Chapter 4

Hope stared at her reflection in the mirror. She winced at the bruise ringing her neck where Bron had held her suspended against the car wall. Finally bringing herself to look at her own eyes she felt her heart drop. Now a deep amber color, they reflected light like the eyes of an animal, giving them an otherworldly shine. She set the mirror down and turned to the group gathered in Luke’s RV. Luke, Scar and Ani watched her silently. She cleared her still sore throat and, grimacing, reached over to take a sip of the honeyed tea Ani had given her. 

“How… No, why have my eyes changed? And why does the video of me fighting Bron and Kat look like an animal fighting for its life?” Hope asked softly. She set the tea down and looked up at her friends. She leaned back carefully in her seat. I’m going to have a lot of bruising on my back, she thought. Quinn had taken a look at her before Luke and Ani led her away from the junkyard, and besides the bruising on her back she had some on her ribs. 

Ani glanced at Luke who nodded for her to go ahead. She turned back to Hope and said, “Our clan, the Ulric clan, as your mother named us, is special.” 

Hope lifted an eyebrow and frowned, “I’ve heard the story of the founding of our clan a million times.” 

“Not like this. There is much Warren did not feel everyone needed to know. Please listen, Hope,” Luke waited for Hope to nod and then turned back to Ani. 

“When the original thirteen of us were young, not long after World War 3 started, they took us to the Institute. Some came from orphanages, or were bought from destitute families, some even taken off the streets or kidnapped. The youngest was a couple months old while the oldest was ten. We started with 20 in our group. The scientists ran tests on us and gave us injections. They said it was to keep us safe. That the world outside their walls had become too violent and harsh for us children. We had rooms and while sparse, they were clean and warm. We only gathered together when we had lessons, meals and for exercise,” Ani paused to take a sip of her tea. She cleared her throat before continuing. 

“Each day they would give us an injection and run tests. Then we’d get breakfast and go to lessons for the morning. After lunch we went outside to exercise. The kids older than five started on some basic fighting training. This lasted years. As we got older, they also started to impregnate the girls. Many miscarried, a few died in the process,” Ani’s voice cracked, and she took a deep breath. 

“I proved to be barren, so they stopped trying on me after my first couple miscarriages.” Ani’s shoulders dropped. “Your mother, a few years older than me, was more fertile than any of us. She had one miscarriage early on and then the next pregnancy she lost the baby at around five months. Then she got pregnant with you. We could see the difference in her this time. She started to toughen up and stand her ground more.” 

Hope paid close attention at the mention of her mother. She hadn’t ever heard much about her. She opened her mouth to ask a question, but Scar shook her head slightly and she closed it again. 

Ani looked up with a sad smile, “Most of us just followed orders, and even though we didn’t like our lives there, we didn’t fight to change them. One boy fought after we had been there a few years, but he disappeared the next day. We never saw him again. We learned to obey and not fight.” 

She paused and looked at Hope, her eyes haunted. Hope reached over and took her hand, giving it a squeeze. Ani smiled and said, “Your mother though, when she got pregnant with you Hope, everything changed for her. She somehow knew you would survive. She refused to have you there, where they would take you from her. She knew you would be subjugated to many horrible tests. Your mother began to scout the schedules of the guards, noting down when they switched shifts or took breaks. The guards would completely relax whenever the head scientist, Dr. Debonaire, was gone. She’d sometimes tell our group how proud she was of our progress then be gone for days on end to report to her superiors. 

“Stephanie knew we would only get one chance. The next night, we made our move. The guards had taken us to the exercise room and started a game of poker in the corner near the door. Without the guards being conscious of it, we slowly moved closer to them, ready to make our move. When the guards began to argue amongst themselves, the men jumped them. We grabbed the keys from one and somehow managed to find our way out of the facility. Turns out, it wasn’t very heavily guarded.” 

Hope’s throat was tight with anxiety, and she finally let out a breath hearing that the initial escape attempt had been without casualties. She scooted forward to the edge of her chair, gripping the sides tightly as she continued to listen. The relief she had found was lost in the next moment. 

“Once we escaped, we constantly moved around. Stephanie, being so far along in her pregnancy, had more and more difficulties. The night Stephanie went into labor with you, the guards from the institute caught up to us in the woods. We somehow managed to hold them off. Stephanie, too weakened by the labor, had lost too much blood. She died there in Warren’s arms, begging him to make sure you stayed safe. We had fourteen adults and three children that survived that night, including you. Three lost their lives. We didn’t even have the time to bury them before running again. Warren found a nomad group for us to join, and ever since we’ve been on the run, always fighting off the mercs every time they inevitably find us.”

Hope gulped back a lump in her throat and fought the beginning of tears at the story of her mother’s death. She sat silent for a while, composing herself before she looked up and asked, “What did they do to you at the facility?” 

Luke cleared his throat and answered instead of Ani, “Warren and I determined the Institute had been changing bits and pieces of the DNA of anyone who passed their tests. They were modifying it to show traits found in wolves. Mainly, to emulate those of beta wolves to follow orders and be loyal to the leader of the pack. The Institute also enhanced the experiments’ senses and instincts.” 

Hope stared at Luke’s face, trying to determine if this was a joke, but her earlier behaviour was proof enough of the truth. She swallowed back her disbelief and asked, “So if that’s why my eyes have changed and I growled and acted like a wolf, then can the rest of us do it too?” 

Luke shook his head gently and said, “We think it is because you are a second generation. You inherited your mother’s DNA, and possibly a few other mutations. Whereas the others had their DNA changed after birth. We also think that the gene they tested in your mother may have mutated under stress. From what Warren and Ani have told me, your mother experienced a sort of bolster to her natural personality. She worked hard to follow orders and not draw attention to herself around the scientists, but when they left, she showed her true personality. I believe when she got pregnant with you and her instincts told her that you would live, her mutated gene kicked in and she became even more of a leader than her natural personality. I call it the Alpha Gene Phenomenon.” 

“The Alpha Gene Phenomenon?” Hope asked, repeating the words quietly. 

“Yes,” Luke said, nodding. “The scientists specifically modified everyone to be obedient, or like betas, as it would have been in a wolf pack. The Institute wanted their experiments to follow orders, not lead or challenge their leadership. Everyone besides you has that beta disposition. They look to others to lead them.” 

“But Bernard and Dante, and others have spoken out about not wanting me to lead them. If they have beta mentalities, wouldn’t they follow anyone who is their leader?” 

Scar shook her head, “That’s not how a wolf pack thinks. Or any herd animal. The leader is the one who has proven themselves to be the strongest and most capable. Alpha animals must constantly defend their place against those under them or newcomers who challenge them. Bernard and Dante both named someone else they thought should lead – someone strong who had life and fighting experience.”

Hope nodded as she thought back, “Okay, so how did my test fight against Bron and Kat show that I should be the leader? Not that I am even sure I want to lead.” 

Ani chuckled and said, “You probably didn’t notice, but Bron is almost completely a machine. The only organic parts of him are his torso and head. We had Kat and Bron show this to the clan after we brought you here. Not only that, but they are both trained mercs who served time in the war while it raged. And you took on both of them and won. Granted, Kat likely could have still kept fighting, but Bron would have been dead and then it would have been one-on-one again.” 

“Holy shit. No wonder it felt like hitting a tank,” Hope said as she flopped back in the chair. She inhaled a sharp breath. 

Luke chucked and brought up a schematic on his screen and turned it to Hope so she could see. It displayed a photo of Bron, without his clothes. A heavy-duty metal frame surrounded his torso, his arms and legs built into the frame. Each limb had mechanical joints and appeared to have its own small power supply. The image rotated and Hope saw a metal spine covering Bron’s organic one, reinforcing it so that it could handle the mechanical limbs. 

“Wow. I beat a guy that literally could be his own tank,” Hope murmured, her eyes huge. 

“Yep, you sure did sis. And your whole clan saw how well you fought. For someone your size versus someone Bron’s size, even if he had been flesh and bone, it would be a feat. Let alone against a man made mostly of metal,” Scar 

moved to squish onto the edge of Hope’s chair and put an arm around her. She flashed Hope a proud smile. 

Hope smiled back, a bit hesitant, and then turned back to Luke and Ani, “What if I don’t want to lead the clan?” 

Ani and Luke looked at each other and then Ani said, “You don’t have to. We won’t force you. But Hope, you are the best option. You may not have as much life experience as some, but you have been tested again and again. By Warren and by the mercs, as they hounded us your entire life. And you would not be expected to do it alone. Goodness knows Warren sure didn’t. Quinn, his second in command, and Luke had always offered him valuable advice. You would have Luke, and me, and others in the clan to support and help you.” 

“Don’t forget me. You’ve been like a sister to me pretty much since I met you. No way would I abandon you now,” Scar put in, squeezing around Hope’s shoulders in a hug. 

Hope nodded and said, “I’d like to think about it,” she paused and then continued softly, “why did no one ever tell me about our clan’s past, and what I am?” 

“Warren and I didn’t know how, or even if, the genetic modifications would manifest in you. Most of the clan seems just like every normal person you’ve met, right?” 

Luke waited for Hope to nod before continuing, “That’s because the gene mods on their DNA aren’t something that are noticeably apparent. They are a bit faster, stronger, and have keener senses than most normal humans. But most suppress what few urges or instincts that could set them apart, as a way to blend in. From what I have heard, your mother was a lot like you and her behaviour changed when your life was in danger. However, even guessing that, I had no way of predicting how the gene might show in you or if it even would. That is why Warren and I devised all the survival tests for you as you grew up. We wanted to see what gene mods your mother passed on to you and how they would affect you. We used the fight with Bron and Kat as a last resort test to try and trigger the same mutation your mother had. The Alpha Gene Phenomenon.” 

Hope nodded and her head jerked up as a sudden thought hit her, “Is this Alpha Gene Phenomenon the reason why we have been hunted by the mercs my whole life?” 

Ani frowned and looked away from Hope. She answered quietly, “The head scientist has been obsessed with getting her hands on you, the daughter of Stephanie, since we escaped. Anytime one of the women at the facility gave birth or had a miscarriage, Dr. Debunaire would take the baby or fetus to run tests and experiments on,” she looked at Hope and gave her a sad smile, “Stephanie is the only one we know of to surprise the scientists. Not only did she lead a revolt and escape, she did it while pregnant. They wanted desperately to get her back so they could run tests on her and discover how her gene mods had manifested, and why. When she died, they transferred their obsession to finding and capturing you.” 

“So, it’s my fault that we’ve always had to run and fight.” 

Ani shook her head, “They wanted the rest of us back in their clutches, or dead, as well. We are a security threat to them. We know too much and are a threat to the Institute and their research. They don’t care if most of us are returned to them dead. But you…you they want alive.”

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