the sound of shots faded in the distance and no sign of pursuit was forthcoming, they finally slowed down. Unbidden, Anjali wrapped her arm around Mikhail’s waist, supporting him.
“Do you need to rest?” she asked.
Mikhail shook his head. “No, I can walk. Just need a bit of help.”
He put one arm around her shoulder and leant on her. She was wet and shivering, her thick sweater soaked. Instinctively, Mikhail pulled her closer.
“We’ll need to find shelter soon,” he said, “Any ideas?”
“Mountainous areas like this one often have emergency shelters or lodges, where those who get stranded can rest, eat and call for help,” Anjali said, “At least, they do in the Empire.”
“Pretty sure it’s the same here,” Mikhail said, trying to ignore the pain in his leg, “So who do you think that was? Yours, mine or freelance talent?”
“Definitely not the Empire. Their sniper was sloppy and they picked the wrong spot for an ambush. Imperial forces would never make such beginner’s mistakes. Plus, the sniper used a Republican rifle.”
She spat out the last word, as if she had no idea why anybody would use one. To be fair, Mikhail agreed with her. Imperial hardware was nicer, at least as far as weapons were concerned. Though he still couldn’t give up the familiar, comforting weight of his Special Commando Forces blaster.
“I don’t think it’s the Republic either, in spite of the rifle,” he said, “The tactics are all wrong.”
“Freelance talent then.” Anjali sighed. “So who do you think sold us out? Norland? Or Pekkalainen?”
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