Chapter 2

Hope was on her way to the kitchen bus after getting all cleaned up when she was hit with the full weight of a four-year-old throwing themselves at her legs. She gave an exaggerated “oof” and knelt to hug the little girl, “Tali, aren’t you supposed to be in class?” 

Tali smiled and nodded, “Miss Terra teachin’ us history.”

Hope chuckled softly, standing she took Tali’s hand and walked her back to the circle of kids. “Well, let’s get you back before you get me in trouble.” Tali giggled and Hope held a finger to her lips as she sat in the space on the mat the girl had vacated and pulled her onto her lap. A bunch of the kids smiled and waved, excited to see her and she grinned back.

A little boy stood before his little classmates as he spoke, “Almost 50 years ago, in the year 2025, lots and lots of bombs were dropped on the United States. They blew up the biggest farming areas in the places called the Heartlands and the Fruitful Rim. 

“After lots of years, all the people moved to cities to make even bigger cities that we call mega-cities. Then we found out that the bombs had anti-crop chemicals and that the United States couldn’t make a lot of food anymore.”  The little boy, stumbling over some of his words, finished with a gap-toothed smile.

“Very good, Alex.” Terra, dimples appearing as she smiled, pointed to the girl sitting next to Alex as he sat back down. “Aria, what happened after the bombs dropped on the US?” 

Aria stood and haltingly spoke, “We went to war. No one knew who bombed us, so we bombed many countries. We started by bombing the countries we were already fighting with. This caused other countries to get scared, and everyone hit bombs all over.” The little girl sighed in relief when Terra nodded at her and she quickly sat back down, leaning into her older brother.

“Very good, Aria. Yes, after we were bombed, we retaliated, which is how World War 3 got its start. It went on for many years, and all the while the US was running out of its already limited food supply. Corporations spent a lot of money and developed the synthetic foods we eat today. The war lasted almost 5 years before a treaty was signed by all.  As a result, air travel and travel between countries are severely limited. Trade is mainly handled by nomadic tribes and caravans with special licenses.”

Terra lifted a handheld device and opened a projection of the US map. She touched a button on the side, which allowed the device to hover, before placing it in the center of the circle of kids.

“After the dust settled and the soil was tested in our old farmlands, many farmers sold their land to big companies who could better afford trying to re-soil and seed the land. One corporation, United Farming, developed a modified seed that could grow crops in the contaminated soil. However, the seeds were expensive and required special fertilizer. Many of the farms that grow the crops needed to make our synthetic food rations are owned and run by companies or by farming communities pooling their resources. 

“Many cities have large greenhouses that can grow some of the old seed crops, but only the rich can really afford to buy the produce due to the limited space. As cities grew into mega-cities, they had to grow both up and outwards. They became more and more crowded as communities in the bombed areas and coastlines, facing natural disasters, relocated.”

Terra looked around and asked, “Does anyone remember what happened to the US militaries?” Eight-year-old Bernadette raised her hand and stood when Terra nodded at her. 

“They were disba-” Bernadette struggled to remember the pronunciation before deciding to use an easier term, “torn aparts because they had done bad science stuff to their people in the war, and everyone was very mad at them.”

Terra suppressed a chuckle and smiled at the little girl, “Yes, they did experiments on groups of their troops. They tried to enhance them and make them super soldiers. However, there were side effects, and many were unstable.” 

“That means them wents crazy,” six-year-old Lana said to the four-year-old Tali in Hope’s lap.

Tali nodded with a frown. “What them do after war done?” Her fingers played with a braided bracelet Hope wore, but her focus was on the class.

Terra winced slightly. “Most of them disappeared or were killed during the war. A few had their enhancements turned off and only after passing many psychological exams, to be sure they were not dangerous, were allowed to go home. Now instead of armies and organized military, there is an abundance of mercenaries. These are people that can be hired to do things the army used to do. They can protect people or be asked to do dangerous missions. Some even take money to kill people.” 

“Bad people?” Tali asked with wide eyes, her fingers momentarily stopping their fidgeting. 

“Some are, others are important people, and some are even just normal people.” 

“Then why them need killed?”

“Well, even now when living isn’t as easy as before, there are people who get jealous of others, or they are fighting over the same resources. Today, many must fight for survival and sometimes people don’t care who they hurt to survive and have an easier life. People today join different types of groups to survive: mercenaries, corporates, techies, netrunners, and nomads. Can anyone tell me what we are?” Tera smiled at all the hands raised and pointed to ten-year-old Nathaniel. 

“We are nomads. We travel around from place to place instead of living in the cities. We join caravans and help them with their jobs, and we work at farming communities so we can trade supplies with them.”

“Very good! Yes, we are nomads. But we have a few special people with us that help us stay connected and survive. Like Luke, who is a netrunner and makes sure we always have enough work to feed everyone, and keeps us informed of what is going on. And Hitch and Scar and Hope,” Terra smiled as all the kids turned to look at Hope, who gave a small wave, “who help protect us. We also have two techies to make sure our vehicles always run and to fix things. And lastly, there is Quinn, our medic.”

Terra gave a soft clap of her hands. “Okay, let’s go get our dinner from the kitchen bus and join our families. Tomorrow we will be working on some math.”

Terra pushed the button on her handheld to turn off the projection and thanked Alex and Aria as they rolled up the mat they had been sitting on and handed it to her.

There was a round of groans and giggles as the rest of the children scrambled up. The sitting cushions were gathered, and everyone started towards the kitchen bus in the center of the camp. Hope scooped up Tali with a smile as they made their way over.

One of the caravan women holding her baby walked up to Hope with a confused look, “Aren’t some of the children a little young to be learning all of that?” 

Hope smiled as Tali leaned forward to play with the baby’s fingers. “They are young, but this is the world they live in. It’s important for them to know how it came to be the way it is. Why we live the way we do.” She saw the woman was still unconvinced and gave her a small smile and excused herself and Tali. 

After a meal of re-hydrated soup and some hard bread, Hope herded the children to their bus to get ready for bed. Scar followed along and sat in the small sitting area at the front of the converted bus. One of the younger children, a wisp of a girl only four years old, came running out and stood in front of Scar. 

Scar sighed, and without looking up from the knife she was sharpening, asked, “What is it Tali?”

“Will you sing us a song?” The little girl asked in a sweet voice. 

“No.” 

“Please Auntie Scar?” the little girl pleaded. Making her blue eyes big, she leaned forward to place a tiny hand on Scar’s knee.

Hope walked in and scooped the girl into her arms. She winked at the girl and said in her sweetest and most innocent voice, “Don’t worry Tali. I’ll sing you a song. Let’s not bother Auntie Scar.” 

“No,” was the curt reply from Scar. She glared up at her friend and stood to place her work on the table and walked past them into the back where the bunks were.

“Why?” Hope asked, still feigning innocence. “There’s no need for you to stop working on your knife. I am perfectly capable of singing them a bedtime song.” 

“No, you’re not,” Scar said sternly, taking Tali from Hope and tucking her into her bed. “You are a terrible singer and you know it, now shut up.” 

Hope giggled and sat on the edge of another child’s bunk, pulling the blankets up and kissing the girl’s nose. 

“Auntie Scar, sing the one about the ocean,” a little voice piped up. A chorus of agreements came from the rest of the children. There were eight of them, all under age twelve. Some were kids of members of the clan, and a few were abandoned children the clan had taken in. 

Scar gave them a soft smile and started singing a familiar lullaby. She had once told Hope that her own mother used to sing it to her family when they were still with the water nomads.

Scar’s voice was a beautiful alto with a soft lilting to it. Hope closed her eyes as she listened, almost as entranced as the children.

* * * * * 

Later, on the way back to their bunks, Hope looked over at her best friend and smiled knowingly. “You love singing to the children,” she stated. 

Scar scowled at her, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Hope muffled a laugh, “You adore them as much as the rest of us. You can’t fool me, we’ve been friends for what? Over ten years?”

Scar just glared at her and kept walking. Hope smiled and followed her. Scar worked hard to appear intimidating and unapproachable. She wasn’t a big people person and preferred that people generally avoided her.

Her attitude couldn’t hide her looks, though: with her dark skin, hazel eyes, and hair buzzed short, Scar had an androgynous sort of beauty. Combined with her tall and lean figure, sharpened with the skills of a fighter, she attracted so many stares that Hope wondered if this was how the mercs zoned in on them so quickly.

The main reason most people shied away, other than her almost constant scowl, were the three big scars on her face. There was one along her right cheekbone and two vertical slashes from her forehead to left cheekbone. She had almost lost her left eye from those injuries. 

Hope was Scar’s opposite in looks. She was a good ten inches shorter, at five feet, with pale skin and a lean yet toned body. Her hair was a blonde so light it was almost white and her eyes a soft honey brown. With her delicate features and flawless skin she was often described as a porcelain doll, a description she hated but had learned to use against people who underestimated her in a fight. Her looks were deceptively delicate, but her body was her weapon. Scar, her mentor in martial arts, had helped her make herself that way ever since they met ten years ago.

When they reached the bus reserved for the single women of the clan, they said their goodnights and parted ways for their own sleeping areas.  

* * * * * 

After a normal day of packing the caravan up and scouting ahead with Scar, Hope’s attention was drawn back to present events as they reached the fire by the kitchen bus. Everything from dinner had been cleaned and put away, and everyone had gathered around the fire. 

Scar and Hope went to stand next to Ani. Luke and Hitch were next to the kitchen bus, and everyone else circled around the fire to face Luke. Hope looked around at the 19 adults that made up the bulk of the Ulric Clan.

Luke cleared his throat and ran his gaze across the group, satisfied everyone was present. He cleared his throat before speaking, “We are gathered here to discuss the wishes of your deceased leader. Warren was a good man and a dear friend of mine. When he first found out he was sick, he came to me. He told me about the Ulric clan’s history and what he wanted for its future – your future. That is what I wish to discuss tonight.”

He paused, pulled out his Plexiglas screen and screened the contents before continuing, “As many of you know, Warren was training his adopted daughter, Hope, to become his successor. He wished for Hope to lead once he was gone.”

“Why the hell should we have to listen to a child? She’s just barely turned 20. We have so many more experienced people who should lead,” an angry voice interrupted.

 Everyone turned to look at the person who had spoken: Bernard, who stood with a tall, burly figure and short blonde hair and blue eyes, looking almost exactly like his father, Dustin. He was a few years younger than Hope but seemed to have nothing holding him back from speaking up against her, except when Dustin turned to glare at his son and hush him. 

“He’s right,” Dante chimed in, the specks of gray in his hair denoting his position as one of the original clan members. He spoke in a low, calm voice. “She is young, and leading us is a heavy burden. One we should think twice about before placing it on her.”

Ani scowled at the men and spoke in a firm tone, “Hope may be young, but she is not a child any longer. How many times has she gone out to fight the mercenaries? How many times has she gone to negotiate for food or helped us join a new caravan when we were asked to leave our current one? She takes side jobs that are potentially dangerous to help us. And have you forgotten who her mother was?”

Luke held up a hand, indicating silence before he began to slowly speak, “Warren and I talked about all of this, and our concerns are the same as yours. We did not expect you all to agree without us offering you proof that she is the ideal leader. 

“The caravan is passing a junkyard tomorrow, and I have convinced them all to take a break there so we can meet with a couple friends of mine.  They will administer a test of Warren’s design for Hope to prove herself. To show that, without a doubt, she is ready to lead. ” 

Luke looked around at everyone’s expressions but continued before they could interrupt, “We should all sleep. Tomorrow will be an eventful day. We will all gather in the center of the junkyard during the midday break. That is where my friends will meet us. Now, good night.”

Without hesitation, Hitch stepped forward and wheeled Luke away. The group around the fire looked at each other, a few grumbled conversations emerging as they dispersed, and headed to their own sleeping places. 

Hope turned to Ani with a confused look, but the older woman simply gave her a hug and told her to sleep well. Scar patted her shoulder and headed to where the main caravan was circled, leaving Hope standing there alone. She stood alone for a moment, looking up at the myriad of stars, feeling a bit lost, before wandering back to her bunk. She fell asleep pondering over her future test and wondering if leading would be the right choice.

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