Alert! Damage sustained in the-

"I know, I know!" Michael shouted at the machine, already at his wits end "Tell me something I don't know!"

"All polar bears are left-handed"

Mike's eye twitched "now tell me something actually useful"

Alert! Damage sustained in the-

The Alert was interrupted as Mike bashed his head against the inside of the cockpit, and action he wouldn't normally be able to do if the thing was actually working, and he wasn't arse-up against whatever the Armoured Command Unit, or ACU for short, was leaning against.

So here he was stuck in his own metal coffin with six and a half tonnes of metal and machinery holding him in and preventing the failsafe from activating.

ACU Systems Update: Direct Communication with ACU strike-team re-established

Opening D.C. with ACU 'Retribution'

The D.C. channel crackled momentarily, before a familiar voice appeared.

"Michael, what happened? All of my systems are down or critically damaged."

"I think we crash-landed, Sara." Mike said "I'm still figuring out the 'why' part myself"

Saraphina growled angrily as she checked her system messages. "Right before we went through the quantum gate, I got a quantum destabilization warning, something about a a shockwave or jammer... Besides that, I have no idea."

"Rangers lead the way my ass…" Mike grumbled "So… I don't suppose you're still good to move? Vengeance is kinda stuck on his head right now."

Saraphina groaned in frustration. "I barely have Direct Comms working, let alone sensors. We won't be able to interface until they reboot."

"Damn it all… Well, I'm stuck here. I can't even leave for EVA." Mike said

"All we can do is wait for systems to repair and reboot. It's honestly a miracle the Resource Cores didn't go supernova underneath us with how bad this EMP is," Sara said, sighing in resignation.

It was two hours before both Mike and Sara heard the telltale sounds of their ACU's generators spooling up again.

The sound was music to both the beleaguered pilot's ears as the sound meant the suits repairs would take little to no time now.

Once there was energy and raw mass from the mech's generators flowing through the system, both diagnosing and repairing the damage would come quickly, and with their suit's intelligences handling most of the technical stuff, things were soon underway

"Vengeance, get me a visual, what's out there?" Mike told the suit

Sara spoke up after she interfaced, warning Michael. "I've got a person standing on my head. Looks like he's trying to cut his way in. Be careful not to harm anyone."

Michael waited a few moments and felt something at the base of his skull, which he recognised as a waiting connection. Activating it, his senses seemed to dive into a long tunnel before snapping back to a view from his mech's eyes.

The Hangar he was in was cluttered, but space had been cleared around them. Everyone seemed to rock suddenly as Michael felt the ship around his mechanised war-suit tilt.

His larger body still felt numb and insensate; it would take some time before Vengeance was fully operational once more. The Vengeance repaired the audio receptors just in time to catch a conversation, amidst the sounds of droning machinery which Michael managed to filter out to a much more tolerable level.

"...I'm telling you, man, whatever built these things, it wasn't human."

"Neither the Covenant nor the Forerunners write in english, dumbass. Look, right there on the collar: A.S.C. Vengeance, and that one's the Retribution" The first technician's friend admonished

"We haven't gotten through in hours of heating this thing, it's not even hot. The plasma cutter didn't even scratch the surface… and look at the weapons, this stuffs lightyears ahead of anything we've got."

The familiar voice of Sara appeared, startling the two poor men. "I would appreciate it if you would stop trying to cut your way in. You'll never get through, and all it is doing is slowing down my repairs."

Everything stopped in the hangar as the supposedly derelict machine just demonstrated that it was occupied and operating.

The plasma cutter was eventually switched off and the techs all backed away

"Are you okay in there?" one of them ventured

"I have been better. Where are we?" Sara asked, not wanting to prolong conversation.

"Aboard the UNSC Cruiser The Pillar of Autumn… they dragged you two aboard just before the Covenant attacked Reach."

Sara paused in thought for a brief moment, a fraction of a second as she considered what she'd been told. "UNSC? What does that stand for?"

"You're… you're serious?"

Michael's external speakers finally came online. "Sara, you're doing it again."

Sara sighed. "My apologies, then. My name is Saraphima, pilot of the Valkyrie-Class AACU 'Retribution.'"

"And I'm Michael, pilot of the Titan-class AACU 'Vengeance'." Michael chimed in "And I would greatly appreciate it if you could at least tilt me over so I'm the right way up. You've managed to position us so our exit hatches are pressed into the ground."

The technicians shared a glance or two, before sending teams to find heavy lifting gear to safely move the multi-ton strategic war machines.

"Well, looks like you and I are stuck singing karaoke until they get back." Michael quipped, practically able to see her eye twitching in annoyance.

"Perhaps I should sing Spooky Scary Skeletons, then." Sara fired back.

"You know I hate that song" Mike stated

"Exactly. You know what I think of karaoke after-"

"Say no more, I'll keep my mouth shut" Michael said

Michael stretched as he climbed out of the Vengeance's chest cavity, with a cry of "freedom!"

Sara let out a sigh as she climbed out of Retribution, happy to have fresh air, but she could already tell today was not going to be fun based on the lecherous looks being sent her way.

"Alright you yokels, that's enough… you'd think you've never seen someone in a nervesuit before the way you lot are staring." Mike said

Sara placed a hand on his shoulder calmingly. "It's fine, Mike. Let's see if we can't find ourselves whoever commands this ship."

Mike slumped somewhat "fine… I don't suppose one of you could point us to the bridge, by any chance?"

Two familiar engineers walked up, pushing their way through the crowd. "We can lead you there."

Mike glanced at Sara and nodded "If you could take us to your leader, that'd be great"

Sara sighed at the nervous expressions on the engineers faces. "Michael, is now really the time for that?"

"It's not everyday you get to use the classics."

Sara shook her head slightly. "Fair enough." She gestured for the engineers to lead the way, before following after them and ignoring the ogling onlookers.

"Greetings, I'm Captain Jacob Keyes, commanding officer of the UNSC Cruiser Pillar of Autumn. It's a pleasure to meet you two… May I ask what species you are? This is the first first-contact scenario that I know of in decades."

Mike and Sara shared a glance before reaching up, unclasping several seals and removing their helmets.

"I regret to inform you, Captain, that we're… technically human… modified a lot with experimental nanotechnology, yes, but our base genome is human." Mike said

Sara nodded, clearly losing interest in the conversation. "We prefer the term Quantum Humans."

"The smaller commanders are part of a 'new initiative', now that-"

Sara cut him of, speaking in a low voice. "Dont. This isn't right.. You're not with Coalition Command are you?"

Michael blinked and asked a flat "what?"

Sara gave an annoyed sigh, clearly glaring at Michael. "Have you not noticed what we are currently standing in?"

"Some kind of military ba-" Mike paused, before hopping experimentally. "Oh. This isn't natural gravity… too uniform… and it's not Aeon tech either. Similar in design… but not based on seraphim tech"

Sara nodded. "I noticed the moment I jumped off of my ACU. And the only race I know of with space-faring ships utilizing artificial gravity is the Seraphim or the Illumi-" Sara jerked her head towards the captain suspiciously. "-nate…"

Mike followed Sara's gaze and scanned Keye's face, looking for any telltale signs "You're not Illuminate… who are you to have this kind of tech?"

"I'm afraid I don't know who these Illuminate are…" Keyes replied

Mike frowned "I think we might need to prepare a first-contact package after all… would you happen to have any sort of historical data here?"

"We do." Keyes said

"We'll trade ours for yours and compare notes, then." Mike concluded

Sara spoke up. "I would also appreciate it if you could have something a bit faster than a normal human compile the info."

Mike sighed slightly at Sara's insulting tone, glancing apologetically at Keyes. "We'll, uh, get the data to you and yours ASAP."

The next day, Keyes was met with an odd sight as he walked into the hangar bay that his guests ships were in.

The formerly mostly-empty bay was currently dominated by two large glowing structures that were making ominous noises, and several of his large vehicles which looked like they'd just rolled off the assembly line.

Keyes instinctively ducked as the heavier mech in the back began to move, pointing its left hand towards some of the only empty space in the Autumn's hangar and firing a beam of….something that, to Keye's amazement, coalesced into an entire scorpion tank in only a few minutes

"Showoff" Sara said

Keyes shook his head slightly, remembering why he came. "Alright. I came to bring you to Cortana. She just finished compiling the data-packet for you."

"That's great, we'll be out and follow you back ASAP"

Keyes nodded and waited for them to follow.

Minutes later, both re-entered the same meeting room as before, this time there was a holographic projection of a woman not dissimilar to the two newcomers in general appearance, barring the circuitry being streams of code rather than operational lights for the various implants the 'humans' had grown with.

"Cortana, what have you got?" Keyes asked

"As much as we could scrape together" Cortana replied, a holochip ejecting from a port on the table.

Michael looked it over, first one way, then the other, before closing his eyes and inserting it into a port on his shoulder that both Keyes and Cortana could both swear hadn't been there a moment ago.

Mike didn't take long to process the data, before frowning and placing his hand on the port the holochip had come from.

Cortana's avatar frowned, staring at the armoured figure before her, as if on some belief that if she glared hard enough, the enigma's secrets would be revealed to her.

"Is something the matter?" Keyes asked

"Not at all" Cortana said "in fact, Michael and Sara's historical data is coming through loud and clear…"

"Then what seems to be the problem?" Keyes asked

"The data I'm receiving is… nothing short of fanciful, sir." Cortana said "but the… level of detail… It says their brains are enhanced, but… this data doesn't look fabricated."

"I'll decide that for myself later, Cortana, have a copy sent to my terminal."

"Already done." Cortana replied.

Michael sighed "fine, how about a show of trust then… and perhaps a demo, after."

Reaching up, Mike undid the clasps and seals keeping his helmet in place, revealing his face, which was indeed human enough, if one dismissed the fact his skin was blue.

Sara removed hers next, but, when she lifted the visor, Cortana and Keyes both had to perform a double-take.

Sitting in the chair, across from them, was a near perfect mirror image of Cortana herself, made solid and real by some twist of fate.

"I have to say, whatever Cortana is, her Avatar nearly sent me for a loop." Michael admitted "You have to understand, not many people have seen my face… Even fewer have seen hers… between active duty and training, we don't get much time out of our armour."

Keyes and Cortana shared a glance, as if that sounded familiar.

There was an awkward silence that hung over the room as both parties tried to formulate their next sentences...

"Regardless of whether you trust or believe us, we're stuck on this ship until we reach whatever destination we're headed for… Our oaths are to Earth and her people, and to ensure the defense of her colonies and allies. I'm guessing that rings a bell, somewhere along the line, so… if you'll have us, I doubt either of us will have issues with helping defeat the Covenant."

"Give us some time to review your data." Keyes said "We'll make our decisions then."

"Understood, Captain."

"Do you… need help, or something?" Cortana asked

"Nope." Mike replied as he played around with some designs, Cortana doing the electrical equivalent of looking over his shoulder at the quantum resource conveyance systems that connected a Commander and all their factories and emplacements to their economic structures without being tethered to a mess of wires and cables and other clunky infrastructure that was easy to sever.

"That doesn't look safe"

"One upside to being infused with nanotechnology is that you can survive a lot of things that would kill a human... quite comfortably, I might add." Mike said, before climbing into his mech

"Well, you have fun…"

"I plan to" Michael said before reclaiming paneling and installing the quantum receiver onto a large conduit, the 'gun' on his left arm containing a microfabrication suite that spat a steady stream of subatomic particles at his construction site and carefully through extensive field manipulation arranged them into atomic, then molecular, than crystalline and finally macro-scale structures that Michael needed.

It was the armoured command unit's signature capability, and a good part of what made a commander a commander and not some vanguard assault mech, though it could double as that in a pinch given the sturdy nature of its plating and powerful main gun.

"I am curious as to what brought about your… mechs." Cortana asked

"Well, the more raw 'stuff' you send through a quantum gate, the more energy it costs… like, you could depower a city and not get enough raw juice for a 'next-door' jump, let alone what military actions demand, so we need to be economical with what we send to get the most 'bang for our buck'; so we send in commanders to act as vanguard units. They're capable of defending themself whilst they set up an economy and industry on-site to feed their war machine."

"I'm noticing a… 200% increase in shipboard power?" Cortana said

"Yep. We're feeding our power into the Autumn. Should provide a nice boost" Michael said

"What's in there?"

"A device that laughs in the face of the most basic rule of Thermodynamics, providing infinite clean energy for free, up to a certain maximum output"

"You're… if you're willing to share, it could even the playing field against the covenant… we need you, desperately."

Mike finished laying the armour back down, and grinned wryly.

"It's not me you have to convince. Sara's my CO, and she's not a fan of humans. Seeing as she's the highest our command chain goes for now…"

Cortana finished what Mike didn't say. "She's unlikely to help us…"

Mike winced when Cortana failed to keep the hopelessness out of her synthetic voice.

"I'll see if I can talk to Sara about it..." Mike said noncommittally.

"Humanity's on its last legs. With Reach destroyed, If something isn't found soon that'll give us an edge against the Covenant, they'll come straight to Earth and that'll be it." Cortana said.

Mike nodded "I'll see what I can do. She may not care for humans all that much, but she hates genocide more."