"Pinnacle Station, this is Mare Erythraeum. You read?"

"Mare Erythraeum, this is Pinnacle Station. We read loud and clear."

"We are preparing to dock, confirm."

"Roger that. We've got a spot set aside just for you. Sending coordinates."

"Solid copy. Mare Erythraeum out."

With that, Danielle switched off the communications from her post at the ship's CIC. She turned to her two senior officers, Captain Kya Falana and Lieutenant Kyle Nolan. "You and your people, suit up. The Turians have been here for a couple of days now, and will likely be ready for a fight. We don't want to keep them waiting."

…..

Once the ship docked, Ackerson and her platoon disembarked. The docking bay of Pinnacle Station was much like you would expect - massive. Several other ships of various designs were docked, with few empty spaces left. Docking crews darted across the bay, on their way to or from their given tasks. Some, however, were just standing around piles of barrels and crates chatting with one another or even some of the soldiers, evidently on break. Either that or their boss wasn't monitoring them closely enough.

"We'll head to the mess hall." Ackerson said. "There, we'll wait for - "

"Well well well, if it isn't Daddy's Girl."

"….Oh Lord." Ackerson muttered to herself before she turned to the voice's source. A Turian soldier in black armor and a bright purple facial tattoo approached her. Ackerson turned to her platoon. "Dismissed." she said before turning back to the Turian. Only her two captains, Falana and Nolan, remained with her. "Hello Captain Vidinos. Good to see you again." she politely greeted the Turian.

"Likewise. Of all the Humans I love to pummel in the simulator, you're my favorite." he said in an almost flirtacious manner.

"I'm flattered." Danielle said in her usual flat-as-day-old-soda tone. Vidinos turned towards Nolan.

"Who's the new guy?" he asked.

"Lieutenant Kyle Nolan, Captain Orex Vidinos, Hierarchy Blackwatch." she introduced. "His unit will be our primary competitor over the next couple of days."

Vidinos chuckled at that. "Oh, you poor bastard, getting assigned to her unit. Lemme guess, she hand-picked you, didn't she?"

Kyle Nolan seemed a bit surprised by that response. "Er….yeah. Kind of." he replied.

"Can't say I'm surprised. So what's his story?" Vidinos asked.

"I selected him from the ODST corps." Ackerson evenly replied.

"ODST? Those lunatics?" Vidinos scoffed. "Man, first the biotic freak, and now a coffin pilot. You got weird taste in pets, Ackerson."

Falana clenched her fists, a small amount of biotic power crackling from them as she gritted her teeth. A brief glance from Ackerson convinced Falana to calm down, which didn't seem to go unnoticed by Vidinos, judging by how increasingly smug he was getting.

"Speaking of Biotic Freaks, I got a cabal unit as my companion unit today." he said. "So, who did you rope into soaking my fire for you?"

For the first time since she started talking to him, Ackerson smiled at Vidinos. "Oh, I don't want to ruin the surprise. You'll see soon enough."

"I'm counting on it." Vidinos said before walking away. "See you in the simulator, Daddy's Girl!"

"Jeez, what was that guy's problem?" Nolan asked.

"To make a long story short, Vidinos and I have a professional rivalry with one another." Danielle replied.

"Why'd he keep calling you Daddy's Girl?" Nolan asked as he, Falana and Ackerson began making their way towards the mess hall.

"Nepotism is deeply frowned upon in Turian society." Danielle explained. "It's considered a sign of weakness and dishonesty to rely on your family name more than your personal skillset to achieve success. Vidinos believes that I only got to where I am today because of my family legacy."

She shrugged. "Ironically, he's not entirely wrong. Greatness was demanded of me because of my lineage, and so I worked hard to achieve that greatness."

She turned on her omni-tool and tapped a few keys on it, bringing up a screen that showed the current time. "Get ready. They'll be here within the hour."

1006 Hours, March 24th, 2683

SSV Normandy Bridge

Phoenix System, Argos Rho Cluster

….

The Master Chief did some research on Pinnacle Station over the last couple days. It was an asteroid-based facility originally constructed as a concealed command center during the Krogan Rebellions. Since then, it had been retrofitted into a military training facility. It was mostly used by high-level military units employed by the Citadel Council and other Citadel Race governments, but it also saw occasional use by militias, bounty hunters, and even mercenary outfits.

Blue Team had been invited on board Pinnacle Station to cooperate with Major Danielle Ackerson's unit, Spec Ops. Team Delta, in a series of faux engagements with non-Human units. But Chief knew that that wasn't even close to the whole story. ONI doesn't invite you to play just because they're feeling chummy. Ackerson wanted something from the Chief.

"What can you tell me about her?" Chief asked Cortana as he stood in the cockpit, watching the asteroid grow larger as the Normandy approached it.

"Well, one thing I'll say in her favor - unlike our Ackerson, Danielle's no desk-jockey." Cortana answered. "Judging from all the black ink on her profile, it looks like she's participated in plenty of black ops missions. Exemplary marksmanship scores, technological proficiency, described by her peers as a very hands-on CO. Big shock, she's kind of a control freak."

"She's not like our Ackerson. She's a real soldier." Chief noted.

"She's still ONI though." Cortana pointed out. "The apple didn't fall far in that regard. Stay alert."

"We're pulling in." Joker said.

"Okay people." Chief announced aloud to Blue Team. "Consider this an official performance review. I want everyone on their best behavior." The Chief turned to N'tho.

"….What?" N'tho asked.

Major Ackerson stood in the docking bay as the SSV Normandy docked at long last. She held a data pad in her hand which held the entirety of Master Chief's Spectre career. It was short, but eventful. It was also full of interesting pieces of information that Danielle felt a need to investigate further.

As she saw the Master Chief walk out of the ship's airlock and into the hangar proper, she suddenly realized that this was him. The real deal. The Master Chief. She was about to evaluate the Master Chief. Any awe she felt was quickly and hastily stuffed to the back of her mind as she steeled herself. She reminded herself of his profile, of what he truly was, and that knowledge should destroy any mystique the Spartan had about him. Contrary to his reputation, he was no better than she.

The Master Chief walked up to Danielle and saluted. "Major Ackerson." he greeted.

Ackerson returned the salute. "At ease." she said. "Good to finally meet you face to face." She looked behind the Chief and noticed his team. "Your team, I take it?"

"Yes ma'am." Chief curtly replied.

"Well, you certainly don't discriminate." Ackerson noted, taking note of all the aliens on the team.

"I understand that the species diversity of my team is unusual." Chief pre-emotively said. "However I assure you, they're all good at what they do. I wouldn't tolerate their presence otherwise."

"We're standing right here, you know." Garrus quipped. Chief looked over his shoulder and glared at him. "…..Uh, sir." Garrus added.

"You don't need to defend your decisions here, Chief. I've gone over their profiles and I approve of them for the most part."

"We have profiles?" Tali asked. Chief glared at her too.

"…..When do exercises begin, ma'am?" Chief asked.

"One hour." Danielle replied. "Your people are free until then."

Chief nodded before turning to his team. "Dismissed."

"Finally." Wrex grumbled as he stomped over to the cafeteria. "Breakfast."

"Hey, leave some for the rest of us." Ashley said as the rest of the team followed the Krogan.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You eat literally everything."

"I have three stomachs and I'm a biotic. So excuse me for having a high calorie requirement."

Danielle watched as Blue Team continued to chatter amongst themselves as they headed to the mess hall. "You don't exactly keep a tight leash on them." she noted.

"Tight leashes aren't always the best." Chief replied with a shrug. "Sometimes you have to give a little slack."

"Fair point." Danielle replied. "Although I never took you for the type who would give slack. Not from your psych profile anyway." She activated the watch function on her omni-tool and nodded. "I have preparations to make. I'll see you in an hour as well. Until then, dismissed." And with that, she turned on her heel and walked away.

"What do you think?" Chief quietly asked once he was confidant the major was out of earshot.

"Seemed like she was analyzing you." Cortana commented. "Like I said, stay alert."

Chief nodded before deciding to follow his team into the mess hall. He was hungry too.

….

Pinnacle Station's mess hall was cavernous. Nearly three stories from floor to ceiling, balconies containing additional benches and tables lining the upper walls. One of the walls was a large window that looked out on the asteroid's alien landscape and the black of space dotted with the glimmer of far-off stars. It would almost be serene, were it not for the ruckus of a couple hundred soldiers from several different governments and militias all trying to talk over each other while eating breakfast.

After grabbing his breakfast, three microwave pancakes that were like a five-star meal in the military, the Chief took a look around the cafeteria, trying to spot his team. He found some of them, oddly enough, sitting with four Human soldiers. They looked like they were wearing ODST armor, but they bore the ONI insignia and had a darker color scheme than most ODST armors, implying they were part of Ackerson's outfit. He started walking over, and as he got closer, he could make out their faces. There were a couple of young women chatting with Ashley, Kaiden and Tali, along with one man. One woman looked caucasian, while the other looked to have more of an African-leaning ancestry. The man looked vaguely South American. The last soldier, a Polynesian, was chatting it up with Liara. Garrus, Wrex and N'tho were nowhere to be seen - likely preferring to get themselves armed and ready instead of taking part in pre-battle small talk.

As the Chief approached the table, Ackerson's soldiers all immediately stood up and salute. "Master - "

"At ease." Chief said as he waved off the soldiers casually, not even bothering to let them finish the sentence. Not for the first time, he lamented the common soldier's tendency to praise him like he's the messiah. He took a seat, took off his helmet, and started eating. He looked up, and saw that the soldiers were still standing, staring at him wide-eyed. "What?" he asked.

"Your…..your face….." the South American man said.

"Yes. I have one. Most people do." Chief replied before going back to his meal. The soldiers then took a seat, apparently deciding that that answer was good enough for them. "So, I take it you're all with Ackerson?"

"Er….yeah." said the brown-skinned women in a British accent. "I'm Asha Beckett. Alliance Spec Ops Team Delta. And that's Tu'uta Tangilanu, Julianne Engelbrektsson, and Jared La Rosa." she said as she pointed to each of her companions. "We were just getting to know some of your team. It's good to see you again, sir."

Chief paused and looked at them. Again? They met before? Now that he thought about it, they do look familiar…..

"….You're the soldiers that found me." he said after half a second of thought.

"Found you?" Ashley asked.

"When I was in cryo sleep aboard the Forward Unto Dawn." Chief elaborated. He pointed at the quartet of soldiers. "They found me."

"Huh. Small galaxy." Kaidan observed.

"Except they were ODST." he said. "What's with the ONI insignias?"

Beckett shrugged. "Got assigned new jobs in ONI. Guess we must've impressed the right people."

Chief looked around. "Where's your leader? Kyle Nolan, right?"

Beckett looked behind the Chief's shoulder and smiled. "Here he comes, now."

Chief looked over his shoulder and saw a familiar looking Human approach. He placed his tray on the table, turned on his heel at the Chief and saluted. "Master Chief."

"Second Lieutenant Nolan." Chief returned the salute.

"First Lieutenant now." Nolan corrected. "Got a promotion after joining ONI."

"Yeah, what's up with that?" Ashley asked. "You guys don't seem the ONI types."

Nolan shrugged. "Ackerson offered us the job and….well…..she's not the kind of officer that takes no for an answer."

"I was offered a job in ONI, once." Kaidan remarked.

"You turn them down?" Nolan asked.

"Yeah. Heard too many bad things." Kaidan replied. "I've seen what happens when people try to cut corners. Rather not do it for a living."

"Attention." a voice said over the intercom. "The Ten-hundred hour exercises will begin in thirty minutes."

"That's us." Nolan said. "Better make this meal quick."

Chief nodded in reply as he took a few more bites of his pancakes. Nolan took his seat and similarly ate his meal with zeal. "I see you've already met my squad." Nolan observed. "Beckett, my second-in-command. La Rosa, my designated marksman, Engelbrektsson my biotic support, and Tangilanu, my tech specialist."

Chief nodded and gestured to his own team. "Kaidan Alenko, second-in-command. Ashley Williams, weapons expert. Tali'Zorah nar'Rayya, tech expert. And Liara T'soni - Biotics specialist and archaeologist.

Rather than give a verbal reply, Liara hiccuped. "Oh dear. I think I ate my meal too fast. Hic!" the Asari said. She drank some of her water, hoping that it would cure-

"Hic!" Liara hiccuped.

"Need some more water there, T'soni?" Ashley asked.

"No. Hic- No. I'm fine." Liara said. "I'm sure they'll -Hic- go away eventually."

"So Nolan - how well do you know the Chief?" Kaidan asked.

"Probably not as well as you guys." Nolan replied.

"He taught me how to use 27th century firearms." Chief said. "He did a good job."

Nolan seemed a bit surprised by that statement. "….Thank you, Chief." he replied, as though that was all he could think to say.

"Say, that's new armor." La Rosa pointed out. "What happened to your old armor?"

"Got badly damaged in a mission that went sideways." Chief replied.

"Hell of a replacement though - you look like a tank!" La Rosa gushed. "Where'd you get it?"

"….Classified." Chief replied.

"Oh, come on!" La Rosa whined.

"The man said 'classified,' La Rosa." Nolan said with a smile. "Let it go."

"So, where are the others?" Chief asked Ashley as his meal got close to disappearing.

"Not sure." Ashley answered. "N'tho went off near the vending machines a while ago, and I haven't seen him since. As for Garrus and Wrex, they finished their meals a while ago. They're by the armory now." Ashley said as she pointed her thumb over her shoulder to the other side of the massive room.

"Yeah, I've got an MIA myself - where's Resolme?" Nolan asked.

"Hard to say. Haven't seen him since we got here. Who knows where he went." Beckett replied with a shrug. Chief, having his finished his meal, got up and started walking over to the armory where Garrus and Wrex were. Nolan, having also finished his meal, followed soon after.

The armory was a series of weapon benches and lockers on the other side of the mess hall, closer to the windows. It didn't take him long to spot the Turian and the Krogan cleaning their sniper rifle and rail gun respectively. Garrus was the first to look up and nod. "Nolan, this is Garrus Vakarian, my designated marksman. The Krogan there is Urdnot Wrex, my assault specialist. Garrus, Wrex, this is Lieutenant Kyle Nolan. We'll be cooperating with his unit later."

Wrex merely grunted in acknowledgement, not even looking up from the rail gun he was cleaning. Garrus, however, was much more respectful. Holding his sniper rifle in one hand, he walked up to Nolan and offered the other. "Pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant."

Nolan paused, then shook his hand with a reluctant look on his face. "Likewise." he said in a restrained tone.

Garrus glanced at his prosthetic hand. "Ouch. How did that happen?" he asked as she gestured to his artificial hand.

"….First Contact War." Nolan answered. "Turian with a sniper rifle."

Garrus paused. He then looked down at the sniper rifle in his hands. "….Hm." Garrus grunted. "….You know, damnedest thing, I already had breakfast, but I'm still kind of hungry. I'm gonna go for seconds. Don't wanna fight on an empty stomach." With that, the Turian put the sniper rifle on the table and walked back towards the cafeteria. Wrex chuckled mirthfully.

"Not a fan of Turians, I take it?" Chief asked.

Nolan was taken aback for a moment by the Chief's bluntness. Then, he shrugged. "A little." he confessed.

"I kinda feel the same way about Sangheili." Chief confessed with a shrug of his own. "Speaking of, where's N'tho?"

"By the vending machines." Wrex stated.

"Still?" Chief asked as he walked through a dead-end corridor that lead to bathrooms, a drinking fountain, and a series of vending machines. Sure enough, there was N'tho, who looked at Chief and Nolan as they walked up to him.

"Oh hi Chief." N'tho said. "And, you're Lieutenant Nolan, right? Your squadmates mentioned you. N'tho 'Sraom, at your service. Blue Team's chief scout and reconnaissance expert.

"…..N'tho, your hand is stuck in the vending machine." Chief pointed out.

N'tho was sprawled out on the floor, one hand stuck in the passage where snacks come out of the machine. "I paid for my crunch butter, I'm getting my crunch butter." he resolutely said.

The Chief sighed as he took a few steps back towards the armory, midway between the benches and the vending machines. "So, your team is…..interesting." Nolan observed.

"My biotic has the hiccups, my assault specialist is a muffin thief, and my scout is fighting a losing battle against a snack machine." Chief said as he covered his face with his palm.

"….Muffin thief?" Nolan asked. Chief nodded at Wrex, who was pulling a muffin out of his pocket and was being very careful about eating it in such a way that no one would see. "…Huh."

"They're a good team." Chief said. "It's just that back in my day I was used to more - "

"WORT WORT WORT!" N'tho cursed at the machine. "GIVE ME MY WORTING CRUNCH YOU GETH SYMPATHIZER! DADDY NEEDS HIS CARAMEL FIX!"

"….Professionalism." Chief finished. "Sometimes I feel less like a commanding officer and more like a babysitter."

It was then that a young Human soldier walked up to the Chief and Nolan. "Uh, Lieutenant? I uh…"

"What is it, Resolme?" Nolan asked, evidently knowing the young soldier. He shyly held up his hand, which was inside an empty coffee pot.

"….I dropped a credit chit inside." he quietly confessed.

Nolan snorted and patted Chief's shoulder. "Welcome to the officer corps, Chief."

"Chief?" Resolme asked as he looked up at the Chief, confused. It was then that Chief realized that he wasn't wearing his helmet - he left it at the table. This young man must not have recognized him.

"Oh, that's Ma-"

"Nobody." Chief replied, cutting off Nolan. "I'm nobody important. At all." He gave Nolan a look while Resolme just looked very confused. Really, Chief just wanted to be able to meet a young soldier without them becoming a total fanboy. Nolan nodded, silently understanding the Chief's wishes.

"Would Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan-117 report to the bridge. Spartan-117 to the bridge."

"I need to go." Chief said to Nolan. "I'll see you later, Lieutenant Nolan."

"Looking forward to it…. Carl." Nolan said with a nod. Chief gave a face that asked 'really?', to which Nolan's face silently replied 'that was the best I could come up with.' Chief left Resolme and Nolan in the armory and made his way back to his original table, grabbing his helmet and putting it on.

"They want you for something, Chief?" Kaidan asked.

"Looks like it." Chief replied. "Kaiden, if I'm not back before the war games start, you're in charge."

"Understood." Kaidan replied.

"Wait. Why wouldn't you be able to be back in time for the games?" La Rosa asked.

"I get the feeling I'm gonna be up there a while." Chief explained. With that, he turned on his heels and marched out of the mess hall with purpose.

The elevator's ascent finally ended and Chief stepped into the command bridge of Pinnacle Station. He had read that Pinnacle Station was a very old facility, originally built by the Turians in the Krogan Rebellions. He believed it, as the raised walkways overseeing subordinate work stations and the curved oval-shaped viewports faintly reminded him of the Normandy's aesthetics.

Standing on a raised circular platform adjacent to the walkway was a man - an Alliance officer by his formal blues, and a high-ranking one at that. He was looking at a giant viewport through which an orange, ringed gas giant could be seen. Chief was confused for a second, as this system had no such gas giant and certainly not so close to the station. However, the data entries and readouts on the side revealed that this viewport wasn't a window, but rather a computer screen depicting data on some other planet.

The officer turned towards the Chief's presence and walked over. After seeing the admiral's bars on his uniform, Chief saluted. "Sir."

"At ease." the admiral said as he returned the salute. "Welcome to Pinnacle Station, Master Chief. I'm Admiral Tadius Ahern. I run the station and training here." He had brown hair that was cut at military length, as well as a goatee of the same color. His tan skin and Roman first name hinted at a possible Italian ancestry.

"Thank you for having me, sir." Chief said. "You wanted to speak with me?"

Ahern huffed. "No…..that would be Major Danielle Ackerson, the woman who invited you here to start with. She had to take a call from Earth, so she'll be with us shortly."

"Something wrong, sir?" Chief asked. The scornful way Ahern just talked about Ackerson didn't escape him.

"Off the record?" Ahern asked. He took a few steps closer to the Chief and started to talk much quietly. "Watch yourself. Danielle is the kind of person you can't shake hands with without losing a finger."

"What does she want with me?" the Spartan asked.

"I have no idea." Ahern answered. "And that's what worries me."

"You know her?" the Chief asked.

Ahern huffed again. "You kidding? The whole Alliance brass knows her. Her family's been serving the Alliance since the Human-Covenant War. She's practically royalty. She was even in the running to be the first Human spectre before you came into the picture. Truth be told, I'm glad the job went to you instead."

"Why's that?" Chief asked.

"She's ONI, born and bred. Literally. Like I said, her family's served the Alliance for years, but ONI specifically." Ahern explained. "She's every bit as manipulative and ruthless as you'd expect of a spook, and then some. Hell, she's not even thirty yet and she's already a Major. I've never seen a soldier ascend through the ranks so fast, but then again, she is an Ackerson."

"You suspect her rank isn't legitimate?" Chief asked.

"That's the worst part - it probably is." Ahern replied. "Her record is nothing short of stellar. Excellent weapon scores, dozens of confirmed kills and successful missions to her name, if she didn't earn her rank legally, she earned it through cunning and sheer skill."

It was then they heard a door opening and saw a young blonde woman approach from another door. "Here she comes…." Ahern whispered as he took a couple steps back. "Major Ackerson - Chief and I have been waiting for you."

"Apologies. Priority transmission." Ackerson said in a very formal tone. "You're probably wondering why I called you up here. I'm afraid you won't be participating in the first of the exercises. You see, I didn't just call you here to participate in a few combat exercises."

"I suspected." Chief quipped.

"And rightfully so." Ackerson quipped back. "Come. We should go somewhere more private. How does my quarters aboard the Mare Erythraeum sound?"

"Lead the way." Chief replied. Ackerson nodded and turned her heel, leading the Chief out of the command bridge.

….

"Really Jake?" you must be thinking to yourself right now. "An eighteen-month hiatus and THIS is what you come back with? A shitty lunchroom scene followed by a fucking cliffhanger?" Well, I have an explanation for that. See, I first got it in my head to do this chapter at around mid-November and….well…..to paraphrase the great BoJack Horseman:

"Yeah, six weeks! That's plenty of time! I can do those things in six weeks!"

Six weeks later…..

"Ah, shit, I didn't do any of those things!"

So yeah, if this chapter like it was rushed, written at the last minute, or had to be cut short due to time…it's because it was.

Been watching a lot of BoJack Horseman on Netflix by the way, and I really like it. I don't know why, but the saga of a washed up creative personality struggling with his own existential angst really speaks to me.

Anyway yeah. I'M BACK! AND I STILL HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING!

*cries*

Also yes, I used characters from Zgamer's Last Spartan spinoff fanfic - he and I are gonna be doing a crossover kinda thing with this. Go read his stuff! He is an objectively better writer than I am!

See you folks next time!