Chapter 1

There was a screech and jolt as the motorcycle stopped just long enough for Hope to leap off and run into the nearby alleyway. It sped off as Scar tried to pull away as many mercs as she could. Hope heard shouts and the muffled thumps of shoes against concrete behind her.

“Two took off after you, and their two friends here are still on my tail. Call me when you’ve taken care of them.” Scar’s voice crackled in Hope’s earpiece, confirming the number of mercenaries behind them.

As she ran, Hope slipped on a pair of black sunglasses and pressed the inconspicuous button on the frame to activate the night vision. She jumped over a pile of mud-stained boxes and raced down the next alley, muttering a soft curse as she saw the wall in her path. After a quick glance, she crouched behind a large dumpster off on the side. She adjusted her position to have a clear view of the mouth of the alley.

“– turned here,” a rough voice said, barely audible to Hope from where she knelt. 

Seconds later, the mercenaries entered the long alley Hope was hidden in. From what she could see through the sunglasses, the taller of the two figures was a man with features that had obviously weathered many fights. His nose was crooked, and a puffed scar crossed his right eye. The man was wearing tough leather pants and a reinforced leather coat – just like the other mercs who often chased after them.

“She’s definitely in this alley. Her trail ends here,” a woman’s voice muttered. The woman had her back to Hope, so Hope couldn’t get a very good look at her face. “Let me switch to heat vision.” 

The woman reached up to her glasses, and Hope swore softly. She rushed at the man, keeping her body low to stay in the cover of the shadows. As she reached the man, she swept her left leg out to knock him off his feet, then flipped back into a defensive position, all in one fluid movement. The merc hit the ground with a gruff obscenity and climbed back to his feet, glaring at her. Hope settled into a low stance, balanced forward on her feet, and waited for one of them to make a move.

“Don’t forget, we need her alive,” the woman reminded, making way for the man to move forward. 

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” the man lunged forward with his fist swinging at Hope’s jaw. She ducked, planting a hand on the ground, and kicked her legs to hit his chest. The man was knocked back into the brick wall, hitting it hard enough that his breath rushed out as he slid to the ground.

With her feet back under her, Hope stepped back to avoid a kick from the woman. The woman pulled out a large knife and rushed forward, forcing Hope to jump over a low slash. Twisting her upper body out of range, she aimed a kick at the woman’s knife hand but failed to knock the blade out of the merc’s hand. Instead, the woman jumped back and pulled out a dagger with her non-dominant hand, too. She came at Hope with both daggers, a flurry of rapid slashes and cuts. Hope ducked, spun, and dodged: just barely staying ahead of the dual knives.

Hope spun, bringing her right leg up towards the woman’s head. The woman caught the leg and threw a right hook at Hope’s knee. Hope cried out but pushed forward to jab her left hand at the woman’s throat. Choked, the woman’s hand on her leg loosened. Hope cursed as the pain from her knee jolted through her body when she put weight on her leg. Hope smashed her fist at the woman’s temple, knocking her unconscious.

Hope, panting, searched for the man, who was no longer collapsed against the wall. Before she could turn and survey the alley behind her, she felt the pressure of a gun on the back of her skull.

“Troublesome bitch. Pity about Sara. Oh well, one less person to share the bounty with.” The man’s rough voice said, “Now, you’re going to move nice and slow. Get on your knees and put your hands behind your back. If you don’t follow my instructions or make any sudden moves I’ll shoot you. I don’t care if they want you alive.”

Hope moved forward like she was about to kneel but instead thrust her left leg back, hitting her captor in the groin. Hooking his leg and sweeping his feet out from under him, she turned, grabbed the gun and pointed it away from herself. She placed her knee on his chest and pushed down with most of her weight.

Grabbing one of her knives from within her jacket, Hope placed it against his throat, “Who sent you?”  She put just enough pressure on the knife to pierce the skin, beads of blood forming along the cut.

The man struggled to catch his breath while holding as still as possible. After a moment, and a slight increase in pressure of the knife, the man spoke, “I don’t know, the order came through the anonymous channels. We would get 50,000 credits if we brought you or any of your group to a selected location alive.

Hope frowned. That matched pretty much every story she’d heard from various mercenaries in the past. It must be the same people after them, but what the hell did they want with her and her family? She jerked the knife across his throat hard and deep, killing him quickly. Hope stood and grabbed a rag from the dead man’s pocket to rub her fingers clean.

Hope did a fast search of the two mercenaries and pocketed their cred chips and weapons, as well as the woman’s glasses.

Straightening her own leather jacket, Hope left the alley while trying to hide her limp. After a few blocks, she turned into a well-lit street. Wincing at the sudden bright lights, she turned her night vision off. She looked around and grimaced at the bright neon signs and crudely explicit storefronts. She gave the command for her phone to call Scar.

“Hey, you ready for a pickup?” Scar’s voice responded to the call in her ear. 

“Yeah, the mercs have been taken care of. I’m over by Frisky Felines on Rouge Boulevard.” 

Silence. And then Scar laughed, “How the hell did you end up in the red light district, Hope?” 

“Just come and get me, Scar!” Hope growled before ending the connection.

She pressed her fingers into a hidden access panel of her jacket, inputting a quick sequence that changed the jacket’s black color to red. She couldn’t change her outfit entirely, but at least the blood no longer showed.

She noticed a woman barely covered in red lingerie with a transparent skirt and top, red fishnets and black knee-high boots giving her a glare. She moved a few paces down the street away from the woman’s corner and stood in front of a cigar shop to wait for Scar. She winced at a commotion a few feet away. A scrawny disheveled man was arguing with a leather-clad man holding a small injector for a popular highly addictive hallucinogen. She frowned and turned her attention back to the street, anxious to get out of the Red Light District and the troubles it attracted.

A few minutes later, Scar, the metal buckles and buttons on her jacket standing out like stars against her dark skin, pulled up next to Hope. Hope settled behind her friend on the motorcycle with a sigh of relief. They took off towards the caravan campsite. They passed through the Red Light District quickly and entered the ruined neighborhoods of the slums soon after. They slowed to pass through the tent cities at the outskirts of Chicago.

Heading into the wasteland outside the city, Scar hit the gas and the motorcycle flew along the road. Hope watched the barren fields and ruins of old farmsteads as they blurred by. There was very little left in the areas around big cities. It took them about twenty minutes to leave the city behind and spot the firelight of the caravan ahead. Scar slowed as they neared the camps and turned towards their clan’s area: off to the right of the main caravan camp.

After the motorcycle stopped, parked near another bike and a bus, Hope slid off and walked over to the small group huddled together by a small fire.  

“What’s the latest?” Hope asked as the other clan members, who had already returned. There were some scrapes, bruises, and one possible broken arm. 

“The same as usual: they were paid to come after our clan and would get a small fortune for any one of us captured alive,” Dante answered in his gruff voice. 

“And once again they had no idea who the contractor was,” Jenna added, a hand on her hip.

“So, no new information?” Ani asked as she walked over to join the group, pausing to look at Dustin’s arm. “You should go have Quinn take a look at that arm Dustin, looks broken.”

Dustin just grunted in reply and walked off to find the one man in their clan that had what could be considered some medical training. It was just some basic first aid and bone setting Quinn had learned along the way, but they made do.

Hope looked around at the rest of the small group and sighed, “We should all go get cleaned up. We can talk later.”

A couple of the people scowled at her, but they all nodded and left. Ani gave Hope a wry smile, “We may have trouble ahead of us, my dear girl. Not everyone is happy that you have stepped up to lead.”

Hope deflated a little and leaned close to the woman who was the closest thing she had ever had to a mother. Ani caught her in a hug, and Hope asked in a whisper, “Did you make the fire burn hot?”

Ani nodded and spoke softly, “They won’t find anything but his ashes.” 

Hope’s shoulders slumped at the reminder of this morning’s events: her surrogate father’s funeral. “What are we going to do, Ani? He’s always been the one leading us. He always knew what to say and do.” 

Her voice broke a little and she stopped speaking. Scar, sitting next to her, put a comforting hand on Hope’s shoulder and answered before Ani could, “You will follow in his path – that’s what he always wanted. It may be sooner than anyone thought, but he was training you to take over from him, Hope.” 

“Scar is right,” Ani said as she pulled back and held Hope’s face in her hands. She gave her a small smile, “He knew you would be the one to lead us when he was gone. Now you just have to remind the rest of the clan.”

“How am I going to do that? Why can’t you, Ant, or Dante lead? Or even Dustin? I’m only 20, what do I even know about leading the clan?”

Scar scoffed and lightly smacked the back of Hope’s head, her voice becoming sterner, “You have been training to take over for Warren since you were a kid, whether you knew it or not. He taught you everything you need to know, and for the rest,” she shrugged and gave Hope a smile, “for the rest, you have us. We will help you.” 

Ani wiped Hope’s eyes and her smile brightened, “You are not alone in this.” 

“She most certainly isn’t,” a flat voice added. Hope looked over and smiled at the man in the wheelchair.

“Hello Luke,” she said with affection. She nodded at Hitch, the big man pushing the wheelchair, who nodded back. 

“Hello, my girl,” Luke smiled briefly. His face looked a lot grimmer when he spoke again, “There is much to discuss. Including your late father’s wishes.”

Hope tilted her head, eyes wide, “What do you mean?”

“I mean that he left a will with information the clan will want to know.”

“A will?” Hope asked, her brow furrowed.

Ani quickly explained, “It’s an old tradition from before the war. The old or dying would document how their belongings were to be distributed or dealt with after they died.”

“Yes. Warren wanted a way to let the clan know some things only after he was gone. As well as to impart some information on to you, my girl,” Luke added.

“Alright, I understand. We’ll have to call a meeting in the next day or so. Will that work?” Hope asked. 

Luke nodded and then, with a wave, patted Hitch’s hand as a signal to return to their bus.

Scar put a hand on Hope’s shoulder and said, “We should go and clean up. It’s almost supper time.” 

Hope looked down at her clothes and grimaced at the blood on her, “Yeah, I don’t want to scare the kids.”

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