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."