Watching as Sive paced nervously back and forth in the confinement of the elevator, Autumn tried to calm her own nerves. There was a twitching in the pit of her stomach and her back ached like the Devil from the space flight. She didn’t mind flying; in fact, she loved cruising around space, but anything that involved leaving or reentering the atmosphere was all but unbearable.
You’d think by now they’d have come up with a way to get you into space without making it feel like you had a rocket shoved straight up your ass and that your spine was being ripped out of your body but nooooooo. I swear to God, I’m about this close to telling the Cartel that if the job’s not on Earth they can shove it.
“I don’t like this, Sunny,” Sive muttered as he leaned against the elevator wall and fidgeted with his blasters. “This isn’t how we do things. It’s always been a name, a location, badda-bing, badda-boom, shoot a guy in the freakin’ head, and get paid. They’ve never sent us a transmission saying ‘go here and await further instructions’ before. I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all. It reeks of a trap.”
Autumn placed a hand on her partner’s muscular shoulder and sighed. “Sive, calm down. We’ve got this. Even if it’s a trap, we’ve got this. Remember when we got ambushed at the Lunar Space Port? There were ten members of the Lunar Knights and at least four war-droids there. And how many of them got to walk away alive? None. So just keep your head on your shoulders and your eyes open. If we have to, we’ll carve this space station up like a Thanksgiving turkey and get the Hell out of here.”
Sive had always been a worrier and overly protective of Autumn. Ever since he had caught her stealing from his cargo-hold over a decade ago, he had taken her under his wing, and had acted as her friend and mentor. He had a soft spot for Autumn that no one, not even Autumn, could really understand. Sive had the reputation of being one of the most ruthless and nefarious bounty-hunters on the planet, yet, for some reason, he’d never sent her away.
Autumn was little more than a street urchin at the time Sive caught her, albeit one who just happened to be masterfully skilled at disarming security systems. Sive had every reason, every right, to simply do away with Autumn, but instead he took her in, trained her, and introduced her to working for the Cartel as his partner. He may have made her an outlaw, and her life was on the line almost every single day, but Autumn saw it as better than living on the streets and stealing just to have something to eat. Sive had given her life a purpose. She owed him her life, and she would gladly live and die for him in a heartbeat. They were soulmates in crime and a duo not to be taken lightly.
Rubbing his hands together, Sive nodded anxiously. “A’ight, Sunny, but if this shit goes bad, you owe me a weekend in Vegas. Right now some Martian Ale and a room full of strippers is starting to sound mighty good.”
Autumn laughed. “Sive, to you, Martian Ale and a room full of strippers always sounds good.”
With a twinkle in his brown eyes, Sive shrugged and admitted, “Well, you’ve got me there, Sunny.”
Autumn rolled her eyes and giggled. Sive liked his vices, but he was the best partner Autumn could imagine. He was one of the best shots she’d ever seen and the things he could do with an ax were just deliciously barbaric. His black hair may have already started turning salt and pepper, but he was better than most the bounty hunters half his age.
Her only complaint, which was a small one, was that he insisted on calling her “Sunny,” a shortened version of her middle name, “Sunshine.” It was annoying, but if that was the worst she could say about him, she considered herself pretty lucky. Most people in their line of work were downright scumbags and thugs. To actually have a partner she could trust was almost unheard of.
Finally sliding open, the elevator door gave way and revealed a huge banquet hall. It looked like something out of the history books that Autumn always read about old Earth royalty. It was unlike anything she had ever seen in person. It was absolutely stunning. Unlike most space stations, which were cold and metallic in appearance, the banquet hall was designed to look like an ancient room on Earth, complete with wood trim, fancy rugs on the floor, and what looked to be a functional fireplace.
The fireplace was most likely just a hologram, but it was impressive nonetheless. Whoever owned this place had spent quite a fortune to produce this elaborate illusion. Now Autumn’s curiosity was really piqued. Who exactly had hired them and why were they meeting here, of all places?
In the middle of the room was a large rectangular table. Seated there were four men all wearing military-grade body armor. There were two ways to get that kind of body armor—the military or the black market. From the look of the group, she severely doubted she was staring at anyone in the Earth military.
One of the men, a 30-something scruffy looking fellow with dirty blonde hair, looked familiar to Autumn, but she couldn’t quite place him. The other men, whoever they were, all looked incredibly dangerous. Autumn slowly maneuvered her right hand towards her blaster, just in case things were about to get out of hand.
Out of nowhere, a silver service android came rolling up to greet them. “Excellent!” it said, in a voice that still sounded more mechanical than human. “Our final guests have arrived!”
“Guests?” Autumn asked. “Since when did the Cartel start throwing tea parties?”
The service android was one of the newer models, a Tech-droid model 7, the one Cybertech Industries had made to look and behave more human. The damn thing even heaved its chest to simulate breathing and had a random blink program added to its programming for that extra added touch of realism. The makers claimed it was done to make humans more comfortable around the androids, but to Autumn, it only made the machinery that much creepier.
Curling up the corner of its mouth, the android did its best to fabricate something that would pass for a smile. “I assure you, all questions that you have will be answered shortly. Now, my master has asked me to confiscate all weaponry while you are here. They will be returned to you shortly.”
Sive put the blade of his ax up to the android’s face and snarled, “You so much as touch my ax, I will turn you into a toaster! Do you understand me?”
Moving away, the android looked genuinely stunned. Well, looks like all the time they spent on giving the model 7s authentic facial expressions worked. She actually looks terrified. “Um, yes. I understand quite well. Since you are unwilling to hand over your weapons, would you please follow me to the table where you can take your seat with the others?”
Putting his ax back at his side, Sive faked a pleasant smile. “Lead the way, toaster-face.”
The model 7 turned and led them towards the center of the room. As they walked, the android returned to its normal social protocols. It was like the threat had never happened at all. “Would either of you care for a beverage? We have one of the finest collections of both Earth and Martian liquors in the known galaxy. Drinks are…complimentary, of course. Your host would like you to be…comfortable during your stay.”
Exchanging glances with Sive, Autumn shook her head. Sive replied, “None for us. We’re working.”
Nodding, the model 7 said, “Very well then.”
A drink sounded wonderful to Autumn, especially after the physical strain of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, but she had a rule—never drink on the job. Not only does it slow your reflexes, but you run the risk of getting drugged. Whatever was going on in this space station, she wanted to be on top of her game…just in case.
Sive followed behind Autumn and the droid with his head on a swivel. He had seen some shit in his day, including the overthrow of an Earth embassy in Brazil that left nearly a thousand people dead. Sive was many things, but trusting of strangers was not one of them.
They took their seats at the table as the four men already seated glared at them suspiciously. No one in the room spoke a word and everyone had what Autumn liked to call, “shifty eyes.” The others seemed to be just as on edge as Autumn was and this was making her that much more uncomfortable being there.
Whoever these gentlemen were, they definitely looked to be an unsavory lot. Not that Sive and Autumn were exactly high society themselves, but at least they knew where they stood if the shit hit the fan. These other gentlemen, though, looked like a pack of hungry wolves. She eyed each of them suspiciously and got ready for all Hell to break loose. As her grandmother had told her, “When you’re sitting among a pack of wolves, it’s wise to take note of who has the biggest fangs. You just never know when you might have to start fighting your way out of the pack to make it to freedom.”
Just as Autumn was getting on the verge of saying “screw this” and walking out, a door at the far end of the room opened, and a pair of gentlemen entered the room. The men wore matching red and black military-grade body armor and helmets that hid their faces. The one in front was a monster of a man, six foot six Autumn guessed, and three hundred twenty pounds if he weighed an ounce. The second man, who walked a step behind the first, was still an impressive size but looked almost average in comparison to the first. The pair walked as if they had a purpose and that meant whatever they had been summoned for was about to commence.
Butterflies danced in Autumn’s stomach as she watched them marching towards the table. Still, as far as she knew, this whole thing was just an elaborate trap, so she exchanged glances with Sive and they both placed their hands on the grip of their blasters and prepared for the worst.
Autumn thought, I don’t know what those two fellows are after, but I hope they’re friendly, because those are two gigantic motherfuckers. Autumn and Sive had taken out bigger, but she still dreaded the notion of having to do so again.
Approaching the table, the giant in front began speaking, using some kind of filter in his helmet to distort his voice. “Now that we’re all here, we can begin. My name is Dread, and my associate here is known by the code-name of D’leet.”
“Wait!” Sive blurted out. “D’leet? As in the D’leet who single-handedly blew up the weapons factory outside of London for the Cartel?”
D’leet took off his helmet and sat it down on the table. His jet black hair was cut very short, resembling that of someone in the military. He smiled and said, “Well, it wasn’t exactly single-handed, but I had a hand in it.”
The familiar-looking scruffy fellow who sat across the table from Autumn cleared his throat. With a cocky expression on his face, he casually said, “Yea, that’s nice and all, but I was told that I would be meeting one of my contacts from the Cartel here and ain’t a one of you him! I wanna know what the hell is goin’ on and I wanna know now, or I’m walkin’.”
Autumn couldn’t be sure, but she had the feeling that Dread was smiling inside that helmet of his. Dread folded his arms and replied, “I suppose the need for deception is over. Everyone in this room is, in one way or another, a part of the Crime Cartel, including our very outspoken friend here known by the code-name of Bumblebee.”
Dread started circling the table and continued. “Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? I am quite sorry for the deception, but all of you have been brought here under false pretenses. At this exact moment, Earth’s government is making a move on all seven families of the Cartel. Within the hour, every family leader, every bodyguard, and every high-ranking associate within the Cartel will either be dead or in custody. The Cartel is no more.”
Roaring with protests, threats, and accusations, the room exploded with sound. Leaping to his feet, Bumblebee, in his black and gold body armor, bellowed above the rest, “And just how the fuck do you know this?”
Without missing a beat, Dread responded, “Because I helped set it up, of course.”
Almost everyone at the table pulled a pistol and took aim at Dread. To Autumn’s amazement, Dread seemed completely unphased by it. He calmly folded his arms and said, “Put your weapons away. All I did was speed up the inevitable. The Cartel has become too brazen, too bold. They’ve become sloppy. They shamelessly operate in the open. They don’t even hide what they are anymore. Some are even seen as celebrities, working the talk-show circuits, bragging about their crimes. This is not how good business is done.”
Autumn hated to admit it, but Dread had a point. It wasn’t like the good ole days when nobody but a select few knew the bosses. The bosses were now household names. They had become so confident in being untouchable, they were breaking every rule that had made the Cartel so powerful in the first place. Still, if the Cartel was gone, just how was she going to make a living? Being a bounty hunter was all she knew.
A slender, dark-haired fellow at the table with a boyish face jumped up from his seat. He pointed his weapon at point blank range at Dread’s helmet and cried out in a thick British accent, “So you set up everyone I bloody work with and had them killed? People owed me money, Dread. A lot of money, and dead men can’t pay their bills!”
Casually waving his hand, Dread replied, calling the young fellow out by his Cartel Code Name, “Bloody, Earth was already looking for the Cartel. All I did was point them in the right direction. Through their investigations and the Cartels’ own foolishness, the EBI had acquired a complete list of Cartel member’s names—a list, I might add, which included all of you. Pulling a few strings, I managed to have each of you removed from the list, at least for the time being.”
Putting the pistol back in its holster, the dark-haired Bloody took a step forward and got nose to chest with Dread. With a fire burning in his eyes, the young man gazed up at the armored behemoth before him. “So what the Hell is this? Blackmail?”
Placing his hands upon Bloody’s shoulders, Dread said enthusiastically, “No, my angry little friend. This is opportunity. Someone has to replace the Cartel. Why shouldn’t it be us?”
Snapping his fingers, Dread glanced over at D’leet, who retrieved a stack of manila envelopes and placed them on the table. Dread continued, “These are just a portion of the files the EBI has on each of you. It has everything: birth certificates, criminal records, known associates, and even the home addresses of your families. So, why don’t we have a look and see just who we have in attendance, shall we?
“The bold young man in front of me is Jason Pearson, code-named Bloody. He started working for the Cartel at the tender age of eight, delivering packages for the Watson family in London. He worked his way up to being a smuggler and became the best the Cartel had ever seen. He’s the man that ran the Martian blockade of 2336 and is probably responsible for at least eighty percent of every illegal substance found on the streets of Earth and Mars today.”
Smiling at the praise, the boyish, blue-eyed Bloody sat down and started thumbing through his file. In the meantime, Dread took the next folder and sat it down in front of Bumblebee. “Next we have Terry Austin, code-named Bumblebee. He’s a former Extreme Cage Fighter and Junior Heavyweight Champion of the world, until he blew his knee out training and had to retire. After that, he started working as muscle for the Cartel in Vegas and quickly rose up the ranks. He’s now the chief administrator of the Cartel’s gambling and prostitution operations in the Vegas sector of North America. A lot of people call him ‘The Prince of Las Vegas,’ but most people just call him ‘sir.’ He also has quite a reputation for having a fascination with blowing things up. Rumor has it he blew up The Grand Seven Casino just because the owner wouldn’t pay his tributes.”
A twisted smirk appeared on Bumblebee’s face. “Hey, I warned the guy. If you wanna do business in Vegas, you have to pay your dues.”
Dread nodded. “Indeed. Needless to say, Bumblebee here is an expert in demolitions, and that’s why he’s here.”
Autumn smiled. She knew she had seen Bumblebee before and now it all clicked. She had grown up watching the cage fights with her grandfather and Terry Austin had been one of the most flamboyant to ever step into the cage. Everyone said that he “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee,” a reference, if she remembered correctly, to a former boxing legend from the late 20th century by the name of Muhammad Ali. Terry had been one of the most dangerous men to ever enter the cage. She was most definitely going to have to keep an eye on this one.
Without realizing it, Autumn had been staring at Bumblebee as she reminisced about sitting in her grandfather’s lap and watching the fights together. Eventually, Bumblebee put his manila envelope down and asked, “Can I help you, little girl? What’s the matter? You wanna see my stinger?”
The room fell deathly silent and even Dread took a step away as he waited for Autumn’s response to Bumblebee’s crude remark. Sive started to stand up, but Autumn quickly put her hand on his shoulder and whispered, “I’ve got this.”
Autumn then turned, smiled ever so sweetly at Bumblebee, and pulled her pistol out beneath the table and took aim at Bumblebee’s crotch. “I don’t know,” she said softly. “Would you like me to blow it off for you?”
Sitting straight up, Bumblebee exhaled and nonchalantly flipped through his folder. Beneath his breath, he whispered, “Moving right along.”
Autumn softly giggled and holstered her gun. That’ll teach him to talk to a lady like that. Not that I’m exactly a lady, but, whatever. Autumn may have been easy going, but she was also not a woman to be trifled with.
Setting the next folder in front of the burly man with the caramel complexion and the shaved head, Dread continued, “Here we have Kervin Alexander, code-named Leviathan. He’s the best hacker in all of North America, maybe the world. He once shut down the entire power grid in Japan just so the Cartel could simultaneously hit over thirty banks at the same time.”
Darting his eyes over at Leviathan, Bloody asked, “That was you?”
Shrugging innocently, Leviathan’s expression gave nothing away. “Might have been, but I can neither confirm nor deny that accusation.”
Bloody’s eyes lit up and he snickered. “Oh yea, that was totally you.”
As two folders landed in front of her, Autumn exchanged concerned glances with Sive. Putting his arms behind his back, Dread circled behind them and said, “And here we have Autumn White, code-named The Widow, and Rocky Wilson, code-named Sive. Officially they’re bounty hunters, but this is just a cover for their true profession—assassins. And to be honest, they are two of the best I’ve ever seen. Fifty-seven contracts and fifty-seven confirmed kills, a perfect record.”
Autumn folded her arms and grumbled, “One man’s bounty hunter is another man’s assassin.” Shrugging, she added, “It’s not our fault every single one of them resisted being taken in.”
Dread stopped dead in his tracks and turned back towards Autumn. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, my dear. You are what you are. You might as well embrace it.”
Back at the head of the table, Dread delivered the last folder to the white-haired gentleman sitting to the right of Sive. “And last, but certainly not least, is Thomas McCoy, code-named Harmonica. He had over twenty years of military intelligence experience under his belt before he went into business for himself. He’s a master strategist and one of the biggest arms dealers on Earth.”
Harmonica cracked a smile. “I just get people what they need. Nothing special about that.”
There was a pause as everyone explored the folders they had been given. As Autumn read everything they had on her, her heart sank. Damn it! They even have the address of the nursing home where my grandmother stays in here.
Dread took his spot at the head of the table and waited for everyone to put their files down. He cleared his throat and said, “I have brought you all here because you are the best of the best. There is no one in the Cartel as good at your jobs as you are. You were handpicked for a very specific mission.”
Sighing, Leviathan pushed his folder to the side and said, “Look, I appreciate a dramatic build up as much as the next guy, but how about you cut the crap and tell us why we’re really here already?”
Dread nodded. “Fair enough. Now that you see what the government has on each of you, I have a one-time only offer. I have connections within the government that are willing to delete your criminal records, birth certificates, anything and everything connected to you. They will completely purge you from the system. It will be as if you never existed at all.”
Autumn sat back and pursed her lips. “And just what do they want in return? Nothing in this life is free.”
Removing his helmet, Dread smiled as his long brown locks fell about his shoulders. “A very astute observation, Miss Autumn. You’re absolutely right. There is a price for this new freedom. What I’m about to tell you is of the highest security clearance. Only a select few in Earth’s government are even aware of this, so what I’m about to say does not leave this room. Understand?”
Everyone in attendance agreed, and then Dread very calmly confirmed the rumor they had all heard. “Mars is preparing to declare its independence from Earth.”
Harmonica hung his head and whispered, “Oh no. Not this shit again.”
Dread continued. “There’s going to be a war, a very nasty war if what I’ve heard is correct. Mars has been secretly working on new weapons technologies over the last decade and Earth wants that research. The six of you, along with D’leet, will rendezvous with my Martian contact. He already has a team assembled that will assist you with your mission.
“You will infiltrate the Martian research facility and retrieve whatever information you can acquire and sabotage the rest. If you do this, your records will be completely expunged from the Earth database. On top of that, I have been promised by the EBI that all law enforcement agencies will turn a blind eye to all our future endeavors, as long as we remain discreet. Where the Cartel erred, we will not. We will not only work from the shadows, we will become the shadows. The umbra is the darkest part of the shadow, a place where no light can penetrate, and that’s what we’ll be. We will be the UMBRA, and the world will bow to our every whim.
“So what do you say? Join with me and replace the Cartel, or walk out that door and be hunted down for the rest of your short lives? It’s completely up to you.”
One by one they all agreed; there was only one course of action to take. Smiling wickedly, Autumn asked, “So…when do we leave for Mars?”
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