After the Kreon pillaged our planet, they gave us two choices: Join the academies, to be brainwashed into submission, or work the mines for the Kreon. To resist is death. To love is treason. Falling for the enemy is illegal… but it might just save the planet. When I find the one thing the invaders want most – a lost artifact from a dying princess – I must marry an alien prince or watch everyone I love die.I
wake to a deep thrumming sound. My hand reaches for the knife under my pillow as I pull the threadbare quilt off. I step toward the door, avoiding the creakiest floorboards and taking deep breaths to calm my racing heart. There’s enough morning light filtering in through the small window to see my little brother, still asleep on his mat.
I whisper a prayer as I open the door slowly, lifting it up so its normal grating doesn’t betray me. I hear the large drone overhead again and slip outside to follow, barefoot on the cool grass. Our valley is still half-shrouded in mist. I keep to the shadows of the forest as I scan the early morning sky, trying to sniff out the smell of engine oil over the strong scent of pine and damp earth.
Just when I think I’ve lost it, the drone whizzes above me, a few feet over the tree line. I hold my breath as I watch it zoom toward our cabin. But then it wobbles and changes direction. Downward. I take a deep breath and start running. As I close in on where the drone is dropping rapidly into the forest, I slow my pace so I don’t trigger any of my own traps.
I hear the instant the battery in the drone gives out, then its rotors go silent. I wait behind a large tree until the metallic beast hits the forest floor, but peek around to see it flailing in a small clearing. Thin legs slide out of its main body and reach toward the ground. It crawls eastward like a giant black spider, trying to head back to the Kreon base over the horizon.
Electricity flows through me as I sprint toward the machine and drive my knife into its center. It makes a loud metallic screech before going silent again. I crouch over it, listening to the surrounding forest. I don’t like being this exposed. I hold my breath until finally I hear the birds start their chirping again, then quickly disable the cameras by sawing through the wires with the tip of my knife. Once it’s dead, I take a deep breath and grab the machine in both arms, pulling it tightly to my chest and risking a rare smile. This one weighs a lot. Which means more parts to sell.
I take a while to make it back to the cabin; the weight of the machine keeps me from moving too quickly. My chest tightens as I listen for anyone following me who might have heard the death of the drone. Although well into the harvest months, I shiver only slightly in my thin nightclothes. My blood is still warm with adrenaline, and the winters are fairly mild in our valley anyway. This makes hunting easier since the game doesn’t head for warmer climates like up north. My father chose it well. Almost like he knew what was coming.
I bump open the door of the cabin with my shoulder and use a foot to kick it shut again. Jamie is standing in the middle of the room glaring at me.
“I didn’t have time to wake you.” It’s the only thing I can think of to say. I’m tired of apologizing to him for the things I have to do to keep us fed and safe.
I cross the room and heave the drone onto the sturdy workbench. It used to be our family dinner table, back when our parents were here and we were an actual family.
I turn back toward my little brother. Although his brown hair is tousled with sleep, the serious expression he’s giving me makes him look just like our father. I swallow the bile rising in my throat as I remember the last day we saw him, almost a year ago. It’s his fault Jamie is afraid every time I leave the cabin without him. He thinks I’ll disappear too, and he’ll be all alone.
“Fine, I’m sorry, Jamie. How about I let you work on this one, instead of parting it out? It’s one of the biggest we’ve caught.” I tilt my head as I watch Jamie’s expression soften. His curiosity has always been his weakness. A weakness we both share. My stomach clenches as the bribe seems to work. Although this will appease him for now, I know Jamie won’t stop bugging me to go out beyond the woods. And I can’t keep him confined to our little valley forever.
I look back at the large drone. The excitement of finding it drains and leaves my body feeling weak again. This hunk of Kreon metal would’ve gotten us almost a month of supplies in trade. But keeping Jamie safe and happy was more important.
I’ll just have to find another way to get food this week.
As Jamie looks over the drone and pulls out our stash of tools from under a floorboard, I go outside to get breakfast. Underneath thick rosehip bushes I pull up a wooden hatch covering our cache of foodstuffs. Lying on my belly on the cool morning grass I look down into the hole. My heart sinks as I pull out my small flashlight. Our only flashlight. It flickers but finally illuminates the near empty box at the bottom of the dirt-chilled hole. I reach down and grab the last chunk of cheese and a bag of dried meat.
I’ll have to go to the trading camp soon. Dread burns in the pit of my stomach as I turn off the flashlight and tuck it into my waistband. I close the makeshift cellar and stand up. Back inside I slice the meat and cheese thinly with my knife. Jamie and I sit on the edges of our sleeping mats and eat in silence.
“We’ll need to sell this drone, won’t we?” Jamie asks as he wipes his mouth with his sleeve. He gazes at the worn floorboards in front of him.
“No way, this one’s yours. I promised you the next drone. I’ll show you how to take this one apart and fix it.” I force a smile. “It seems different from the others, so it should be an interesting one.” I used to be able to lure smaller drones out of the sky with a mirror and then disable them quickly, but that trick stopped working, and it had been nearly two months since my last catch. The truth is, this larger model worries me. What was it doing here?
Jamie looks up at me, his light blue eyes showing a maturity well beyond his nine years. “But we need the food.”
I nod. “I’ll figure something else out.” I reach over and muss his hair. He pulls back growling. I laugh. “Don’t I always figure it out? We haven’t starved yet, and we’re still living free.”
Jamie gets up and stomps over to the drone. “Yes, I know you will, Rya. You always have.” He holds up one of the drone’s broken rotors. “But I’ve learned all you can teach me about fixing and repairing drones, comms, and generators. There’s nothing else to do out here, in the middle of nowhere, and you still won’t let me go hunting with you.” He pouts as he unscrews one of the drone’s emergency legs.
I stand up and lean against the wall next to the workbench. “I know you’re getting bored, but it’s dangerous out there and we need to be careful. You’ll get to go hunting with me soon.”
“You’ve been saying that for years,” he grumbles.
I lean over and pop out the brain chip out of the drone with my knife and hold up the gleaming silver square. “And besides, even though you think you know everything about machines, you still haven’t learned hacking.” I wink at him and place the chip with others in a wooden box I keep high on a shelf.
“What’s the use of learning all that if I’m hungry all the time?” Jamie slams the tools and the drone leg onto the bench and storms out of the cabin.
I sigh and rub my temple. His dark moods are getting worse, and I have no idea what to do about it. I look over at the faded picture on the shelf of my brother and I standing in front of our smiling parents. It’s the only picture we have of our former life. Mom was angry when Dad came home with the polaroid camera, she said it was a wasted trade. I’m glad he insisted. Without this photograph, I’m afraid Jamie will forget them. At night, in the dark, I try to picture their faces from memory, but I feel them slipping away from me as well.
Anger wells up inside me as Jamie’s dark mood spreads. It feels like a physical presence in the cabin, thinning the air and making it hard to breathe. Why did they have to abandon us? I want to grab the frame and smash it on the ground, but I slam my fist onto the workbench instead, sending tools scattering across its surface.
I shake my head at myself as I rub my hand. Jamie is right, we’re barely living as it is. Our small cabin consists of one room with two thin mats, a workbench, and a shelf of books. I walk over and drag my finger over the worn spines. Almost all the books are Earth history, from ancient times up until the first invasion thirty years ago. If I were found with these, the Kreons wouldn’t hesitate to put me to death. But these books were my dad’s hobby and I can’t part with them. He said the history and stories in them would be important to us one day. I flip through the pages, letting the musty smell and the feel of the leather bindings calm me down.
I can’t let myself think too much, so I quickly put my day clothes on and sheath my knife into the leather holster around my waist. I grab my backpack and head out to look for Jamie. It doesn’t take me long to find him. Although he complains all the time about not going hunting or scavenging with me, he’s also afraid to go too far from our cabin. Instead, he goes up. I blink against the brightness of the blue sky, scanning the treeline surrounding the valley. I find him in one of his favorite tall pine trees, at the edge of a rocky stream. Securing my pack around my shoulders, I climb up after him.
I sit on a thick branch across from him and look out at the little valley we live in. “You can almost see past the ship today,” I say, nodding towards the horizon.
Across the valley, a gleaming alien leg rises from the trees like a metal serpent and continues up through the haze created by the refineries. It ends where it attaches to the city-sized Kreon ship blocking out the sky. Below it lie the crumbling remains of a sprawling human city, now abandoned except for the sharp Kreon structures, that glitter like a thorny crown in the dark shadow of the hovering spacecraft.
“Yeah, the smoke isn’t as bad,” Jamie grumbles under his breath.
I smile, trying to coax him out of his funk.
“Why don’t you come down and get your chores done. I’ll check only the closest traps today and wait until tomorrow to go to the traders. That way we can work on that drone together tonight.” I bump his foot with mine. “What do you say?”
He frowns but looks over at me. “All right. But before it gets dark, I want to show you how much my aim has improved.”
I narrow my eyes. “Agreed. But you still can’t go with me tomorrow. I know you’re getting good with your bow, but there’s more to hunting than just the actual shooting part.”
He starts to climb down the tree, dropping lightly between the branches. I move more slowly, my grip tight as the tall trunk leans in the wind.
“Like what? I know how to avoid the drones and watch for human and Kreon traps.”
I close my eyes for a second before heading down after him. The truth is, I’m more comfortable with the traps, but he doesn’t need to know that. Leave them empty, and return when the catch is dead. No need to listen to the creature’s dying screams.
“Yes, and you’re getting fantastic at those things. But knowing isn’t the same as doing. It takes practice, and we need to start nearby first.” Especially if the Kreons are getting more active in our section, I think, remembering the large drone. “I’ll take you soon, Jamie. I promise.”
He grunts as he lowers himself to the ground, but I’m not sure if it’s a response. Jamie’s frustrations are growing stronger each day, but I’m not ready to introduce him to the world beyond our valley. I put on a brave face when I go to market, but the truth is I’m terrified to be out there on my own. The Kreons aren’t the only danger for a solo traveler.
And it’s not just that – I know Jamie is expecting more. From the fairy tales Dad used to read us when we were younger, about knights and quests. He’s expecting a grand adventure, but the sad truth is, there’s nothing out there for us.
We silently walk side-by-side back toward our cabin. I’m so deep in thought, I don’t hear it until Jamie grabs my arm. I freeze next to him, listening to the silent forest. And then I hear what Jamie was alert enough to hear first. Another drone. We look at each other with wide eyes and hurry off the path, squatting low beneath a cluster of blackberry bushes. I look up through the branches searching for the drone, ignoring the thorns digging into my skin.
Two drones in one day is not a good sign.
Drones rarely come to our valley on purpose. I usually have to hike up and over the eastern mountain toward the human compounds or west toward the abandoned city to capture them.
Jamie points over our heads and I see it. It’s a small, metallic orb I recognize as a spy drone. All the Kreon drones are really spy drones, but these little ones are for specific missions. The Kreons are looking for something. Or someone.
I slip my pack off and pull out the foil emergency blanket. I cover Jamie and I with it quickly, pulling him into my arms. We wait as we hear the drone pass overhead. It seems to hesitate and I hold my breath. Maybe they’ve improved their heat-seeking tech?
My joints are stiff and shaking before we finally hear the drone fly off toward the nearest human compound. I pull the blanket off and Jamie and I take deep breaths. I check the sky above us to make sure it’s truly gone. I look back down and see that Jamie is crying. I pull him back into my arms, combing his hair with my fingers. “It’s all right, it’s gone now. We’re safe.” When he stops shaking enough to walk, we head back home.
Jamie is unusually withdrawn the rest of the evening. Probably embarrassed that he cried in front of me. It’s been a long time since he’s had an episode like that, and he’s not a little kid anymore. He does all of his chores while I go check a few traps, without me reminding him. Even when I bring home two rabbits and we finally have a good meal with carrots and potatoes, he pushes his food around quietly. He doesn’t even ask to work on the large black drone sitting on the workbench.
The silence is almost worse than the outbursts, but I know he just needs time to recover from the drone incident. That’s the closest he’s been to real danger in years. I decide not to drag Jamie outside to watch as the stars appear in the evening sky, which is our normal nightly routine. He lies on his mat staring up at the ceiling, his hands interlaced behind his head.
From Dad’s bookshelf I choose one of my favorite storybooks to read out loud. I don’t care if Jamie is listening or not. Tonight, this story is more for me, anyway. A way to fill the uncomfortable stillness in the cabin, and the weight of the unknown future hanging over us. As I lay in our little cabin clutching the old book to my chest, I envy the power and freedom the princess has in the story. I fall asleep imagining myself as a beautiful princess on a magical quest, who walks openly among thriving populations of free humans. But even in my dreams I know it’s a lie. There’s nothing out there but brutal, senseless violence and chaos. In our world, there is never a kind old woman who bestows magical gifts or a fated romance, and as far as I can tell, nobody lives happily ever after.
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