It had been more than a year since Alaina disappeared off into the forest, leaving only me and Kaela. Two Stryke sisters versus the world. Against the mighty Vakarrans who ruled over Earth with an iron fist. Who’d stolen away nearly my entire family just because they could. I hated them. Hated the lives we’d been forced to lead, surviving deep in the caves, safe at least, for the time being. I’d do anything to change that and live a real life again.
Kaela had taken command. I hadn’t wanted it. Couldn’t do it.
No one had expected me to either. I was always the wild one, the one who did things without thinking, the one who’d almost gotten her ass caught by the aliens more than once only to be rescued at the last second by her big sister Kira. Our band of human survivors would never have trusted me. Too young. Too foolish, they would say.
Kaela was quiet and demure and, most important, trustworthy and wary of all the dangers our lives entailed.
Not like me. Untamed.
She was off in her gardens, tending to them, picking vegetables and fruit for our dinner tonight. I was walking through the woods, trying to gather my thoughts. Eventually I wandered far enough to find a slow-flowing river, the water clear, the sounds of its trickles calming to me. I sat down and stared at the water for a while, lost in my thoughts.
The sound of a stick breaking behind me made me jump and I whirled around, only to breathe a sigh of relief when I saw who it was. I grinned at first, then frowned, trying to act angry that he had scared me just a little bit.
“Kaze! You shouldn’t go around sneaking up on a girl like that!” I scolded him, trying to match his usual macho tone. He grinned, his eyes darkening dangerously, and my insides twirled with happiness.
“Pretty ladies like you shouldn’t be wandering this deep into the woods all on their own. Could be trouble,” Kaze murmured, making my heart flutter all over the place.
He was human, like me; another refugee just trying to make a life for himself. And although neither of us had made it official by any means, I kind of wanted to make a life with him.
His gray eyes watched me, smoky and stormy, swirling with emotions while he sat down beside me. He took my hand in his and squeezed it gently, smiling down at me. He wasn’t a terribly big guy, but he had a certain roughness and the muscles of a man who worked the land, which I enjoyed looking at from time to time. His dark brown beard was mottled with gray, just like the hair on his head. He was older than me by a good ten or fifteen years, but he’d always been there for me whenever I had needed him. I really liked him for that. Whether I was angry, sad, confused, or happy, he always seemed to know what to do.
For some reason, he seemed to tame my wildness. My need for rebellion. He understood me. My wanderlust, he called it.
“Where do you think this little stream goes?” I whispered aloud, dipping my fingers into the chilly depths.
“I’m not sure. We shouldn’t wander too far from the caves though,” he warned, but even then, his tone didn’t sound all that serious. After a moment, he pointed in the direction the water was flowing. “That way,” he added with a smirk. I rolled my eyes and chuckled.
“Come with me. You’ll keep me safe,” I murmured, watching as a little brown minnow darted between the rocks. All around us, the trees swayed in the wind and I lifted my head, listening to the peaceful sounds of the forest all around us. Birds singing, water trickling, bugs chirping. It made it hard to imagine everything that had gone wrong, just in the past few years. How we would never have a simple life ever again. How I’d probably never see Kira or Alaina again. I felt so lonely, but at least I still had Kaze and Kaela.
Kaze studied me, but I didn’t look at him. He didn’t say anything either, but I saw him reach into the pocket on his belt, pulling out the silver flask I’d once stolen from him when we’d kissed some time ago, back before Alaina had gone out looking for Kira. That kiss was seared into my memory. It had only happened once, but I had never forgotten how his lips felt on mine. How my body had warmed to his touch. The feeling of his fingers traveling down my spine.
He handed the flask to me with a smirk.
“I filled it with some more tequila, since the time you emptied it last,” he admonished, his tone joking as his eyes danced with amusement. I smirked and rolled my eyes.
“Totally worth it,” I joked, sticking my tongue out at him as I took the container in my hands. He laughed at my sassiness.
I opened it and took a big swig. The liquor burned, but in a way that I deeply enjoyed. Standing up, I wandered in the direction that the water flowed, following the path of the river as the sun rose high in the sky. I didn’t have a destination in mind. I just went, enjoying the feeling of being surrounded by nature and with Kaze by my side. I heard him walking behind me and I smiled. I knew he wouldn’t leave me to the dangers of the woods. Always dependable, that Kaze.
We hiked for hours in silence, my thoughts consuming me as we traveled. What would I do now that my older sisters were gone? Should I go looking for them? Should I just move on?
If both Kira and Alaina had gotten caught, what good could I do? I sighed with my sorrow. No, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t help them. Didn’t stop me from missing them though. My fingers clenched at my sides and I struggled to contain my scream of anger and sadness inside me.
It wasn’t fair. Life wasn’t fucking fair.
Humans didn’t deserve this fate. To be captured by aliens on our very own planet, trained for their use and sold off for profit, used to carry Vakarran babies. My emotions battled inside me, a war just begging to be let loose.
“Danika,” Kaze said softly, breaking me out of the beginning of a long line of thoughts that would ultimately lead me into depression. He always knew what I was thinking even before I thought it. He was a good guy. Sometimes I almost didn’t think I deserved him.
“Look up ahead,” he murmured, pointing in front of me. I was so lost in thought that I hadn’t even realized flow of the water was much faster here. The grasses swayed back and forth, the sound of the small white rapids louder. Following his finger, I saw what he meant in the distance.
“A waterfall,” I whispered with wonder. We’d never gone this far before. It felt exhilarating and even a little bit dangerous. Everything would be fine though. Kaze was with me.
Giggling like a schoolgirl, I rushed on ahead with Kaze laughing quietly behind me. Before I knew it, I was far away, and the sound of his snickers quieted with the distance. I ran, and I ran hard, too excited to see what was ahead. For once, wandering out in the woods with him felt ordinary, and I wondered if I could ever hope for some semblance of normalcy in our lives. Maybe together even.
I raced down the banks, climbing down rocks and jumping over puddles until I reached the bottom and turned to look back at the waterfall. It wasn’t big by any means, but it was beautiful. Water splashed over green mossy rocks, the sounds soothing. I could watch the flow of water forever, it was so breathtaking. I sighed with happiness, the sounds of the forest taking all of my worries and making them float away. It was a moment of beauty that I knew I would never forget.
I heard Kaze yell off in the distance, telling me not to run too far ahead. I didn’t pay him much mind. We hadn’t encountered anyone in the woods, be it man or alien, so it felt pretty safe.
And then it all fell apart. I should have been more careful, should have stayed with Kaze. I should have known better.
A boot scuffed against the rock behind me and I jumped, looking behind me only to feel the barrel of a gun pressing against the side of my head. My stomach dropped to my toes, and at once, I knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. My breath caught in my throat and my heart pounded in my chest. My blood rushed to my head.
“My, my, what do we have here? Pretty little brunette like you wandering out in the woods, all alone, just begging to be taken?” a gruff voice began, and my blood ran cold. Shit. I wasn’t alone.
“Damn, it’s been a while since I’ve seen gorgeous pussy like this,” another male said, as a pair of arms wound around my waist. I flinched at the man’s touch, but I was too afraid with the gun to my head.
“Fuck, Neil, you’re right. Look at that pink little mouth. I bet it’ll feel really good when she’s sucking my dick. Mmhhmm. Those lips of hers will surround it just like a picture frame. Fuck… I’m hard just thinking about it,” one said. My eyes darted around me and I realized I was surrounded by three different men. The gun dug into my skull.
Humans. Not aliens.
And they were filthy. Their hair was unruly, so matted with mud and grass that I could barely tell if they were blond or brunette or even gray. One of them was rather large, his what was once white t-shirt covered with disgusting sweat stains, both wet and dried. I doubted he’d changed his shirt in weeks, and in the heat and humidity here in Georgia, that was saying something. His eyes were dark gray and something about them seemed decidedly cruel and inhuman. His beard was long and unkempt, like a caveman. My nose twitched, detecting rancid body odor like none I’d ever smelled before. I doubted these men had bathed in a very long time. I knew without a doubt that they had rather foul thoughts on their minds too. Involving me.
I wanted to throw up.
By the way the two other men stood around the fat one, I could tell he was the leader. Of what, I didn’t know, and I really didn’t want to find out. I needed to get out of here. Now.
The gun barrel dug into my scalp and I tried not to let my fear show, but I was scared. No one had ever threatened me like that before and even though I knew how to fight and defend myself, I was definitely not prepared for the feeling of a gun pressed up against my head. It did something to my courage, making it melt away while I froze instead. To have death but a trigger pull away was something I don’t know if I could have ever prepared for. My lungs rattled from the exertion of taking a breath.
But I would have to be brave. My life depended on it. I was not about to let these men hurt me without fighting back for my life. I was a Stryke. We were fighters. My sisters would expect more from me. I owed my family that much.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” I sneered, doing my best to foster that small sense of valor that was just beginning to swell inside me.
The gross fat one with the beard sneered back at me with contempt, before he grinned darkly, as though this was all just a game to him.
“What’s your name, sugar?” he replied, his eyes dancing with amusement. My insides recoiled in disgust.
“What’s it to you?” I replied. The man holding the gun to my right twisted it into my skin and I couldn’t help but gasp quietly at the pain.
The message was pretty clear. Answer, or you’ll get hurt. My whole body twitched, just waiting to react, to be given the chance to fight for my life. As soon as any of them moved toward me, I was going to kick them in the balls. Fucking hard.
“Danika,” I spat back, trying to keep myself from growling in their direction. My sneer said enough.
“I’m Neil. Nice to meet you, gorgeous. Fancy meeting an exquisite little whore like you out here in the woods. Last time I saw one like you, I had her chained to a fucking wall. I forget her name. What was it? Started with an A or something,” he replied, his gaze dragging up and down my body, and I shivered with revulsion. Even though I was entirely clothed, under his scrutiny I felt naked. And I did not like it one bit.
“Alaina, boss. I think,” the guy on the left said.
The guy with the gun moved even closer, his grimy hand grabbing my waist, and I wanted to whirl and kick him so bad. The gun dug into my scalp, reminding me that they could kill me at any second. I’d have to wait.
“Not an ounce of fat on her, this one. I bet she’ll look real fucking pretty without them clothes. I bet she’ll dance real pretty for us too,” the man said, and I gagged in my mouth.
I stilled, waiting. I’d get my chance to fight back soon. I just needed the right moment.
But then, I heard footsteps crashing down toward us.
My eyes tore forward, seeing Kaze rushing toward me, the anger and fear for me clear on his face. His eyes widened, not moving from mine for a second. I didn’t even have time to shake my head, to yell at him that he should run. Not that he would listen, he’d try to save me anyway.
My moment to fight was now.
My blood ran cold. I forced my body away from the man holding it, whirling and lifting my leg up in a solid, strong roundhouse kick, but it wasn’t fast enough. The gun left my head, leveled in Kaze’s direction, and the booming sound of a gunshot echoed all around me.
My foot connected with the man’s balls, but it was too late.
My ears rang, the sound of the shot deafening, and my lungs stopped working. In that single moment, my entire world collapsed in on itself.
The ringing didn’t stop. It wouldn’t ever stop.
Cold. I felt so cold.
I whipped around, looking back at Kaze, and our gazes held each other’s for a single moment.
He smiled softly, as if he was saying goodbye.
I screamed, fighting like a banshee to get to him, but I couldn’t move fast enough.
And then, the bullet tore through his chest. He looked sad, angry that he couldn’t save me, angry of the fate that lay before me. In that span of a second, he told me everything. He loved me, and I loved him. Always. I’d never forget the look in his eyes as my fear ripped through me. His eyes, so full of warmth and emotion, slowly dimmed until I knew he was gone. He collapsed to the ground and all that emotion that was in his eyes faded away.
My ears were still ringing, and tears flooded down my face.
I felt numb.
Kaze was gone.
Dead. Forever. Leaving me all alone in the hands of these evil monsters.
I choked. I cried. My vision turned red as he lay there on the ground, blood pouring out in a massive puddle beneath him. My sobs racked my body, disbelief racing through my mind. In that moment, watching the man I loved be murdered in front of me, I shattered. I broke into a million pieces and I was afraid I’d never be put whole again.
The fight left me. Everything floated away, and a feeling of numbness overtook me. I couldn’t push it away. I didn’t want to feel. Hands grabbed at my arms and legs, until they pushed me to the ground. I didn’t fight, I couldn’t. My grief consumed me.
I had nothing left.
It didn’t matter anymore.
I closed my eyes and drifted away, escaping to a place in my mind where I couldn’t feel the hands all over my body, ripping away my clothes, touching me in places where they shouldn’t.
I was too far gone. I couldn’t feel anything anymore.
Loss. That was all I knew.
My heart felt like it was dying a slow death, shredding my hope until at last, there was nothing left at all.
I was their prisoner for weeks. I didn’t know exactly how much time passed by, but my numbness never ebbed away. The sound of that bullet still echoed in my head. My detachment was my escape from the horrors of being their prisoner, of being forced to be their whore for their amusement.
Sometimes, my lack of emotion would spur them on, would make them do even more unspeakable things just to see how far they could push me, but it didn’t matter. I was already broken. They could do whatever they wanted to me, but nothing would ever compare to how much seeing Kaze die right in front of me had broken me. I had died that day, but unfortunately, my body continued on living.
I hadn’t known such cruelty still existed within the human race anymore, but I guess I should have known better. I’d been kept safe in our little band of human rebels. I’d experienced kindness and friendship among them, surviving on our own together for more than ten long years.
The men hurt me sometimes, but I didn’t care anymore. I learned they used to do this sort of thing to a group of women, creating their own little harem for their every little need. Now, they only had me, which meant the entirety of their cruelty was focused on me.
Everything I’d ever cared for was torn away from me. My sisters. Kaze. My old life. Nothing was left. I just hoped Kaela could remain safe from it all. I hoped she never left the caves. She was safe there.
We hadn’t wandered too far from the river. Every time I looked at the water, I pictured Kaze’s face and I hoped for death. I hoped that one day, the men would take it too far and my world would turn black forever.
The river was an ever-present reminder of my mistake. The men liked to be near a constant source of fresh water and had camped out under an overhang not far from it. One of them had dragged Kaze’s body away some time ago and disposed of it. They’d never told me where. I missed him. I wished we’d had more time.
It was late one night, and the men were roasting a dead rabbit over the fire. Even though it smelled delicious, it didn’t really matter to me. It wasn’t like they fed me often anyway. It was enough to where my clothes were starting to fall off of me. I could see my ribs protruding far more than I ever had. My hipbones stuck out more than I had ever seen before. Kaze would have told me I was far too skinny. I would have agreed.
I focused on the reds, yellows, and oranges of the fire and listened to its loud crackle, occasionally watching as an ember popped and floated through the air. It landed close to my foot, which was cuffed with a steel anklet chain to a tree, a way to keep me from running away, I suppose, not that I wanted to. I had nothing to go back to. The cuff was tight, marking my ankle with a red, raw ring that hurt and was just starting to scab, so I tended not to move.
A twig broke off deeper in the woods and I lifted my head lazily, wondering if I hadn’t noticed if one of the men had ambled off, but they hadn’t. All three men were sitting around the fire, talking about what sort of disgusting thing they would force me to do next, after they ate all the good rabbit and fed me whatever scraps were left over, if any at all. There usually wasn’t much, but I’d gotten used to the gnawing pain of hunger in my belly.
The human men didn’t stir. I wondered if they had heard the snapping sound, but none of them moved or indicated that they had. I shrugged. Maybe my head was playing tricks on me. It wouldn’t be the first time.
I was tired. I wasn’t sleeping much. Every time I tried, I’d wake up screaming from the nightmares and then one of the guys would kick me for making noise and waking them up. My ribcage was bruised from it, making it hard to breathe.
I heard another twig break, this time in a different direction, and I began to grow nervous and hopeful at the same time. Maybe Kaela and the others had pinpointed my location? Maybe they’d come to save me after all? Or maybe some other less cruel group of humans had come to find me? Did I even deserve to be saved at all?
Somewhere deep inside, I hoped it was a bear, come to kill us all.
My eyes struggled to look out into the darkness, but still I saw nothing. After enough time had passed, I thought that maybe it was just my mind playing a trick on me and that I hadn’t heard anything after all. Maybe I had finally gone completely insane.
I went back to watching the fire, hearing the crackle of the flames and the trickle of the river next to us, and then I zoned out for a little while, until I heard another twig snap in the distance, closer this time. To my right.
I stilled, looking slowly in the direction of the sound, noticing the men didn’t move this time either. They were too loud, eating their rabbit and drinking some sort of homemade hooch. I didn’t listen to what they were saying. I didn’t care.
Soundlessly, I curled up, watching a figure move somewhere not that far off, right along the tree line. The outline of the individual was barely discernable, nearly invisible at times, but I could tell, whoever it was, he was looking straight at me too.
The moment I saw her, I knew I had to have her. My superior vision took her in, even though I knew she couldn’t quite make me out. She was filthy, marked with bruises ranging from deep purple to black, and her cheeks were stained with dirt from her tears. She was clothed in what looked like a dirty beige dress; I could see her gaunt arms and the outlines of her ribs, her skin pale in the moonlight. I knew some Vakarrans treated human women very roughly, but I didn’t approve, and I would never tolerate my men to engage in such behavior either. It made me so incredibly angry, to see a treasured human female suffering like that. I wanted to kill them. Earth was lucky we’d come for them. Mistreatment like this was frowned upon. Damaged merchandise. No good for carrying our children.
We were Vakarran. Some ten years ago, our military had captured Earth and taken the humans as our own, the men to serve us and the women to breed. Our genetics didn’t allow us to sire females, only males, so we were a race of conquerors, constantly on the search for new sources of compatible females. Earth was our most recent conquest and it had supplied a good many women for our species for some time now. I’d even heard news of a breeding colony established in the Andromeda galaxy lightyears away, where a small select group of women were being implanted with human female embryos, so that we’d always have a constant source of mates.
I hadn’t been given the good fortune to be assigned a female by the upper divisions yet, but I knew I’d be given the opportunity sometime soon. I knew my woman would never bear my mark like that. I’d never strike a woman across the face, give her a black eye, or chain her to a tree. She’d submit to me because she respected me, not because she was treated as viciously as this. She would be mine, both in body and soul, utterly and completely.
“What are your orders, Roan?” Taraik asked beside me, using our telepathic link to communicate. I knew my brethren were just was horrified as I was, and that they were just waiting on me to give the orders now. We were going to rescue that woman and take her for ourselves.
“Flank all sides. I’ll take the north. Taraik, the west. Xandaar, the east. Zac, you go straight to her and get her to the tree line as fast as possible while we take care of these good for nothing human bastards,” I ordered.
“What if she resists?” Zac asked.
“Use whatever means necessary, including the tranquilizer cartridge,” I replied, and Zac nodded. Using the tranquilizer gun wasn’t usual with human females, but we had to make sure to get her out of here without damaging her. She looked so fragile that I was afraid we’d hurt her more if we weren’t careful.
The four of us spread out, using our camouflaged skin to blend into the forest around us. I knew where each of them was, the four of us had been together for so long as a team. The seconds ticked by and we all moved closer, careful not to make a sound. My comrades and I closed in, walking from shadow to shadow until we were mere feet away from the dirty human men, who were ravenously chewing on rabbit bones. Fuck, they smelled like sewage. It was revolting. One was even sucking the marrow out of a long bone and I sneered in disgust. Utterly fucking barbarian.
I saw Taraik shake his head. He was a bit of a clean freak, so I knew he was probably itching to take care of these men as quickly as possible.
Xandaar’s eyes searched around us, analyzing our surroundings for other threats that may affect our current mission. He found none as I’d already assessed the area myself.
“We’re clear,” he replied, and the three of us moved in.
I knew Zac was moving in behind us, gathering the female for our own, but now, the only thing I could focus on was the men. I trusted Zac would be successful.
The dirty human men had rudimentary bullet guns in their belts and the three of us moved to take those first. We moved fast, much quicker than the humans, and divested them of their weapons without them even noticing. I pushed the one I’d taken into my belt. The fool hadn’t even loaded it.
We took out our own guns, Optima Laser X1867 models. The humans wouldn’t even see it coming, but they were already dead. It was already far too late for them. They were dead the moment I’d laid eyes on the woman and decided she was mine.
I leveled the sight to the back of the fat one’s head and pulled the trigger. In a flash, the laser burned through the paltry barrier of his scalp and passed right through his head, turning his brain into liquid mush within seconds. All three of them dropped dead right by the fire, Taraik and Xandaar taking care of their men with just as much ease as I did.
We turned around and left them there, bodies collapsing to the side and some right into the fire.
Mission accomplished. Part one, that is. The three of us then turned in the direction that Zac was supposed to end up. I almost laughed at what I saw.
The little female, freshly freed from her metal cuff, was standing straight up, her chin up in defiance as she sparred with Zac. She was strong despite the fact that she was far too thin, that much was obvious. Fragile, apparently she was not. Once she was in our possession though, I would make sure she gained the few pounds that she desperately needed.
The three of us chuckled, watching as the woman kicked and punched, while Zac blocked, looking exceedingly flustered at the woman’s will to fight his attempts at rescuing her. After a long moment, and a few glares from Zac in our direction, we moved in and surrounded her too, only dropping our camouflage at the last possible second so that she wouldn’t see us coming.
Her surprise was obvious, and it quickly morphed from shock to anger and then, she began to look nervous.
“Don’t come any closer,” she warned, but her voice trembled, giving away her fear. Plump pink lips parted as her dark hair swayed back and forth in the breeze and then I saw her eyes. Icy blue and defiant, just like sparkling water.
I held up my hands, letting her know I wasn’t a threat. She didn’t know it yet, but she was already ours. I loved a challenge and Vakarran law allowed those who captured a free human female to keep her. And boy, did I intend to.
“My name is Roan,” I began, and she glared back at me.
“You’re Vakarrans,” she growled, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Indeed,” I replied. “You are correct.”
She looked a little flustered at my response and I had to stop myself from chuckling again. Her body remained tense though, so I didn’t force myself any closer just yet.
“Flank her. All sides,” I commanded, using our link. She wouldn’t be able to hear it, making it optimal to strategize between the four of us. We could take her in the blink of an eye, but I didn’t want my new human conquest to be terrified of us. Now that the men were out of the picture, she was ours, so we would take our time with her. And, we had to fix whatever damage they’d done. She’d need medical attention right away.
“And you are?” I asked gently. I was used to being obeyed, so I was careful to keep it out of my voice. I’d been the leader of the Third Battalion for many years. The four of us were battle hardened, having been at the forefront of many invasions of planets that were compatible with our species, but none of them intrigued me as much as Earth. The rest of them were rather forgettable. Not Earth, though I couldn’t quite pinpoint why.
Something about the humans here was special. And this one was no different. She was more than special. She was radiant, even as filthy and injured as she was. I could see it in her eyes.
“Danika Stryke,” she said softly after a long moment. I could tell she had been thinking about running and about not responding at all, and what the consequences would be if she was defiant. She was probably wondering if we would kill her. I watched her carefully, taking account of her body language and the emotions flittering across her features.
Her eyes held an overwhelming sadness beneath her instinct to fight us. There was something inside that gaze that was broken and wanted to give up, but even so, she held herself with a strength I had never witnessed in a human before. Her eyes told me many things that her body did not. She stood up straight, her arms pulled into her chest in a defensive position, her legs bent just enough so that she could spring away at any moment. I knew deep in my heart, though, that something haunted her. Something had taken her spirit and crushed it. The realization saddened me. I wanted to rescue her from that.
“Stryke,” Xandaar repeated, his tone thoughtful.
“You recognize the name?” I asked.
“I do. Her sister Kira Stryke has a reputation, despite the First Battalion’s efforts to quiet it,” he responded.
The name rang a bell. I furrowed my brow, running my hand over the horn at the side of my head. Kira Stryke. Hmmm.
“She’s the human rebel who was rumored to have killed Commander Strohass, but nothing could be proven. All the evidence had suspiciously been wiped from the database,” Xandaar added.
“That’s right,” I said thoughtfully.
“You know about my sister?” Danika asked, her demeanor turning a bit hopeful, despite the sadness that still cloaked it.
“She’s safe, if that’s what you mean,” Xandaar replied, his reply short and clipped. His guard remained up, but that was him. He was a scientist. He liked data and solitude. It would take him some time to open up to her.
I moved toward her a little and she didn’t flinch, even as I reached for her, brushing the hair from her face. She stared at me with a certain hatred, sadness, and fear. Like a frightened and abused animal that was afraid to strike out. I wanted to change that. I wanted her to look at me with love and desire. I wanted to take away whatever pain was holding her hostage and replace it with happiness.
Soon, I’d make her mine completely, no matter what she said. I’d make her beg for me to take her. She’d be mine. Ours.
But I was patient.
My men were too.