AU: So I just noticed my character switch line break things weren't transferring to properly. Ch 2 has been fixed. Whoops.

0900 Hours, September 10, 2552 (Military Calendar) /
Third Planet In Lambda Ocassio System, Deep Inside Mountain Range

Jessica-G186 slumped against one of the smooth, ornate walls of her team's impromptu fortress. Her eyes settled on the campfire resting on the brilliant silver surface of its floor, unscathed by the flames resting against it.

Even SPARTANs had their limits- nearly two weeks of fighting off holographic copies of her team happened to be hers.

In all honesty, she probably hadn't been ready for this when she left Onyx. Fresh out of training, she and her team had been pulled from the ranks to don MJOLNIR and function in the capacity of a SPARTAN-II team. Three other teams had been selected for the same treatment, she knew, but hers was the only one not eligible for top honors. As a result, they were sent out immediately.

Unlike most SPARTAN-III teams, Sentinel consisted of three SPARTANs rather than five. She, Andrew-G047, and Mary-G283 had been picked out of three hundred Gamma Company members specifically for their ability to adapt- with less people, they theoretically could survive just as well as with a full team.

Theoretically.

Jessica scanned the forest's edge some fifty meters from her position. Her team had just fought off the second of five waves of holograms, the exact number that attacked each and every day. The times varied, of course, and sometimes a lone assailant would wander into their structure. Still, at least an hour passed between each attack at the least. Currently, her team was off foraging for food while she watched over camp. It was uncanny, really, the amount of resources they had available. Their opponents had practically herded them into their camp, while food and water were everywhere in the surrounding forest. Since then, it had been one fight after another…but Sentinel Team always had enough supplies to keep going.

Secretly, she wondered if their predicament was in fact one of Lieutenant Commander Ambrose's tests. He and Chief Petty Officer Mendez always did have a certain flair for the extreme, and it seemed as if their enemies didn't even want them dead. Sure, the fights got harder every day- in fact, the holograms seemed to be learning- but they had sure been provided for.

On the other hand, she had watched crew members of the UNSC Fire Within die at the hands of the very same entities. While their deaths could have certainly been faked, it didn't seem like LCDR Ambrose's style.

She noted a shadow in the tree line, and her M392 Designated Marksman Rifle moved to her shoulder in an instant's time. She clicked her comm on and off, her team's code for requesting acknowledgment.

Jessica loosened as an IFF signal flicked on and off. It was Andrew, their stealth specialist. Strictly speaking, every member of Sentinel Team was a Jack or Jill of all trades, but they still had their personal fields of expertise. Andrew sauntered into the field between the forest and their fort, a MA5B in one hand, and a makeshift basket of alien fruits in the other. Toxicity tests had painted the fruit as edible, and they had survived off of it and other things thus far. Andrew set down the basket inside the fort's walls and turned to Jessica.

"Any word from Mary yet?" he asked. Jessica nodded.

"She sent word back a few minutes ago. She caught one of those pig-geese we've seen around, so she'll be a while getting back," Jessica responded. The native wildlife was…odd, to say the least. Andrew joined her at the wall.

"At least we're getting meat tonight." He sighed, his gaze shifting to the frigate far above them. "We're going to have to make an attempt sooner or later, Jessica."

Jessica remained silent. Their ship, the November Sky, had been captured by a massive force of holograms following its descent into the planet's atmosphere. To her knowledge, no one had survived but her team. Worse still, the crew hadn't been able to activate Cole Protocols in the brief struggle, and so November Sky's database and AI, Athena, were still intact.

In light of this fact, Jessica knew their duty to be recapture of the ship, and either escape or a full purge of its systems. However, even minor probing toward the hill it sat on had been met with overwhelming force, and so her team hadn't been able to do a thing thus far. Sooner or later something would have to be done- preferably while they still had ammo.

She checked her clock. They still had at least a half hour until the next assault.

Jessica moved further into their base, leaving Andrew on watch. She removed her helmet- MJOLNIR Mk V Recon Variant, like the rest of her suit- and sat, savoring the brief moment of respite.

A moment which, rather quickly, was interrupted. A horrendously loud rumbling began from outside- the sound of rock shifting against rock. She had her helmet on in moments, and was outside even faster.

Halfway up the inner wall of the mountain, and enormous hole had opened- big enough for a Longsword fighter to slip through easily. Through the opening, she could see a single Pelican on hot approach.

"Help, maybe?" Andrew offered.

"That, or things just got worse."

Noble Team stopped in its tracks as the mountain opened up, everyone's gaze shifting toward the 'sky-' well, up, anyway. The sound of stone on stone came as a deafening roar to the augmented SPARTANs, and somewhat less of one to the lone armored ODST. As the hole slowed its growth, a single Pelican flew through it at high speed. A channel opened- Jun was contacting the full squad.

"That's Romeo 595…something's up," he said disbelievingly. The Pelican curved its path sharply, angling towards the smoke Chris had pointed out earlier.

"Double time it, Noble! Move!" Chris shouted, taking off in a full run. James was moving before he finished the order, and Jacob fell in behind them as they crashed through the forest, ignoring their own sudden lack of stealth. Well, most of them- James still hardly made a noise. The waypoint on Jacob's HUD dropped rapidly, as if it were counting milliseconds rather than meters. Still…they had a long run on their hands.

Nothing a SPARTAN couldn't handle, of course.

Jessica eyed the approaching dropship warily, her DMR at the ready. She glanced at the ammo count- a full fifteen rounds. The ship settled down in the field between her position and the forest, its rear opening to reveal a bay full of what looked to be marines.

She pinged their neural interfaces for an IFF response. Nothing.

"I recognize a couple of those guys," Andrew said. "They were on the Sky. Looks like you were right. Guess those holo-projectors scanned them too."

Jessica grunted an affirmative and raised her weapon to fire, the last bit of evidence she needed being the passive look on her target's face. She squeezed off a round, and the image of the marine vanished before it hit the ground.

Suddenly the forest was alight with combat. The entire complement of 'marines' opened fire, spraying Jessica's position with solid light bullets. Most of the rounds pinged off a wall and vanished, but a few slammed into her shields, dropping them steadily. Slowly, but steadily. She squeezed off two more shots and ducked, allowing her shields to recharge. Beside her Andrew jumped up and opened fire with his own weapon, firing single rounds to conserve ammo. As his shields fell, hers began to rise, and soon he ducked into cover as well.

All traces of shooting ceased.

Jessica saw two possibilities. Either they were being lured into the open for a massive attack, or Mary had arrived to mop up the survivors. She removed a length of optic cable from her helmet and bent it into position, then eased it up and around her cover.

To her surprise, she found not one SPARTAN, but five in the clearing. None of them looked familiar to her, but all the armor designs were distinctly UNSC.

Hm. Maybe Athena lost out to an enemy hacker, and they got the information from database, she thought to herself. That, or we've actually received help. She grinned slightly at the prospect of reinforcements. SPARTANs, no less!

She retrieved the cable and edged her way up, looking at the SPARTANs with her own eyes. Sure enough, the team was standing on the other side of the field, facing the front of the Pelican. The 'marines' were nowhere to be seen, but the ship's bay door was closed- likely they had retreated into it, hoping the SPARTANs would mistake each other for enemies and attack. Underestimation at its finest, but whatever intelligence controlling those drones had definitely improved its tactics.

A cursory glance revealed the SPARTANs to have active IFF signatures, and she activated her own to catch their attention and avoid friendly fire, motioning to Andrew to do the same as well.

"This is Sierra G186. UNSC forces, please confirm," she said firmly, still not willing to leave things to chance. The SPARTAN in Gungnir stepped forward.

"Major Chris-B274," he said simply. "Glad to see you're in one piece, Sentinel Actual. Where's the rest of your team?" he asked cautiously, anticipating an unsavory answer. Too many SPARTANs had died in past years, and Jessica understood the trepidation in his voice to be related to that fact. Andrew stepped into the open and flashed the SPARTAN smile- two fingers across the helmet. A couple of the others returned the gesture, though one of them- outfitted in SPI- simply looked back and forth, as if wondering as to the meaning of the gesture. Odd.

"Chief Petty Officer Jessica-G186. This is Petty Officer Second Class Andrew-G047," she said, nodding toward her teammate. "Our third member is gathering supplies at the moment. You can relax. We're all here." Chris eased visibly- difficult to do in a full suit of power armor, but subtleties are obvious to a full SPARTAN. Jessica gestured to the Pelican. "You may want to stay clear of that bird, sir. It's compromised by enemy forces- I'm sure you've encountered them by now."

"One of them nearly got Six," remarked the SPARTAN in the Scout Variant, chuckling lightly as he gestured towards the SPI outfitted man with the damaged armor.

"Yes, we're familiar," Chris said, waving his team into combat positions around the Pelican. "You said compromised? It'll still fly, right?"

"Yes, sir. We'll have to clear out the drones first, but she'll fly." Jessica paused, glancing at the still present hole in the mountain. "You don't intend to…" she said, trailing off midsentence as she looked back to Chris. Helmet or not, she was sure he was smiling.

"Affirmative. We're taking this bird up and out of here." Jessica looked at Andrew, who nodded at her knowingly. She faced the superior officer, steeling herself for a possible reprimand.

"Negative, sir. We have more pressing objectives to attend to," she said firmly, speaking to her superior officer in a way only a SPARTAN could get away with. She gestured towards November Sky. "Cole Protocols were never carried out on our ride in."

Chris froze. The implications were obvious, of course, and he surely realized what they were. Foreign AIs- or aliens- with access to not only UNSC navigation banks, but a full shipboard AI? The possibilities were ominous, to say the least. He sighed, and nodded in resignation.

"Alright, SPARTANs. You heard her. We've got a Priority One objective on our hands. Jacob, James, Five? Clear out that bird. It's still our ride out. Jun, I want you scouting the area for hostiles, and finding any viable approaches to that frigate." He turned to face Jessica, who straightened slightly out of instinct. "Jessica, Andrew? Tell me everything you know."

As it had turned out, the members of Sentinel Team knew as much as Noble did. They had briefly recited an account of their time in the system, from the November's approach to the arrival of Noble Team. Jacob hadn't paid much attention to the story; it had little to do with him anyway. No, he was content with helping his squadmates clear out the Pelican.

That job had been simple enough. The drones inside didn't have data stored on SPARTANs yet- Sentinel had explained how that worked, and it was one of the few things Jacob heard- so they fell easily to the three man assault. The Pelican itself was hardly damaged.

Then Chris had outlined their plan, which was now underway. Jacob, as resident pilot, would take half the team to the frigate by air- more to keep the Pelican secure than to add an avenue of attack. Chris would take the rest of the team in on foot, bullrushing the drone defenses on the way. After all, a team of highly experienced SPARTANs beats a team of three green ones any day.

Jacob held the ship steady as he looped it around the central hill, waiting for the signal to begin. Sentinel Team chattered nervously in the back of the Pelican behind him, apparently slightly worried as to what they'd find on their old ship. Beside him sat the team oddball, their ODST- Chris hadn't wanted an unaugmented soldier taking the hard path up the hill, and so she was sent along for the ride.

Jacob circled the frigate lazily, awaiting a signal from Chris to move in. The ground team had a two hour head start on the Pelican, and were bound to arrive any moment.

"They remind me of marines straight out of boot," the ODST murmured beside him. He chuckled lightly.

"We all were like that once."

"Even SPARTANs? Last I recall, the first SPARTAN kill on record went to a fourteen year old. Green. Right," she replied sarcastically, failing completely to hide her contempt for SPARTANs. Most ODSTs were like that- after all, after years of being the best, ODSTs had taken a backseat to the super soldiers. It was as if being told to sit back and let the real soldiers handle the dirty work, and Jacob felt he understood the sentiment on some level. It didn't help that the first ODST-SPARTAN encounter had ended with several ODSTs dead or wounded.

Before Jacob could respond, a green light flashed in his helmet- Chris's status light. "I'm taking us in," he said simply, knowing Lindsey would have seen the light as well. The Pelican banked and dove at his command, reorienting for the November Sky as it did so. Lindsey marked a point on the ship's hull via her HUD.

"There…I see an open hatch. Lifeboats, probably. We should land near there." It was as if the prior conversation had never happened. Say what you will about Lindsey- she knew when to act like a soldier.

Jacob nodded and changed course. In the back, he could hear the others prepping for landing, knowing what the sudden change meant. The Pelican dipped down and hovered briefly, its landing gear extended, before touching the ground and settling to a stop. Jacob shut the dropship down and stood, retrieving his MA5B from the floor beside him and bringing it to the magnetic strip on his back. It clicked into place.

He strode into the troop compartment behind Lindsey and stopped to regard the other SPARTANs.

"I want you three to stay with the Pelican. Wouldn't do us any good to lose our way out." The team leader- Jessica- nodded slightly.

"Go get 'em, sir," she said simply. He smiled under his helmet- though she was probably disappointed at being put on guard duty, she didn't question the order. That was good.

Jacob dropped to the ground outside the ship, bringing his rifle to the ready. The top of the hill was massive- it could probably have fit a Marathon-Class cruiser atop it. The November Sky seemed barely to take up any space at all, with that much space available. The ship sat in the midst of a massive, somewhat thin forest, its bow held up by what appeared to be faint beams of light- he hadn't noticed them farther away.

He gazed at the ship itself, finding the open hatch on its hull. It was a dozen meters up, just above the vehicle bay centered in the ship's stern. A brief climb would be necessary, but UNSC ships tended to have plenty of handholds. He set to work.

A short climb later, he pulled himself into the empty lifeboat bay, noting the doors to be closed to his annoyance. No matter; his augmentations would allow him to pry them open, MJOLNIR or not.

"Shit…" Lindsey exclaimed as she entered the bay. "How are we getting in now?"

Wordlessly, Jacob approached the set of doors and got a grip near the seam where they connected. He dug his hands into the grooves in the doors and prepared to pull…when the doors slid apart on their own. Lindsey did a double take.

"Nice. You guys are strong." She moved forward, sweeping the hallway with her rifle. Satisfied, she turned to regard Jacob. He shook his head.

"That wasn't me. The door opened on its own." Lindsey cocked her head. He shrugged in response. "Keep an eye out. We're not alone here, and I don't think it was Noble that did that."

They continued into the ship, encountering corridor after abandoned corridor. A feeling of unease seeped its way into the back of Jacob's mind as they progressed. Nothing was worse to a soldier than finding just that. Nothing. It smelled of a trap. He turned another corner, nearly bumping into another figure. Frantically, he leapt back and brought his MA5B to his shoulder.

"Six, it's me!" the figure said quickly, raising a hand to him. Jun. Behind him were Chris and James. Jacob didn't even bother to marvel at Jun's adherence to his old call number. At least it told him it was definitely Jun.

"Where's Sentinel?" Chris inquired as the team fanned out.

"I left them with our bird."

"Alright. Let's get this over with then." Chris motioned for James to take point and turned to face the door to the bridge. He waved James in.

The team stormed the bridge rapidly, rifles waving in every direction. In the center of the bridge, atop a holotank, sat the one figure present- a holographic image of a woman dressed in ancient Greek atire, a helmet at her sandal wearing feet, her brown hair tied into a simple ponytail. She wore a devious grin on her face.

"So good of you to finally join me. I can't tell you how boring this was getting," the figure said, her voice seeming to come from everywhere at once. She was Athena, AI of the November Sky.

"We're here to initiate Cole Protocols. I'm sure you know what that means," Chris said somewhat coldly. It struck Jacob as the voice of someone about to do something he would regret. The AI frowned.

"I don't see why. We're fully capable of leaving this planet intact."

"I'm afraid I can't allow that. For all we know, you've already been compromised by local hostiles." Athena laughed loudly; raucously, at the suggestion.

"Them? Hack me? Oh, that's funny. No, no, I hacked them. They tried their best, but those AIs weren't nearly good enough. I'm the reason you encountered no resistance coming in here. I am in control."

Jun removed his helmet and regarded the AI coolly. "So you sent those drones after us earlier?"

"I didn't take control of the system until you started your approach, so no. I was waiting for an opening, a distraction to weaken their defenses. Up until then, I had only taken control of the archives. Now, I have it all."

"Back up a moment. Who is the 'they' you keep referring to?" Chris stepped closer to the holotank. Athena frowned.

"I thought you knew. That's why you're here, is it not? 'They…' are the Precursor intelligences trusted with this installation. Left here to contain and study the capabilities of spacefaring lifeforms. To learn the behavior of their finest. Though, 'intelligence' might be pushing it a bit…"

All five soldiers made a motion of understanding, putting together two and two. The attacks, the resources Sentinel had acquired so easily, and even the hole in the mountain. It was a trap designed to study anything foolhardy enough to stumble into it- and skilled enough to fight back.

"Sir, if this AI has data on the Precursors we should bring her back to the Vertigo." James chimed in.

"If you want to put her in your suit, be my guest. Me, I'm not above guessing early rampancy. And how do we know this isn't another trick?"

Athena groaned, raising a hand to her head.

"Come now, Major. Now you're just being paranoid. I am in no way rampant, nor am I compromised. I've yet to breach three years active duty, let alone seven."

Noble Team stared at Chris expectantly. He thought for a moment, but as he opened his mouth to speak, he noticed the hole in the mountains- visible through the bridge's windows- shrinking.

"How long until that hole closes completely?" he asked the AI. She paused for a nanosecond to do the math.

"If you're asking if you'll get to that Pelican in time, the answer is not a chance in hell. However…" she paused, appearing as if in deep thought. "my calculations show that a MAC round may be sufficient to breach the wall. Perhaps enough to allow this entire ship out.

"Sentinel, get that Pelican into the vehicle bay!" Chris ordered sharply, his mind concluded. "Athena, warm up the engines and the MAC. We're leaving."

Captain d'Lacey gave Lt. Rodda an incredulous look.

"You say the mountain is moving?"

"Yes, sir. I thought it was an anomaly before, but it looks like it just closed up. I don't think that's just a mountain, sir."

Captain d'Lacey rubbed his temples. Obviously, that was where Noble Team was located. But what was going on down there?

"Sir, the mountainside just exploded!" the young officer shouted. d'Lacey was at her side in an instant, reading the sensor reports intently.

"November Sky…" he muttered in disbelief as a ship's IFF appeared at the hole in the mountainside. The ship was too small for Vertigo to draw a decent image yet, but it could certainly trace the IFF signature.

"Confirmed ping from the Sky. Its AI, Athena, reports all SPARTANs are aboard," Tanis said, breaking the silence a few moments later.

"Get me a channel. I want to be speaking to Noble Leader five minutes ago," d'Lacey ordered sharply, receiving his channel only seconds later. The image of Chris in his armor appeared onscreen, leaning forward in the Sky's command chair. The SPARTAN snapped a salute.

"Sir, all SPARTANs present and accounted for. The crew of the Sky is confirmed KIA by the ship's AI." The Captain wore a bitter smile, both overjoyed an disappointed at once.

"Acknowledged. Think your team can handle the Sky for a while?"

"Easily. Did you have something in mind?"

"Tanis is transmitting the coordinated of our next destination," he replied, nodding to the AI. "We may need the Sky, so I don't want to leave her here. I'll debrief you once we link up with With Valiance Victory."

"Data packet received. Coordinates plotted," issued a voice from the other ship. Athena, he surmised.

"Tanis, take us into slipspace. Oh, and someone tell the leathernecks they can come off alert now."

The Vertigo curved off and disappeared into a hole it had ripped in the fabric of space itself. Shortly afterwards, the November Sky did the same.