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Amethyst by kr142616

Amethyst part 1: Planetfall
Date: 24 October 2007, 2:08 am

      The first thing he heard was beeping. At the moment, it was the last thing he wanted to hear.
      Groggily, Jeff slapped the alarm off, and rose from bed. Next to him his girlfriend stirred, rolled over, and went back to sleep. Sighing, Jeff leaned his back against the window. Another day of flipping burgers, he thought, yawning.
      Turning around, Jeff pressed his forehead against the floor to ceiling window. It was still dark outside, and the view of pre-dawn Corona was beautiful. It was the only benefit to the low-income apartment he and Sam shared, though.
      Still not fully conscious, Jeff shuffled into the bathroom, and slid into the cramped shower. He was greeted by a blast of cold water, however, shocking him awake, and belatedly remembered that the landlord had yet to fix the water heater. Thoughts of the landlord brought thoughts of rent, and thoughts of rent brought thoughts of his job, and thoughts of his job brought thoughts of how his life just plain sucked.
      Years ago, when the government had restarted the draft in the wake of the Covenant invasion, Jeff had skipped. His life had been going well, he was straight out of college and lining up for job offers, and he'd just met Sam. Now, though, things were different: he'd never gotten the jobs, he'd been unable to pay the rent, and he'd had to move in with Sam to her dump of an apartment in east Corona.
      Jeff turned the water off, letting it drip for a moment, and toweled himself dry. Moving to the sink, he began brushing his teeth. Pausing a moment, Jeff heard a faint popping sound. He couldn't place it, and unworried, he went back to brushing. It was probably one of their weirdo neighbors: the bad parts of town attracted more than a few nutters.
      Finished cleaning up, Jeff walked back into the bedroom, where Sam still lay sleeping. Fishing through his drawers, he pulled on some clothes, and grabbed his gel. Glancing in the mirror across the room, he spiked his hair up in a Mohawk, and again found himself looking out the apartment window, where the Amethyst Army Global Guard compound dominated the landscape, several kilometers in the distance. Slowly, his hand slipped down the glass.
      I could have been there rather than this shithole, he thought. No action on this backwater world, anyways. Serve my six years and get a free education to boot. Joining the military wasn't for all people, though, and Jeff knew it. His uncle's service in the marines had made him a near-psycho.
      Jeff let his hand drop from the glass, and turned to leave, looking for his keys and a jacket. He stopped, though, when the room around him began to grow steadily lighter. It's not dawn yet, he thought wonderingly, looking out the window for a source. What he found, though, was at first incomprehensible.
      Outside, it looked like the sun was falling. A roiling ball of light grew in the sky, larger and larger, until it was bright as day. Then it grew brighter, bright enough Jeff was blinded. Jeff was shoved violently through the air, and found himself on the floor.
      Jeff's found himself blind and unbalanced, his ears ringing. Slowly, his vision came back, and the ringing subsided to an unsettling silence. He rose from the floor, amid tipped chairs and magazines scattered across the carpet, and made his way to the window, a sinking feeling in his gut.
      Outside, only a few kilometers away from the apartment, an entire city block was gone, the ground a glassy sheen. Only about half of the AGG building was still there, the remaining portion looking like a cutaway model. Though he knew what it must have been, Jeff couldn't bring himself to quite think it.
      Jeff looked out of the window to see where the ball had come from, and saw bright flashes up in the sky. It was hard to make out what was happening, but he knew what they were.
      "Holy fuck," Jeff whispered.
      "What was that?" Sam asked from next to him, worry in her voice. Jeff hadn't heard her get up, nor seen her approach him.
      He wanted to say something comforting, wanted to say something to reassure himself and Sam alike. All that came out was, "Look," accompanied by a stiff nod.
      She stepped forwards to the window, and upon seeing the destruction, brought her hand to her mouth. Horror was written across her face, reflected in the glass. "What happened?" she asked.
      Again, Jeff was at a loss of words. "Plasma bombardment," he said, finally thinking it. He pointed upwards, high into the sky, where the flashes sparked against the fading darkness. Sam gasped when she recognized them for what they were: enemy ships.
      For a moment there was silence between the two. Then, Sam spoke. "What do we do?" she whimpered.
      Jeff gazed out the window; his thoughts were racing yet painfully slow at the same time. After a few seconds, he responded.
      "You need to get out, down to the bomb shelter," Jeff said, keeping his voice as steady as he could. "No, wait," he said, just as quickly as he'd finished his last sentence. "Take the savings and go to the spaceport, and get on the first ship you can. I have to do something first."
      He turned and started walking towards the door, and knew she was staring at his back in confusion.
      "Where are you going?" she called after him.
      Jeff stopped. She wouldn't understand, but she deserved an explanation.
      "I need to make sure my uncle's okay," he said, and left. She could take care of herself, but his uncle had a nasty habit of running towards fights. Whether it was to help or for the fun of it, he wasn't really sure, but Jeff needed to keep him away from this one.
      So he left the apartment, leaving Sam rooted to the spot with fear, and feeling the same fear roiling in his gut.
      Jeff had a bad feeling a lot of people wouldn't make it out of this day alive.

      Corporal James Darin went against the flow of bodies, making his way to the outskirts of Corona. Around him people surged to the city's center, to the bomb shelters and passenger ships picking up anyone who could make it off-planet. Their eyes were wide in terror, their belongings in bags and clutched in arms.
      Darin had been groundside for less than twenty minutes. His frigate, the September, had launched three of its Pelicans to assist in the defense of Corona after the AGG base had been hit. His dropship was hit, but thankfully the platoon had managed to bang out before they crashed, the airborne marines sailing down on parachutes.
      I hope the pilots made it, he thought absentmindedly. The platoon had comm gear in their helmets, but the pilots had theirs linked to the dropship, and couldn't be hailed. Over the radio, he had heard reports of the other two September dropships being shot down as he sailed towards the ground. One had lost everyone aboard. This was already turning out to be a shit mission.
      Now he was separated from his platoon, albeit in communication, and several klicks away from where he needed to be, without transportation.
      Up ahead he saw a tunnel, marked as leading towards the outskirts of town.
      "Hey, sarge, I'm taking the 23rd Street tunnel. Looks clear: it's a two-way three lane to the outskirts."
      "Roger that, Darin," the platoon sergeant, Hart, replied. "Everyone copy? 23rd Street tunnel comes out at the dig site." There were scattered replies over the comm, and Darin went into the tunnel.
      There were few cars and trucks abandoned in the road, fewer than normally would be expected. Traffic had been light when the first attack came, though; it had been only 0500 local time, before rush hour. Getting where you needed wouldn't have been that difficult yet.
      After several minutes of walking and radio silence, Darin heard a familiar sound, and turned around, smiling. It was a Warthog LRV. Someone else in the platoon must have found transport.
      What he saw looked like the familiar jeep, but it wasn't quite the same. It was dark blue and glossy, missing its massive 12.7mm LAAG, and looked nothing like a military vehicle. Darin ran into the middle of the road anyways, and put his left hand up, the other cradling his rifle, pointed harmlessly to the ground.
      "Hey, stop!" he shouted as the civvie's 'Hog slowed. "I'm gonna need to commandeer this vehicle, citizen." He doubted the driver would readily agree, though. He looked about early twenties, with pale skin and dark clothes, and a tall blue Mohawk: a hard case if the marine had ever seen one. His reply only proved Darin's assessment.
      "Fuck you, buddy. I gotta be somewhere." The kid scowled at Darin through the front windshield.
Darin thought quickly. He was about the age that he should have been conscripted into either the AGG or Marines, yet he looked like neither, especially considering his hair. That meant he skipped the draft. Darin immediately thought coward. Maybe he could bully him into helping, scare him a bit.
      Darin removed his helmet, feeling fresh air on his face. "Hey, mate, if you haven't noticed, there's a war going on. Martial law was announced as soon as the Covenant arrived in-system." He motioned to the side with his rifle, one-handed. "Get out."
      The kid's glare intensified, and he chuckled humorlessly. "You know what? You can go fuck yourself."
You're a right tough bastard, aren't you, taking on the big bad marine? Darin thought, almost laughing. Smart one, too. The 7.62mm armor-piercing rounds in his rifle could easily pierce that windshield, safety-glass or not. He'd play it safe and try to reconcile with him, though. All the same, he still needed the kid to know he meant business.
      "Martial law means I can shoot you. No one would know, no one would care." He smiled and swung the rifle over his shoulder, though, not intending to shoot the kid. "Now, you obviously like this car. How 'bout you give me a ride to the outskirts? We're going the same way. Then you can go to your club or whatever as the sky rains plasma." Darin smiled sickly-sweet. He wanted to toss in the word punk, but that might have just pissed him off more than he wanted.
      After a few long moments of consideration, the kid relented. "Fine man, whatever, get in. I need to go somewhere else first, though, then I'll get you to the outskirts."
      "Great. Now, was that so hard, mate? Where you gotta go, anyways?"
      "Look, if it's so damned important, I need to find my uncle. He was a dumbass marine, too, and I wanna keep him from doing something stupid."
      Darin jumped into the back of the jeep, resisting the urge to bash the punk with his rifle. "Well, let's go, then." This was shaping up to be one hell of a day.

Amethyst part 2 - Corona
Date: 16 November 2007, 3:10 am

      Jeff Walther's hands gripped the steering wheel of his 'Hog, white-knuckled. Nest to him sat his marine passenger, full-visor helmet back on and hand on the side of his head. He kept reminding himself that the marine's presence was only temporary. He was only giving the asshole a ride, that was it.
      For a long while they rode in silence through the deserted city, no sound but the whirring of the Warthog. There was no conversation, no sound of traffic, no music. It shouldn't be like this, Jeff thought. Cities need noise.
      Jeff glanced sidelong at the marine, then towards the jeep's center console. The 'Hog had been a gift from his uncle, and while the jeep wasn't brand new, the radio was top of the line. Jeff reached for the sound system, found his favorite track, turned the volume up high, and hit play.
      As a wave of sound hit him, Jeff felt instantly at ease. The marine didn't seem to share Jeff's taste in music, though. He jumped and shouldered his rifle, scanning the area, and ripped of his helmet.
      "Who the fuck's screaming?" he shouted, when he turned to see Jeff laughing.
      "Hell, mate, turn that shit off," he said, scowling. "You want the whole city to know we're here?"
      Jeff continued laughing. "Calm down. It's a city, it needs to be loud." This asshole sure was a bad sport. "It's creepy without any noise."
      "Yeah?" the marine sneered. "All that shit is is noise," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "Now turn it off."
      The marine was really starting to get on Jeff's nerves now. "My car, my rules," he said. "You don't like it, go back to walking." He reached for the dial, and turned back to the marine. "And it's called shrill."
      The marine made to reply, but was drowned out as Jeff turned up the volume, chuckling. So, that's how loud it goes.
      Jeff could see the marine trying to shout over the music out of the corner of his eye, enjoying himself. He eventually seemed to give up. Then, Jeff felt a gloved hand grab one side of his head, and cold metal press into the other side.
      Jeff's foot came up from the gas, and he remained still, not saying a word. The marine removed his hand from the side of Jeff's head and, keeping the pistol level with his head, switched the radio off. He smiled wickedly at him, and winked. "Martial law, mate."
      Jeff's face was set like stone. He was seething and terrified inside, but he wouldn't let the marine have the satisfaction of seeing either in his expression.
      The marine kept speaking. "Now, listen. "I've been a marine all my adult life. You've been a cashier. Who do you think has experience in these matters?" He waited for a moment, but Jeff didn't respond, and simply stared ahead. The marine sighed, and continued.
      "We're in an abandoned city, with enemies potentially nearby. With this music blaring, everyone will know where we are. Including the aliens. So we turn it off." The marine paused, and donned his helmet with his free hand. "Understood?"
      Jeff couldn't bring himself to look at him. "Asshole," he said, spitting out the word.
      "Understood?" the marine asked again, the cool threat replaced by one more heated. His handgun still hadn't moved.
      Motherfucker. Jeff didn't think he'd shoot him, but he didn't want to risk it, and if his uncle was gone, if he went to join the fight—"Sure, whatever," he found himself saying, hanging his head.
      He was already regretting helping this guy. So much for civic duty. Should've run the bastard down.
      "I get it," he said, staring at his knuckles, hands wrapped tight around the wheel.

      Darin stepped into the walk-in closet, and had to struggle to keep his jaw from dropping. Around him was a miniature armory, in a middle class apartment in downtown Corona.There were several assault rifles and a pair of shotguns, numerous handguns, boxes of ammunition and preloaded magazines, and packages of explosives, among other things, all neatly arranged, mounted or stacked against the wall.
      "Jesus, your uncle would've been screwed if there was a fire," he said, trying to cover his surprise with humor. After his loss of temper in the 'Hog, Darin needed to try to get this kid to respect him.
      The kid—Darin still hadn't gotten his name, nor given his own—looked like he was about to grin, but before Darin could tell for sure he turned away. Good, he thought. If he likes me, he might trust me, might help me. Behind his helmet, Darin smiled, though it wasn't the friendly smile of his driver.
      The kid walked towards a rack, and removed a short carbine, a bit smaller than Darin's MA5B, and an ammo belt of 7.62mm magazines. "I told you he was a hardcore son of a bitch, didn't I? Hunter, too."
      "Hunter, my ass," Darin said, removing a suppressed .50 rifle from the wall and whistling. "Gonna bag a deer with this fucker?" The rifle was older and by no means as accurate or heavy-hitting as a UNSC S2 AM, but it would sure make a hell of a mess of anything living. Definitely not civilian-legal, he thought, replacing the rifle. Who is this fucker?
      The kid opened a locker, and removed a combat jumpsuit and armored jacket. "Well, he's definitely at the outskirts. One of the suits is missing, and I think a rifle's gone, too." The kid didn't look happy, nor surprised. "I'm gonna change into this," he said, lifting the suit. "Help yourself."
      Darin grinned, feeling like a child in a toy store. "Thanks," he said. "Oh, and you gotta do something about that hair."
      The kid shouted back from the other room. "I'm not getting rid of this," he said. "You know how long it took to grow out?"
      Darin reached for a short-barreled shotgun on the wall. "Yeah, well how fast will you lose it when they blow your fucking head off!" Darin reached for a box of shells and began stuffing handfuls into his belt. "Might be bloody useful! The blue might make them think you're one of 'em!"
Darin heard a muffled, "Fuck you," from the kid, and continued filling his ammo pouches.
      So much for him liking me, he thought. Ah, well. Little shit probably won't make it out of the day alive.
      As Darin placed bricks of explosives in a bag, a thought struck him. None of us might make it out alive. He quickly dismissed it, though. They were marines. Sure, they'd suffered casualties, but that was in the air, beyond their control.
      They'd win this.

Amethyst part 3 – Lumination
Date: 4 April 2008, 1:40 am

      Nkas 'Aramee strode purposefully through the entrance to the war room of the Cloistered Expectancy, flagship of the Fleet of Virtuous Conquest. For a moment he stood just inside the arch, feeling out of place amid the buzz of activity: Elites at their command consoles, Grunts scurrying to relay orders and cowering at the bark of a superior or the hiss of a Jackal. Almost immediately, though, he spotted the Fleet Master, and confidently wove his way through the chaos.
      Fleet Master Srik 'Balasee stood calmly before a display of the entire star system, observing the battle in peace. And why should he not? 'Aramee thought. The fight in orbit goes well, and the ground invasion is underway. 'Aramee hoped to add another victory to the already-successful battle.
      "Fleet Master," he said, lowering his head in respect. "We have fortuitous news." The Deacon of the Cloistered Expectancy managed to keep his voice even.
      "Then speak, Deacon," 'Balasee commanded without turning. "What further blessings have the gods offered today?"
      "We have—" 'Aramee's voice trembled with fervor, and again he clamped down on his excitement. "We have found an…exceptional…Lumination." The Deacon's lips split in an involuntary grin. "In addition to the Luminations the humans carry with them, we have discovered another." At this, the Fleet Master froze, almost imperceptibly. He still didn't turn, though, and it was impossible to tell what he was thinking. "I am unsure as to what it entails, although it appears to be a Cartographer. Or an Erudition."
      It was several seconds before the Fleet Master spoke. When he did, though, it was in the same deep, solid voice, relaxed and authoritative.
      "A rare find indeed," he said, gesturing to the display before him. "Show me."
      The Deacon bowed again, and stepped forward, entering the coordinates he had retrieved from the Luminary, the device all Covenant ships carried to detect relics of the Forerunners. An icon appeared on a hologram of the human world, on the lower part of the largest continent, and 'Aramee magnified the view until individual representations of the humans' units appeared.
      "The relic's location is not far from their largest city, and already their forces are moving to its location." The Deacon growled, and his hands balled into fists. "They seek to soil it with their filthy hands, but we can beat them, Fleet Master!" This time the passion was evident in his voice, and 'Aramee did not try to hide it. "We can take what the gods have ordained is ours!"
      "Then we will take it, Deacon," 'Balasee replied. "A Special Operations unit is preparing to join the fight. This will be their objective, as it will be that of all nearby units."
      "As you will it, Fleet Master," 'Aramee replied, lowering his head in obeisance. "The Prophets will be pleased at this reclamation."
      "Indeed they will," 'Balasee remarked, a smile in his voice. "That is why you must not fail."
      The Deacon looked quizzically at the Fleet Master. 'Aramee was no warrior, despite the training he had received; both knew it. Regardless, 'Aramee thought, the opportunity to be at the head of this reclamation…
      "Suit up," the Fleet Master commanded. "You will oversee Commander Zharkanee's warriors. They are marshalling, and will soon be prepared to embark." The Fleet Master paused, and glanced over his shoulder, looking at 'Aramee for the first time. "I trust you are equipped for battle?"
      The Deacon nodded. "Long has it been since I last wore the armor, Fleet Master, but we will not fail at this task. I will ensure that."
      "You had better," 'Balasee said, steel suddenly in his voice. "Precious few relics have been recovered, and if you do not succeed, the Hierarchs will have both our heads." The threat hung for a moment in the air, until the Fleet Master turned back to his display, once again observing the progress of the battle.
      "Go now, Deacon," he said dismissively. "Your prize awaits."

      Bill Walther moved forwards slowly, stomach on the ground, through the tall grass. Ahead of him were the sounds of combat: weapons fire and inarticulate voices, human and alien. He wanted to rush forwards and help the men there, but he couldn't.
      Not yet, he thought, pushing aside his urge to join the fight. He knew a tall man running down a hillside would make a tempting target, and he'd be no good to the troops dead.
      The crawl was painstakingly slow, but after several minutes, Walther reached the crest of the hill he was climbing, and lay flat on his stomach. He removed his rifle from his back and laid it next to him, and took out a pair of optics from a pouch on his vest. Through them, he could see a set of toll booths, blocky, concrete buildings, and several abandoned cars and trucks, one of them an Army Global Guard Warthog.
      A group of aliens—a bunch of the loud, short ones and one of the tall, gangly ones—were hiding behind an abandoned truck, exchanging fire with guardsmen in a small concrete building on the side of the rode. The aliens knew the guardsmen were trapped, and were probably waiting for backup.
      Not gonna let them get that far, Walther thought.
      The ex-marine waited for a lull in the combat and raised his rifle, looking through the rifle's scope. His target was the big one, obviously the leader. In some documents he'd gotten a hold of, he'd read about these aliens, these "Covenant." The big ones, Elites, were tough bastards, with energy shields in their armor, but the little ones, the Grunts, were pussies. He'd focus on the big one first.
      Walther had a 6.8mm rifle: it wasn't nearly an S2 AM, but it would do the job well enough. He'd need two bursts, maybe three. The first two just had to hit, but the third and any after would need to be headshots. Each shot would count.
      He lined up on the big one's head, and controlled his breathing until it was nice and steady. Then, he flicked the safety off. His finger tightened on the trigger, and time seemed to slow for just an instant…
      The first two shots came off in rapid succession, the alien spinning to look for the source of the incoming fire and moving towards cover.
      Money shot, Walther thought, tracking the Elite. Just before it ducked behind a wrecked car, the ex-marine got the shot off, hitting it in the head.
      There was a flash—and the thing was still standing.
      "Hmph." Walther lowered his rifle and unclipped a grenade from his belt—a homemade cocktail of semtex and scrap metal. Judging the distance, he lobbed the explosive down the hill, hearing it clink as it rolled next to the car.
      Quickly grabbing his rifle, he aimed once again towards the car. In an instant, the Elite dived from behind cover, going into a roll and gracefully coming out of it. Just as gracefully, Walther shot him, hitting low left face and spraying an arc of purple gore across the pavement.
      Walther blinked. It was odd, killing an alien. He hadn't had trouble killing fellow humans when he was a marine, but he doubted he'd ever have a bad dream where this alien's face haunted him.
      It had taken only about half a minute to kill the big one, and once he dropped, the other ones had dissolved in panic, screaming. Walther pulled another grenade from his vest and hurled it at the little bastards, the shrapnel taking out two. The last two went down with a pair of bursts.
      Rising, Walther slung the rifle across his back and unslung his sub-machine gun. Ahead he could see a soldier poking his heads out of the building, weapon raised. Walther waved an all-clear, and out came four guardsmen, accompanied by several civilians.
      "Thanks," the lead guardsman, a young lieutenant, said. "You helped us out of a tight spot."
      "No problem," Walther replied. "Staff Sergeant Walther, retired, UNSC Marine Corps." He offered his hand. "I heard the PA, and thought I'd come and join the party."
      The guardsman eyed him warily, and accepted his hand. "Not much of a party here, sarge," he said. "We've got civilians. We're trying to evacuate 'em, but we don't know how many there are. The rest of my platoon was out searching when we got pinned down."
      Walther nodded. "How are things at the dig site?" he asked, paying no mind to the woman and what must have been her son peering out of the structure at him.
      "Like hell, sarge. The aliens moved through here to get there, and were pretty indiscriminate in who they killed on the way." The lieutenant shook his head, and looked at Walther with pained eyes. "This is a goddamn campsite, sarge, civvies everywhere. Summer break just started, too, and there's a lot of kids and families."
      "You know what they want at the dig?" Walther asked. He didn't care about the civilians, not right now. He just wanted to help the marines, not look after crying kids.
      "No clue," the lieutenant said, again shaking his head. "It's been in the news a lot here lately, though. Old ruins, hundreds of thousands of years old. I'm sure there's something the aliens know about it that we don't."
      "Right." Walther looked around. "Well, point me towards the dig site, and I'll be on my way. You're doing a good job, sir, and keep looking for the civvies."
      "Thanks, sarge," the lieutenant said, seeming startled that a veteran marine would call a guardsman "sir". He turned back towards the bunker. "Stay here, and keep your heads down," he said to the woman and the other civilians there. "The corporal and private here will stay with you." Two of the guardsmen nodded, one guiding the civilians back into the structure. "Good luck, sarge," the lieutenant said, turning back to Walther.
      "You too, son," the former marine said, walking towards an abandoned car. After several seconds fiddling with the electronics and a few more asking the lieutenant for directions, Walther was on his way, a predatory grin on his face.

      "Blue Two, do you read? This is One."
      The marine's eyes snapped open, and Blue Two jumped up. The movement jerked the marine back down, and as the fog cleared, the surroundings became recognizable as the interior of an HEV, Blue Two being stuck in the crash webbing.
      Undoing the restraints, the marine winked an acknowledgement light wordlessly and, retrieving the weapons and equipment strewn inside the HEV, blew the pod's hatch.
      The entryway exploded outwards, slamming with a crunch into a thick tree. Almost immediately, silence returned, and Blue Two could see the forest beyond the hatch. Stepping out, submachine gun shouldered, the marine swung from side to side, seeing no danger.
      Blue Two turned towards the nearest road, using HUD maps linked with local satellites, and made for the squad's ultimate destination without a word.

Amethyst part 4 - Impend
Date: 6 June 2008, 3:31 am

      What a mess, Darin thought. Ahead of him were a set of tollbooths, the corpses of aliens scattered across the bloodstained ground. The scene was made an even more gruesome scene by the smoke-blackened sky, no longer the purple of the planet's namesake. On his HUD, Darin was picking up several UNSC transponders, and as the 'Hog neared the tolls, two guardsmen became clear, standing watch
      "Slow down," he said to the kid—Jeff, he'd found his name was—as one of the guardsmen waved.
      "Corporal, what's the situation here?" Darin asked the approaching guardsman.
      The man sighed, his rifle cradled in his arms. "The rest of our platoon is out looking for civvies, and me and the private here are looking after the ones we've found." He gestured towards a building at the side of the road.
      "What about the other transponder I'm picking up?" Darin asked. His HUD was picking up a third signal, this one inside the small building.
      "That's a marine we picked up on his way to the dig site. We've had some vehicles passing through on their way, so we just told him to wait until another came." The guardsman turned towards the private. "Go and get our friend, will you?" The private nodded, and the corporal turned back to Darin.
      "You said there were vehicles coming through," Darin asked. "See a heavily armed civvie come by?" Darin noticed the kid's hands tighten around the wheel.
      The guardsman corporal grinned. "He saved our asses not half an hour ago. Took out a squad of the bastards on his own." Behind his helmet, Darin glanced towards the kid. Hardcore, indeed…
      "Where was he headed? I'm helping my friend here find him." At the word friend, the kid gripped the wheel even tighter, much to Darin's amusement.
      "Same place as you." At the marine's silence, the corporal continued. "Dig site, right? That's where everyone's headed. Right, sarge?" The last comment was addresses to a marine standing in the doorframe of the structure. Like Darin, he wore an enclosed combat suit, but his was a mottled green and sandy tan, and there was a miniaturized SATCOM link mounted on his backplate. "You'll be going with these two, alright?"
      The marine, a sergeant by the IFF, nodded, hauled his big S2 AM rifle into the back of the Warthog, and jumped in, all without a word.
      "Right, then, thanks for the help," Darin said to the corporal. The guardsman nodded, and without another word, they drove off.
      After a few minutes of silence, the kid turned to speak to Darin, his voice hushed. "What are we doing picking up more passengers? We don't need this guy slowing us down."
      Darin almost laughed. "Mate, see the SATCOM uplink? Know how expensive those things are? They sure as hell wouldn't trust a grunt with one, or with one of those airborne variants of the S2 AM." Darin looked back to see the marine with his rifle across his lap, a submachine gun in his right hand. "This guy's an Echo, Marine Force Recon. And there's no way he's slowing us down."
      Marine Force Recon was the UNSC's premier covert operations unit before the Spartan programs. They weren't nearly as rambunctious as the famed Helljumpers, but they were just as good, if not better. They were trained in everything the ODSTs specialized in, and in fact, many ODSTs moved on to be Echoes later in their careers. More often than not they didn't, though. The two units had a huge rivalry, and the Helljumpers often resented the Echoes for their special treatment with new equipment and their comparatively lax command structure. This rivalry often spilled into off-duty bar fights, Darin knew. He'd seen one before where two Echoes had fought off six ODSTs. The Echoes usually won.
      Warily but trying to seem friendly, Darin turned to the sergeant. "So, you going to the dig site, too? Help out the guardsmen there?"
      The Echo regarded him for a moment, then replied. The voice that answered, though, was distorted, machine-like. "Classified. But if I need help, you'll give it to me."
      Darin glanced to the kid, and rolled his eyes behind his helmet. "Sir, is the filter really necessary?"
      The Echo stared pointedly back, and Darin sighed. "So, to the dig site?"
      The Echo nodded, and turned away.
      Leaning in next to the kid, Darin removed his helmet. "You know, I think you might be right. This guy could be more trouble than he's worth."
      "Too late now," Jeff said bitterly, and kept driving.

      "Covenant squad incoming," a voice crackled over the comm.
      Bill Walther found himself again on a hill; this time leaned against a tree. Before him he had a clear view of the entire dig site—tents and equipment, dry loose dirt kicked up from months of excavating—and beyond, he could see the tree line of young conifers. No ancient groves on the colonies, he thought idly, his mind wandering to the one time he'd visited Earth. He'd had no time to enjoy his stay there, not during his training. Gonna have to visit another time.
      Around the hillside was a mass of marines and guardsmen, behind various forms of cover, all facing towards the tree line. The dig site had become something of a rallying point for the guardsmen after the AGG compound in Corona was hit, and all incoming troops were pushing their way there—human and Covenant alike.
      There was a shout below, and Walther jerked his rifle up. A squad of aliens was emerging from the trees, but before Walther could focus on any one in particular, they were cut down by a wall of lead from the massed UNSC troops.
      No one was sure of the significance of the ruins, least of all Walther, but the Covenant desperately wanted whatever secrets they hid. They'd been throwing themselves at the UNSC forces, accomplishing little so far besides destroying a weapons cache and starting a forest blaze, choking the sky with smoke. The loss of ammunition was regrettable, but it was one of many ammo dumps set up. The fire had even been a help, driving some of the Covenant squads out of the woods and into the open.
      Bill lowered his rifle, and almost felt a smile creep onto his face. Is this all they've got? he thought. I can do this all day.

      "So, Deacon, tell me again of your prize."
      'Aramee once again found himself gripping his forearm, the ceremonial armor befitting his position, and yet feeling foreign. He turned from the view of the cockpit to 'Zharkanee, the Special Operations Commander he'd been assigned. 'Aramee imagined it would be maddening to be assigned to a mere Deacon, but the Commander had seemed conciliatory, and even friendly.
      "The glyph on the Luminary is used to recognize great sources of knowledge," the Deacon replied, maybe for the third time since meeting 'Zharkanee. He knew the Commander knew what they were seeking; he was trying to calm 'Aramee's nerves. Deacons rarely saw combat, and 'Aramee himself hadn't for years. "This is most often a star map, or the secrets to some Forerunner technology. They are very rare."
      "Indeed," the Commander said, mandibles splitting in a grin. "What an honor it is."
      "For us all," the Deacon said with a flash of irritation. Though he was a novice in combat, he would not go without the credit due him.
      "Of course," 'Zharkanee said placatingly, placing a hand on 'Aramee's .shoulder. "Your discovery shall be recognized, Deacon, have no worries of that."
      The Commander held the Deacon's gaze for a moment, evaluating, then let his hand drop, turning towards the cockpit. He spoke briefly to the pilot, and turned back to 'Aramee.
      "Have no worries, Deacon," he said, smiling again. "Word has just reached from our scouts. Your prize nears."

Amethyst part 5 - Echoes
Date: 19 June 2008, 8:58 pm

      "Pull off the road here," the Echo's distorted voice said from behind Darin, and the corporal turned to the kid, nodding. Without a word Jeff pulled onto a dirt strip along the side of the road, and Darin turned back to the Echo.
      What now?" he asked, keeping his exasperation from creeping into his voice. This whole mysterious routine is getting annoying.
       "Twenty meters down there's a dirt road," the Echo replied. "Take it."
      Again, the kid deferred to Darin, who sighed and nodded. They drove for another twenty meters as the Echo had said, and there was a dirt road, freshly burned away.
       "Looks new," the kid commented. "Us, or aliens?" he asked, not bothering to turn to the Echo.
       "Guess," the Echo said sardonically, surprising Darin. The whole drive the Force Recon marine had appeared emotionless, like an automaton. The voice filter certainly hadn't helped that impression.
       "So, what's our objective?" Darin asked. Although he would've preferred to be with his squad, he wanted to stick with the Echo. He'd definitely get things done with the Force Recon marine, that was for sure. If the mission was important enough for voice filters, SATCOMs, and heavy weapons, Darin wanted in.
      The kid, however, didn't seem to share his opinion. As he heard Darin ask the Echo, he slammed on the brakes. "Wait a minute, we're going back," he said, spinning around, his eyes darting between Darin and the Echo. "I came here to help my uncle."
      Darin turned to the Echo, who only tilted its head, and wordlessly shoved its submachine gun in the kid's face. An explosive sigh erupted from the kid's lips, and he slammed his head against the steering wheel.
       "I am so fucking sick of people pointing fucking guns in my face!" he shouted, bringing his head up. "I stick with you guys and I'm probably dead anyways, so just fucking shoot me!"
      Darin smiled behind his visor, and a barely noticeable shaking of the Echo's upper body suggested laughter. The gun didn't twitch, though.
      After several seconds silence, the kid slammed his hands on the dash. "Fine, have it your way," he said. "I know you wouldn't shoot me," he said, nodding towards Darin, "but you, I'm not so sure of." The kid started the 'Hog rolling again, muttering to himself. "Would kill me and take the fucking jeep, too," he said unhappily to himself. "Fucking marines."

      On his hillside, Bill Walther fiddled with the safety on an S2AM rifle, his own 6.8mm rifle having run out of ammo. He'd only fired one shot from the gun since he changed, though. The Covenant had stopped throwing themselves at the hillside, and silence had prevailed for at least ten full minutes.
      Walther was worried. The reports he'd gotten about the Covenant indicated that they threw themselves at an enemy until they were either beaten into submission, or their ranks were depleted. No subtlety, Bill thought. The Covenant forces around the dig site weren't following that pattern, though: there were scattered reports of contact by patrols out in the burning woods, and a few patrols simply stopped contacting the FOB, their life signals flatlining. The Covenant were definitely up to something.
       "Hey, sarge," a young marine lieutenant called from down the hillside. "I've gotten some men together to go looking for the Covenant forces taking out our patrols, and we're short a marksman. Wanna tag along?"
       "Sure, LT," Walther said, smiling and rising from his position against the tree. "Just let me grab some ammo."

       "Commander, a transmission for the Deacon," the voice of the dropship's pilot echoed throughout the troop bay. "The Field Master wishes to speak with him."
      Special Operations Commander 'Zharkanee turned to 'Aramee, gripping his on shoulder. "It seems your mission has garnered some attention," he said softly, smiling. "Tread carefully with this one." The Commander let his hand slide off. "Open the link with us," he said to the pilot, louder than before.
      There was a flicker in the middle of the troop bay, and the figure of a gold-armored Elite appeared before 'Zharkanee and 'Aramee, the former taking a step back. Both Elites lowered their heads and saluted the Field Master, crossing their arms across their chests.
       "Deacon," the Field Master began, his voice booming, and 'Aramee raised his head to see a hologram nearly reaching the ceiling before him. "I was informed of your task by the Fleet Master and wished to speak to you myself."
       "As you wish, Exalted," the Deacon said, bowing his head again. "What is it you require of me?"
       "Inform me of all progress you make in my theater," the Field Master said imperiously. "This is a most extraordinary blessing, and I would have you inform me first of your successful acquisition," he continued, smiling almost…hungrily, 'Aramee thought.
       "As you wish," 'Aramee repeated respectfully, saluting again.
      The Field Master nodded sanctimoniously. "Indeed it is," he said. "I could use a Deacon as faithful and as loyal among my staff." With that, the towering image of the Field Master winked into nothing, the transmission terminated.
      The Commander grunted. "Be wary of Field Master 'Qurupee," he said. "He is both wealthy and powerful, but none too bright. A Believer, though."
       'Zharkanee strode to his place near the cockpit. "A politician, too, like his hatchmate the Councilor." The Commander sighed. "A poor mix: faith, entitlement, stupidity…" His voice trailed off.
       "Faith, Commander?" 'Aramee asked, bemused. "Remember to whom you speak."
      The Commander waved his hand carelessly. "You know full well what I meant. Blind faith makes one no less blind. He may cause us trouble yet."

       "Shit," Darin said as the 'Hog slowed to a halt. Ahead of them was a cavern, newly blasted into the rocky hillside—and two unoccupied Ghosts.
      The Echo leapt down from the back of the 'Hog, slinging the big S2AM rifle and cradling its submachine gun. Darin and the kid followed, the former tapping the camouflaged special ops marine on the shoulder
      "Here, take this," Darin said, offering the Echo his MA5B. "That M7 ain't gonna do shit to an Elite."
      The Echo nodded, switching weapons with the corporal, and Darin slung the submachine gun for the 12-gauge he'd taken from the uncle's apartment. "Now, you got a comm frequency we can use in case we get separated?" Darin asked.
      The Echo seemed to consider for a moment, then recited a series of numbers in its electronic monotone. Darin programmed them into his helmet comm, and the kid plugged them into his comm headset.
      After waiting a moment for them, the Echo turned and entered the cavern, Darin and the kid following dutifully. For several meters, the walls around them were simply rock worn smooth, but then they encountered a break in the cavern, entering into ruins of grey stone brick.
       "So, this is what the archaeologists found," the kid whispered to himself. The ruins were lit by a dim white light, the ground worn smooth from years of passage untold millennia ago.
       "Wow," Darin said. "No wonder the bastards are here. They must be looking for something their ancestors behind." Out of the corner of his eye, Darin glanced at the Echo. And whatever the Covenant are after, this guy's after it, too.
      Darin and Jeff followed the Echo down a slightly sloping ramp lower into the ruins. The hallways seemed to go on forever, with no doors, only a starkly empty passageway with intricate geometric carvings periodically marking the walls.
      After about ten minutes, though, they hit the first sign of technology: a door. An open door.
       "Not good," Darin said. "They've been through here." The Echo ignored him, and proceeded.
      Through the doorway, the hallway split. The special ops marine's filtered voice came over the comm. "You two, left. I'm going right." Without waiting for a response, the Force Recon marine left.
      The kid and Darin stood there a moment, looking at each other. "I don't like this asshole," the kid said grumpily, shifting the carbine in his arms.
       "Me neither," Darin said. "Let's go, though. I'd be more worried what he'll do to us if we don't listen." Darin didn't feel the need to state that at least they were doing something important. The kid wasn't bitching about his uncle anymore, and Darin didn't want to remind him unnecessarily.
      As they made their way together down the hallway, the lights became even dimmer, and Darin switched his visor to low-light. Next to him he heard a scrape and a muffled curse. Jeff, unfortunately, had to deal with just his eyes.
      For several minutes more, there was silence and darkness as the pair made their way through the ancient ruins. Darin marveled at the stone walls, clean and precise and, if what he was hearing was to be believed, far older than humanity itself. But the Covenant couldn't have made this, could they?
      Darin stopped, though, losing his train of thought. Ahead, he heard movement.
       "Don't move, kid," he said, motioning him to stay. "Trouble."
      The corporal made his way forwards slowly, trying to be as quiet as possible in the bulky airborne armor, already loaded down with equipment. Thank Christ there's no rattling, he thought. As he turned around a corner, he saw a glint of blue—and immediately spun back. Elite Minor. It didn't look like the Elite had seen him, though. Just to be sure, he peeked his head out again, to find the alien facing the opposite direction, mumbling to itself. Perfect.
      Slowly and purposefully, the marine inched around the corner and up to the alien, not daring to breathe. He moved forward painstakingly, heart racing, weapon gripped like a vise, until he only about a meter away.
      He pointed the shotgun's barrel at the creature's back, and fired. The weapon roared in the silence, the muzzle flash nearly blinded him. Fuck! Should've switched to normal light. Darin saw the Elite stumble forwards onto the ground, though, and not taking any chances, he fired again, the alien's shields flickering and dying. The corporal fired once more, and the Elite stopped moving with an unsettling finality.
      He stood there a moment, about to call the kid forwards from around the corner, when he heard a whine, a blue flash whizzing by his head. Darin dived back to the corner, scrambling for cover. He poked his head out again to see the red armor of an Elite Major. Bastard wasn't talking to itself, he thought grimly. Must've been on the comm.
      Darin braced himself against the wall, and heard the kid slam against the wall next to him. "Elite," Darin said, motioning around the corner. "Let's go." He was about to leap around and confront his foe when he heard a series of staccato bursts. Darin turned to the kid and burst around the corner to find the Elite turned and facing a camouflaged marine, undoubtedly the Echo. Darin and Jeff joined the fray quickly, finishing the Elite off with a pair of shotgun bursts and a spray of automatic weapons fire.
       "Thanks, mate," Darin said to the Echo, taking off his helmet. "Saved my ass there."
       "No problem," a friendly, unfiltered male voice said. It was then that Darin noticed this Echo had no sniper rifle, but instead a BR55 battle rifle with a grenade launcher attachment.
      As comprehension dawned on Darin's face, a second Echo moved around the corner. This one was the corporal's companion: on its back was the big S2AM, and Darin's MA5B was held up to its face. The marine lowered it, though, seeing the two marines standing momentarily idle. "All clear, Four?" the now somewhat-familiar voice asked.
      "Yup," the friendly voice replied, and the Echo it belonged to—Four—removed his helmet to reveal a round, boyish face unfitting of a Force Recon marine, and an unrestrained grin to match. "Take the damn filter, off, Alison," he said.
       "Whatever," the first Echo replied. After a moment, the corporal's companion removed her helmet, revealing a face much more befitting an Echo, her eyes a cold grey and auburn hair to contrast. "And it's Two. Where're the LT and Three?"
       "Church and Lav are around," Four said. Darin didn't hear the reply, though, and soon noticed the first glaring at him. "What're you looking at?" she asked. Even a filter couldn't have hidden the hostility in her voice.
      Darin immediately straightened. "Uh, nothing, ma'am," he said, feeling his face redden. "It's just that I, uh, I thought you were a guy, ma'am."
      The auburn-haired Echo, Two—he finally had a name to attach to her—glared at him for a moment longer, then replaced her helmet without a word. Darin went to apologize, but the other Echo interrupted him. "She gets that a lot, don't worry," he said. "Just don't mention it again and she won't shoot you." Four seemed to find that quite funny, chuckling to himself as he replaced his helmet.
       "Found something," Two said over the comm, the filter no distorting her voice. "Move up."
      The other Echo trotted off in the direction the auburn-haired one had gone, and Darin followed, the kid rounding the corner behind him.
      What the Echo had found was a door, leading into a room barely lit but for its center, where a pedestal stood. On it rested a small object, silver and pulsing blue, about the size of a fist. Darin didn't know what it was, but there was no doubt in his mind it was alien, and it was important.
      The marines and the kid stared at the object warily for a moment, when the boyish Echo broke the silence. "So, who's gonna get it?"
      For a moment longer, no one moved. Then, Darin stepped forwards. "Fuck it," he said, approaching the object steadily but confidently. As he got nearer to the bright light surrounding the pedestal, however, his confidence wavered. He kept going, though, and tentatively reached out to the artifact.
      The blue of the artifact became brighter as his hand approached, centimeter by centimeter, until the corporal went to grasp the object.
      His hands, however, found nothing, and seemed to pass through it like air. He tried again, and again, waving his hand above the pedestal, yet still finding nothing. When in frustration he slammed his fist downwards, however, it still met the pedestal of cool metal.
      "Hold on," the female marine said. She looked directly at the object, then made a sound of satisfaction. "Look at it, and check your rangefinders."
      Darin did as directed, and frowned in confusion. That's not right. When he focused on the object, his rangefinder seemed to go wild, the distance infinity.
      "Weird," Four said. "Alien tech?"
      "It's not human, and that object is there," the other replied. "Scanning for power sources." There was a pause, then the female Echo continued. "Only two in this room: the pedestal and a space on the back wall, a meter up." A waypoint appeared on Darin's HUD.
      The two Echoes stared at him expectantly. "Oh, I get it," Darin said. "Send the grunt." When neither replied, Darin shook his head and approached the back wall, turning on his helmet spotlight. Where most of the wall appeared smooth and uninterrupted, the waypoint directed the corporal to a thin bar of metal rising from the floor to about the his midsection.
      Darin stood in front of the wall, waiting for something to happen. "It's just a bar of metal," he said, looking back. "Guess I'll try the touch test again." The marine laughed nervously.
      Like before, Darin reached out tentatively. This time, though, he never got to touch it. As his hand approached, the wall before him burst into colors and lights. He heard the kid curse and the Echoes both jump, no doubt bringing weapons reflexively to bear. The corporal held his hand out behind him, though.
      "I'm alright," he said, looking intently at the colorful display emitting from the bar of metal that had seemed so lifeless a moment before. "Looks like a control panel or something." Darin had no clue how to operate it, however.
      The corporal studied the display, looking for obvious buttons or levers—difficult when the controls were holographic. He was unable to find any, but for some reason his gaze kept returning to a line running down the left side, and, without thinking, Darin slid his hand down it, from top to bottom.
      As suddenly as it had appeared, the display winked out, and there was a burst of static across the corporal's helmet comm. He turned around to see the kid cupping his ears, and the Force Recon marines holding their helmets.
      "What'd you do?" the kid asked, glaring at Darin. The female Echo brushed passed before Darin could reply, making towards the pedestal. Her hand hesitated over the object, though, looking unchanged.
      "Oh, for fuck's sake," Darin said. The corporal strode over to the pedestal, and without hesitating this time, grabbed the object, pocketing it. "Special ops my ass."
      Four shook with silent laughter.
      All the room's occupants braced themselves, however, as a boom resonated through the ceiling overhead.
      Four straightened, glancing towards the door. "Looks like it's time for us to go."

Amethyst part 6 - Cross Purposes
Date: 14 November 2008, 2:39 am

      The surface of the human world was lit by fire. The sight left Deacon 'Aramee aghast, his mandibles spread wide. Below were ruins of the Forerunners, temples housing a relic of unknown significance and ancient knowledge. Treasures, by all rights.
      And they were burning.
      Not by the clumsy fire of human weapons, either. It was plasma fire. Caused by my own kind.
      "The damn fool!" 'Zharkanee spat, spinning from the cockpit display. "By the Prophets, why would he seek to destroy it?"
      "The signal," the Deacon said numbly. "His Wraiths opened fire when the signal started transmitting."
      "Aye, the signal," 'Zharkanee growled. "But what of it? If it means the humans have it, we can still catch them." The Commander stalked angrily about the troop bay for a moment, then swung his attention back to 'Aramee.
      "We must talk this fool down, Deacon. He seems to favor you. Speak to him." Before the Deacon could reply, 'Zharkanee addressed the copilot. "Open a channel with Field Master 'Qurupee. And shrink the hologram this time. I don't need to see that fool towering above me." The copilot offered an acknowledgement, and the image of the Field Master appeared. He began speaking without preamble:
      "Deacon, you have not acquired the relic?"
      "No, Field Master, we have not yet landed, even," 'Aramee answered.
      "Then it was the humans who activated it," the Field Master said, nodding in satisfaction. "The bombardment will continue."
      The Deacon felt a jolt flow through him. "No, Excellency!" he urged. "You've given us no time. We are winning, and it will be a simple matter to enclose the vermin."
      'Qurupee glared at the Deacon, although the effect was far less imposing now that the hologram was actual size. "Deacon, you of all should know that we cannot risk this falling into the humans' hands. That would be heresy."
      Next to 'Aramee, the Commander barked out a peal of laughter. "Risk? War is risk, Excellency," he said sardonically. "It would be heresy to destroy such a treasure rather than pursue it."
      "You dare question my word, Commander?" 'Qurupee growled, shifting his attention to 'Zharkanee.
      The Commander nodded solemnly. "And you dare to silence the words of our forebears. We shall each receive our just punishments, I am sure." With a swift cutting motion, 'Zharkanee signaled the copilot to terminate the transmission, and in the last instant before the hologram faded, the Deacon caught a glimpse of the Field Master's bewildered countenance.
      "Bastard! Fool!" the Special Operations Commander spat, whirling away from where the hologram had stood. "Dogma has blinded him!"
      "And yet you invoke dogma in continuing our attack," the Deacon replied simply. 'Zharkanee stopped the pacing he had begun and glared at 'Aramee.
      "And what more do you think would stop him than the implications of his own heresy?" The scowl on the Commander's face lessened, and his tone grew less sharp. "We are still nearing the artifact. Will your mission continue as planned?"
      The Deacon found himself surprised by the hot-headed Commander's deference, and took a moment to reply. "If your Elites are willing, then I am, Commander."
      "Excellent!" 'Zharkanee barked, his mandibles spreading in a smile. "Faith has not dulled this one!"
      'Aramee made to reply, when the copilot's voice again broke through the hold. "Commander, Jackal raiders report our scouts are down inside the ruins."
      "Worthy foes," 'Zharkanee muttered in reply. "Then we must hurry."

      What the fuck am I doing here? Jeff Walther thought for at least the tenth time in the past hour. Marines, aliens, bombs, ruins, he thought. What the fuck am I doing here?
      The walls of the old alien ruins shook around them, and no one looked up. Jeff and the marines had been winding through the ruins for the past hour, and the bombing had been a constant since they'd found that weird room twenty minutes ago, since that jackass corporal had swiped that weird alien tech. The bombs were the only sound to punctuate the heavy silence besides the pounding of feet and the occasional comm chatter from the two Echoes.
      I just wanted to find my uncle, to get that crazy bastard off the planet, he thought. He might be dead. Sam might be dead. Fuck, I might be dead. His thoughts flashed back to earlier that morning, waking up in his rundown apartment with his girlfriend, and he was amazed to find that he missed it. He missed that shithole, he missed that dead-end job of his, he missed that shitstain of a life!
      Jeff sighed. Now all that seemed far away, far longer than just a few hours ago.
      "LT's here," one of the Echoes, Four, said over the comm. The other Echo, the woman, Two, held up a hand, not realizing that Jeff had long ago broken their frequency encryption with his comm headset, just another of his uncle's toys.
      "What's up?" the marine corporal, Darin, said aloud, and Jeff chuckled. It felt good to have at least one advantage over the corporal.
      "Our squad," the female Echo—the other had called her Two—said, her voice short. She'd been about as annoyed with Darin and Jeff as they'd been with each other, which was saying something.
      Ahead, another figure, identical to the other Echoes save for its weapon, came into view. It paused, lowering its rifle. "What the fuck is this? Who are these guys?" he said, irritated.
      "Nice to fucking meet you, too," Darin replied, and Jeff felt himself agreeing. As bad as the corporal was, these Echo assholes were worse.
      "You picking up strays, Four?" the new Echo asked, ignoring Darin. "We need to get the shit and get outta here. Can you hear that bombing?" Almost as punctuation to his sentence, the walls around them shook.
      "Sorry Church," Four said unapologetically. "We got the artifact, though. Corporal's got it." The Force Recon marine hooked a thumb over his shoulder to Darin.
      The new Echo gave Darin a second glance, this time with interest—well, Jeff thought he was interested. He couldn't really tell with the helmet.
      "Alright, let's go," the new Echo said abruptly. "Three's got a charge set up to blow us outta here. Entrance is a no-go; we ran into some Jackals."       Without waiting for any confirmation, the new Echo—Jeff was guessing he was One—walked off into the shadows. The other two Echoes followed, and Jeff and Darin faced each other. Jeff knew they were thinking the same thing, despite the marine's faceplate:
      Fucking Echoes.