An excerpt from “The Rise of UMBRA”

Harmonica rolled his eyes. “I’ve been involved in enough wars to know that they never tell you the truth about things. They give you some water-downed version of the facts and only the facts that support the winning side. History ain’t nothin’ but a ton of propaganda and patriotic bullshit.”

Twirling a strand of her blonde hair around her finger, Autumn asked, “So what really happened?”

Harmonica paused, momentarily biting his lip as if the memory was too much for him to bare. Eventually he continued, “I was on the ground, helping the Earth forces figure out the best way to infiltrate the colony with a minimal loss of life. We were safely behind enemy lines, or at least we thought we were. Just before dark, a female civilian crashed her car through our front gate. When the soldiers went to investigate, the car exploded. They used a fucking suicide bomber to blast a hole in our perimeter and four thousand colonists came rushing in. We were just a small outpost manned by four hundred Space Marines give or take. It was a damn blood-bath.”

Autumn cupped her hands over her mouth and whispered, “Oh shit.”

Bloody continued, “It was a miracle we made it through that first night. Wave after wave pounded our position. They just kept coming. We would mow down a hundred and two hundred more would take their place. By morning we were down to just 187 Marines and me. Even the colonel supervising our position had been killed—shot in the face by a boy who couldn’t have been more than twelve.”

“Twelve?” Autumn gasped, not believing what she had heard.

Hanging his head, Harmonica replied, “Yea, twelve. That’s the thing about Martians. Time up here has changed all the colonists. The conditions are harsher and life is harder. It’s made them almost barbaric. If Mars really is preparing to declare its independence, Earth has no clue what it’s in for.”

“Well how did you get out of there?” Autumn asked carefully, afraid to upset Harmonica any more than he already seemed to be talking about the incident.

“During that first night, I actually started writing my last will and testament. There was no doubt in my mind that we were all going to die. We were cut off, they had knocked out our communications, we were sitting ducks waiting for the slaughter. In the middle of writing what I thought would be my last words, I heard the most beautiful sound coming from the trenches. I wandered outside and found this kid, and I do mean a kid—he was barely eighteen, playing this harmonica.

“I asked the soldier his name and he told me it was Daryl Stone. He said he was from Louisiana and that his grandfather had taught him how to play. Maybe it was the stress of the situation, maybe the kid was really that good, but this little harmonica was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard in my entire life. Me and the rest of the boys stayed up all night listening to him play. It was the only thing keeping most of us sane.”

Autumn asked, “So he taught you how to play?”

Harmonica shook his head. “Not exactly. During the second day of fighting, the colonists almost had us overrun. It’s moments like those, kid, that show you what you’re truly made of. When everything is dark and there’s no hope in sight, that’s when a man finds out if he’s really a man. I hate to admit it, but I was falling to pieces, but I had no intention of dying on that giant red rock.

“We were so low on men, even I had taken up arms. Everyone had, even the journalist who was there just to report on the rebellion was in the trenches with the Marines fighting for his life. The bodies were piled up four deep in front of us, but they just kept coming. It was like someone had kicked a fucking ant-bed and they just kept swarming at us looking for revenge. It was a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from no matter how hard I tried.

“Suddenly a grenade came flying into our trench and I froze. I was tired and sick of living in constant fear. If this was going to be the end, so fucking be it. Everyone stood there staring at the grenade with the same blank expression on their face, everyone except Daryl. Daryl stripped off his backpack and jumped on the live explosive. It exploded beneath him, sending bits and pieces of him flying everywhere. I was covered in the poor boy’s blood from head to toe and I finally snapped.

“I picked up Daryl’s rifle and climbed out of the trench. It was like I was someone else. I just didn’t care anymore. If I was going to die, I was going to take as many of those colonist bastards with me as I could. I charged straight at their line, shooting at anything that moved.

“When I ran out of ammo, I took the knife from my side and started stabbing everyone in my way. It wasn’t long before I took three shots to the leg and collapsed on the ground. A colonist stood over me, an old gray haired man, and he raised his boot to smash my skull in. I closed my eyes and braced for the inevitable, but instead I heard machine gun fire and explosions going off all around me. It seemed the Calvary had finally arrived.

“We drove the colonists back and eventually squashed the rebellion. What they don’t tell you in the history books is that 400 Space Marines started that battle, but only twelve of us got to live to talk about it. The medics patched me up well enough that I could walk but I was in shell-shock. I wandered around aimlessly until I noticed something shiny in the trench. It was Daryl’s harmonica. How it survived the explosion, I’ll never know. I picked it up and took it with me as a way to remind myself of the horrors I saw that day and how some brave eighteen year old kid gave his life so I could still be here. The next day, I handed in my formal resignation. I’d had my fill of war. I just didn’t have the heart for it anymore. Ever since then, I’ve been learning how to play the harmonica to honor the kid who saved my worthless life.”

“Damn.” Autumn whispered. “I am so sorry that I asked.”

Looking through his pained eyes, Harmonica managed a weak smile. “It’s alright, kid. Sometimes it’s good to remember why we do what we do, even if the memories are painful. And what’s your story, little lady? How did you end up an assassin?”

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