…..

1745 Hours, March 21st, 2683

Noveria Orbit

Pax System, Horse Head Nebula

….

"You know Kaidan, it just occurred to me."

"Yeah N'tho?"

"We're only just now landing on Noveria."

"What do you mean?"

"Well I mean it feels like that trip lasted for like, four months."

"But it's only been a few days since we left the Amazon System."

"I know, right?"

Such was the conversation the Master Chief caught a bit of as he walked past Blue Team on the CIC. The SPARTAN-II glanced at the squad and silently approved. Pre-mission chatter aside, they were all geared up and ready for action. The Spartan marched up to the cockpit as he saw the outline of Noveria's curvature out the window. "Hey Chief. Armed to the teeth as always I see." Joker commented. "You do realize that we're just pulling into port, right? We're not going in hot like on Feros, so I don't think anyone is gonna try to shoot you."

"Yet." Chief replied. "With suspected Geth activity in this system, I'm not letting my guard down."

"Incoming transmission from Noveria's surface." Negulesco reported. "Patching it through."

"Attention unidentified vessel." a squawking voice said over the comm in a business-like tone. "This is Noveria Control. Your arrival has not been scheduled. Our defense grid is armed and tracking you. Please state your identity and business."

"This is SSV Normandy and we're here for Citadel business." Joker answered. "We've got a Council Spectre on board."

"….I see." the voice replied. "We'll grant you landing access. Sending you docking coordinates now. Be advised, we will be confirming identification upon arrival. If confirmation cannot be established, your vessel will be impounded." With that, the connection was cut and coordinates were uploaded to the Normandy's navigational HUD.

"What a fun bunch." Joker commented. "I think I'll take my next leave here."

"Anderson told me that Spectres weren't well-liked on this planet." Chief stated. He keyed TEAMCOM. "Blue Team, assemble at the airlock. We're moving in five. You know the drill."

…..

The first thing that stuck out to John as he walked out the airlock was Noveria's environment. It was cold. Very cold. The Normandy had to carefully navigate through a vicious blizzard in order to dock. This was not unexpected. The codex mentioned that Noveria was essentially an ice planet. In fact, at negative one degree celsius, it's a miracle that the Kig-Yar were able to carve out any kind of habitable settlement out of this rock, let alone a research complex spanning miles.

Master Chief wasn't the only one to notice the environment. Wrex turned towards the mouth of the docking bay and huffed at the raging snow. "Every time I come here, there's a damn blizzard."

"You've been here before?" Ashley asked.

"Course I have." Wrex replied. "This is a corporation planet. Corporations hire mercs like me to do their dirty work all the time."

"Let's get moving." Chief said as he marched up the dock towards the port entrance proper. "It'll get warmer the further in we go."

"Assuming we get further in." N'tho said as they rounded the corner and saw an armed entourage waiting for them. "We may have a problem already."

"I'll handle it." the Master Chief quietly replied as he held up a hand, bringing his team to a stop. The armed entourage mostly consisted of Kig-Yar armed with shotguns and assault rifles. The two exceptions were a pair of Human women. One had a very clear Asian heritage, most likely Japanese from the pale skin-tone, while the other was blonde and had more of a North American or European look to her. "Is there something wrong?" Chief evenly asked.

"You'd better hope there isn't." the blonde woman growled.

"This is an unscheduled arrival. I need your credentials." the Japanese woman said.

The Spartan then turned on his omni-tool and held it aloft as it displayed the Spectre insignia. "Master Chief Petty Officer Sierra-117, Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, here on official Council business." the Master Chief rattled off.

"Load of horsecrap, ma'am." the blonde woman said to the other woman. Evidently, the Japanese woman was the superior officer.

"We will need to confirm that…" the Japanese woman cautiously told the Spartan. She was on edge. She knew how delicate this situation was. "Also, I must advise you that firearms are not permitted on Noveria. Sergeant Stirling, secure their weapons."

No sooner did the blonde woman, Stirling, take a step forward that the Master Chief immediately withdrew his assault rifle and pointed it at her. This prompted Stirling to withdraw her pistol, which prompted Blue Team to withdraw their own weapons, and the Kig-Yar entourage to withdraw theirs. The Japanese woman was the only one without a gun out as she simply stood there calmly.

"As I have already said, I'm with Special Tactics and Reconnaissance." the Master Chief stated. "As such, I am well within my rights to remain armed and prepared for any hostile threats. Any attempts to forcefully disarm me will be interpreted as hostile action and I will defend myself accordingly."

"In other words, back off or we kill you." Wrex snarled.

"Captain Matsuo, stand down." a female voice ordered over the dock's speaker system. "We confirmed their identity. Spectres are authorized to carry weapons here."

The Japanese woman, Captain Matsuo, signaled her officers to lower their weapons. Once they did, the Chief signaled his own team to do the same as he put away his own rifle. "You may proceed, Spectre." Matsuo said. "I hope the rest of your visit will be less confrontational. Parasini-san will meet you up the stairs."

"Behave yourself." Stirling gave one last warning as the entourage disbanded. With that confrontation dealt with, Blue Team proceeded onwards into the dock's lobby. The ceiling, walls and floor were all concrete, creating the vague sense that the room was carved out of the mountain itself, which is probably exactly what they did in order to build this place. They ascended a flock of stairs next to a slanted fountain and passed a few people wearing business suits who looked like they were waiting for something. There was no doubt that they were here for entirely different reasons than the Chief.

They eventually came to the front desk, though not without passing wall-mounted scanners which began to give off a loud, low-pitched alarm as they passed through the detection field. "Weapons detectors. Don't mind the alarms." a woman behind the desk said. She signaled another clerk standing at a computer and he nodded. With a few button presses, the alarms were deactivated.

The woman looked towards the Chief. She was a dark-skinned woman whose black hair was tied back into a bun on the back of her head. African or middle-eastern descent if Chief had to guess. "I am Gianna Parasini, assistant to Administrator Chok." the woman introduced herself. "We apologize for the incident in the docking bay. You understand that our security chief was only doing her job. One of my duties is orientation of new arrivals. Do you have any questions?"

"Has anyone unusual passed through here recently?" the Chief asked, cutting right to the chase as he always did.

"Unusual?" Parasini asked. She thought about it for a few seconds. "An Asari Matriarch passed through here a few days ago." she stated. "Lady Benezia."

And just like that, the mission suddenly got interesting. Matriarch Benezia. A powerful biotic, influential Asari leader, and Saren Arterius's primary accomplice. The Chief might not catch Saren here, but he could catch the next best thing. He silently vowed that this one wouldn't escape. However, he wasn't the only one who perked up at that name.

"Benezia?" Liara asked. "She is here?"

Right. Benezia was Liara's mother. The Chief had almost forgotten about that. This could get complicated. "Do you know where Matriach Benezia is now?" Chief asked Parasini.

"Benezia left for the Peak 15 research complex days ago." Parasini answered. "To the best of my knowledge, she's still there."

"I need to speak with her. Spectre business." Chief stated. Of course, by 'speak' he actually meant 'arrest,' but Parasini was a civilian who didn't need to know that. "How do I get to Peak 15?"

"You'll need to ask Administrator Chok for clearance to leave this port." Parasini pointed out. "His office is on the main level. Left at the top of the elevator."

"Alright." Chief said with a nod. "Let him know I'm heading up to see him."

"Of course." Parasini replied with a nod of her own. "If you need any more help, you can ask me at the administrator's office." And with that, she turned on her heels and disappeared into some doorway behind the desk. Chief gestured Blue Team to follow as they all marched further down the hall, towards the elevator.

"She is here. I don't believe it." Liara said as she marched up to the Spartan's side. "I imagine you want to talk to me, Chief. About my mother."

"Actually, yeah." Chief replied. "Think you could talk her into turning herself in peacefully? She might listen to you."

Liara seemed surprised by that suggestion. She seemed to think about it for a minute. "I….I don't know." she admitted. "As I have said, my mother and I have not spoken in many years."

Chief sighed as he came to a stop, putting a hand on Liara's shoulder as he did so. He signaled the rest of the squad to continue on without him, indicating he wanted a moment alone with the Asari. The rest of the team complied, save for Ashley who eyed Liara warily before following the rest of the team. Once the squad walked around the corner, Chief turned to the little blue woman.

"Ideally, I would prefer to bring Benezia in alive, peacefully and without incident." the Spartan began. "However, she's a powerful biotic and Saren's number two. It's not only possible, but likely that she won't come quietly. We may find ourselves in a situation where lethal action is the only option. Do you think you could handle that?"

Liara paused in thought. "I…..I honestly do not know." she said. "But I do know this. I believe in you, John. I….I trust you." she took his hand and clasped both of her own hands around it. "No matter what happens, know that I will always stand with you."

"That's good to hear." Chief replied, smiling a bit under his helmet. "I'm going to do my best to bring your mother in alive. I promise."

Liara smiled at that, a silent thank you no doubt. "Come on." the Chief said as he pulled his hand free of Liara's and started walking down the hall. "The longer we keep the rest of the team waiting, the worse the scuttlebutt about us is gonna get."

"…Scuttlebutt?" Liara asked. Before the Chief could elaborate, they turned the corner and found the rest of the team waiting by the elevator door.

"You two done mind-melding then?" Ashley teasingly asked.

"Very funny. Now stow it." Chief ordered. The Spartan then walked up to the control panel and keyed the elevator.

…..

When the elevator ride ended, Blue Team found themselves in an incredibly large plaza-like area, divided into subsections by a network of stairs that started off to the left. Dozens of people, only half of whom were Kig-Yar even though this was considered a Kig-Yar planet, were going about their business from discussing the galactic stock exchange to eating dinner at small cafes. Like in the docking area, the walls, floor and ceiling were were all made from concrete and rock. The far left wall was lined with giant slanted windows that showed the blizzard outside. Chief grimaced when he realized that he would have to navigate that blizzard to reach Peak 15.

"Alright." Chief said over TEAMCOM. "All of you split up and gather supplies from the shops around here. Ammunition, medical supplies, you know the drill. I'll go talk to Administrator Chok one-on-one. Meet back here by 1900 hours."

"I've already compiled a list of vendors that would be of interest to each of you." Cortana added as she uploaded coordinates and information to everyone's omni-tools. "Now remember children, don't talk to strangers or wander off too far while Mommy and Daddy are off talking to the nice man."

With either a lighthearted smile or a roll of their eyes in response to the AI's remarks, each member of Blue Team disbanded to attend to their own business. The Master Chief then proceeded down the flight of stairs to the left. At the far wall, just below the giant windows, he found a single door guarded by a pair of armed Kig-Yar guards. From their bushy 'mane' of feathers, larger beaks, and bulkier physique, the Chief identified them as skirmishers. They eyed the Chief warily as he passed them.

The Master Chief entered a large, empty room. Once again, the walls, ceiling and floor were all made from concrete, just like every other room in this place. There were a few terminals, tables and even some potted plants scattered along the edges of the room. He assumed that the plants were there to make the room feel less empty and more welcoming, but it didn't really work.

The Chief navigated through the empty foyer and passed through another glass door. Directly in front of him was Gianna Parasini again, standing behind a desk. She probably took an employee-only elevator to get up here, one that had to have been significantly faster than the one he used if she beat him up here already. "How can I help you?" Parasini asked in a helpful tone.

"I'd like to speak with Chok." the Master Chief stated.

"One moment please." Parasini said. She pressed a button on her desk panel. "Mr. Chok?"

"Yes, Ms. Parasini?" a Kig-Yar's voice replied.

"The Master Chief is asking to see you, sir." Parasini said.

"Excellent! I was wondering when he'd get here!" Chok replied in an excited tone, much to the Spartan's surprise. He was honestly expecting a welcome that was about as icy as the weather outside. "Don't keep him waiting, hen! Send him in, send him in!"

Parasini took her finger off the button. She smiled, shrugged, and gestured around her. The Master Chief walked around the stone wall behind her and through the door that led into Chok's office. The office was very spacious, as well as rather lavish. On the left was a golden statue of a Kig-Yar in a business suit, his beak pointed upwards and his hands on his hips as he took a heroic pose. On the right wall was a large window that looked out on a nearby mountain, still obscured by raging snow and ice. In front of the window was a long table that had a few bottles of some kind of drink and what looked like strange alien h'orderves.

Sitting behind a desk with three different computer screens on it was a Kig-Yar. He was a textbook example of his species in terms of looks; a lanky build, long beak, and a tuft of feathery quills on the top of his head that looked to be well-combed. He wore a blue business suit and his keen avian eyes continually switched between various screens, up until the Chief walked in that is.

"Master Chief!" the Kig-Yar stated as he got up from his desk, walked up to the Spartan and offered his hand. "Erk Chok, administrator of Han'Shan Port, and might I say it is an honor to meet you."

Cautiously, the Spartan took the Kig-Yar's hand and shook it. He couldn't help but remember a saying he read somewhere on the extranet; shake hands with a jackal, expect to lose a finger.

"Wasn't expecting such a warm welcome from you." Chief admitted. "Especially after the treatment your guards gave me at the dock."

Chok waved a hand dismissively. "Don't mind them, they're just doing their jobs. Really, if it was up to me, I would've let you through no questions asked. Hell, I would have had the guards escort you if anything! But as soon as the word 'Spectre' was uttered, the executive board lost their collective crap and ordered our security to tighten up, which was already pretty tight to begin with. They really don't like the idea of a Spectre poking around unchecked."

"I'm not here to step on anyone's toes." Chief said assuringly.

"I'll pass that along to the board, just don't expect them to be reassured by that. They're kind of a paranoid bunch." Chok said. "As for me, I for one am honored to have the uplifter of the Kig-Yar in my office." he added with a melodramatic bow.

"Uplifter?" Chief asked.

"The splintering of the Covenant was the best thing to have ever happened to my species." Chok began as he walked over to the buffet table. "You see, we were one of the few races in that vile cult to have achieved space flight before we joined, and that was a golden age of exploration and discovery. Then the Covenant came."

The jackal grabbed a wine bottle and poured himself a glass. "We fought them for a time, but in the end they won. They drafted us into their fold and, just to add insult to injury, put us at the bottom of their hierarchy. That continued on for centuries. They used us as cannon fodder, kept us in cages, sure they paid us but only to maintain the illusion of freedom. In reality, we were as much their slaves as the Unggoy."

He turned to the Spartan and did the Kig-Yar equivalent of a smile. "Then you Humans came along. Engaged the Covenant in a long and bloody war that ultimately culminated in the Covenant's shattering. Without the brutes, elites or prophets to keep us down, our destiny was our own again!"

"If your people were so oppressed, why did you side with the loyalists in the Great Schism?" Chief asked as he folded his arms. He was deeply skeptical that the jackals were that grateful towards Humanity; in fact, they seemed pretty enthusiastic about killing Humans back in the war.

Chok put up a hand in an 'I relent' gesture. "I'll be honest with you; we're the types who like to stay on the winning side. And let's be frank; the odds were kind of stacked against you. You won the war, but really only by the skin of your teeth. Not to mention, we Kig-Yar did not know the truth about Halo. I assure you, if we did, every last Kig-Yar would've gone separatist like that." he finished with a snap of his fingers for emphasis.

"Truth about Halo?" Chief asked.

"Oh come now, Master Chief, no need to play dumb here." Chok said. "I am wealthy and influential enough to be privy to a great many things that the masses don't know about. We both know what I'm talking about, and don't worry, I don't breathe a word of it to anyone without the proper clearance."

Chok gestured to the buffet table. "Hungry? Thirsty?" he offered.

"No thank you, I've already had dinner." Master Chief said. He looked out the window at the mountain outside. "I've got some questions about this planet I'd like to ask." he said. The Spartan had tried to do some research on Noveria prior to coming here, but unfortunately the codex wasn't very forthcoming. All he knew for certain was that this was a safe haven for corporations to conduct legally questionable research and that they were ridiculously secretive about it. Chok definitely loved hearing himself talk, so hopefully he could fill some of the gaps.

"I would be more than happy to!" Chok enthusiastically stated.

"Just how big is this place?" he began.

"We currently have seventeen research complexes built into the surrounding mountains." Chok replied. "Each is a self-sufficient facility housing a staff of hundreds. Over two hundred and fifty high-tech firms rent these labs over the course of the year, including such big names as Binary Helix, Synthetic Insights Limited and Elanus Risk Control Services."

"ERCS is a private security contractor." Chief stated. "I take it they provided the guards?"

"The executive board gets a discount on security, ERCS gets a discount on our labs. Everybody wins. Admittedly, ERCS is a Turian organization and normally I don't make deals with their kind, but I suppose it's important to remember that not all of them are socialists." Chok replied.

"So this planet sees a lot of cross-species activity then?" Chief asked.

"Indeed." Chok said with a nod. "I know many consider Noveria to be a Kig-Yar world, but we are beholden to no government, not even the Confederacy. Anyone with a vision, regardless of species or creed, is welcome amongst us here. In fact, the Noveria Development Corporation takes pride in the racial diversity amongst our ranks. Don't believe me? Take a look around Han'Shan Port once our business here is done. You'll see Krogan amongst our security, Quarians amongst our maintenance crews, even a few Doisac refugees who came here for a better life."

The jackal then smiled again. "You know, your species in particular have always been loyal customers to Noveria."

"That a fact?" Chief asked.

"The Human Alliance's research firms rent out our labs dozens of times every year. Where else can they go to properly experiment with slipspace and artificial intelligence?" Chok asked. "That is why Ryok Arax settled this planet."

"Who?" Chief asked.

"Ryok Arax, first CEO of NDC and its founder." Chok answered as he walked over to the massive statue on the other side of the room and looked up at it. Presumably it was in Arax's likeness. "As a man of vision, Arax was disgusted by the Council's obsession with muzzling progress. So he sought out a place beyond the Council's grasp, a sanctuary for innovative minds to explore new possibilities and make them realities."

"And he found Noveria." Chief surmised.

"Yes!" Chok replied as he dramatically turned towards the Chief and pointed at him. "People told him that it was impossible to build his sanctuary here, on such an inhospitable ball of ice and snow. His legendary reply; 'it's impossible to build it anywhere else.'" The administrator calmly poured some wine down his beak. "And now look at Noveria; Arax's dream fully realized at last. Like dormant flowers awaiting Spring, great scientific discoveries in the making lay hidden beneath the snow here. And with keen intelligence, dogged persistence, and a little bit of luck perhaps, the day will come where these discoveries finally blossom so that all the galaxy may witness their beauty."

"You mentioned that Noveria was beholden to no government." Chief asked. "So who's responsible for oversight?"

"Easy. We are." Chok replied with a chuckle. "Don't be such a Turian, Chief. We have plenty of safety protocols in place to prevent loss of life and material. Noveria would not be the refuge it is today if it didn't. Project leads have the final say here, not meddlesome politicians."

Chief kept his guard up. He had wanted Chok to talk about Noveria, and that's pretty much what he got. Thing was, the jackal was talking about Noveria like it was the promised land. It sounded like he was trying to sell the Spartan on it. In any case, he had gotten enough intel to get a better feel of what kind of place he was in. It was time to get to business.

"I know a lot more about Noveria now than I did before. Thanks for the information. It should help me in my investigation." the Master Chief said, hoping flattery will appeal to Chok's ego and keep him on his side. "That said, I'm done asking questions. I'd like to get to the point now."

"On to business then! Very well." Chok said before downing the last of his wine. He walked back over to the buffet table.

"I'm looking for Matriarch Benezia." Chief said. "I understand she passed through here a few days ago."

"That she did." Chok said with a nod as he refilled his empty glass. "Along with a personal escort and some cargo. She's currently up at Peak 15."

"What kind of personal escort did she have?" Chief asked.

"Asari Commandos. A bunch of them." Chok answered.

"Commandos are military. I thought visitors weren't allowed to carry firearms." Chief asked.

"They followed all our regulations. I had no reason to forbid Lady Benezia from taking the commandos with her." Chok answered as he grabbed one of the h'orderves and ate it.

"What about her cargo?" Chief asked.

"Large, heavy and sealed." Chok answered after swallowing his h'orderve. "It passed weapon screening, so we didn't see any reason to worry about it."

"Why's she here?" Chief asked.

"Honestly? Damned if I know." Chok replied with a shrug. He turned to the Chief with more h'orderves in his hand. "She came here as Agent Saren Arterius's executor."

The Spartan's brain instinctively raised a red flag at the mention of Saren's name.

"She is here on business for Binary Helix. There were issues over at Peak 15 that required Saren's attention." Chok casually explained as he continued stuffing his beak.

"What does Saren have to do with Binary Helix?" Chief cautiously asked.

"He's a major investor in Binary Helix, which as I just said, is one of Noveria's most notable clients." Chok replied. "I imagine BH's profits help bankroll his various missions."

And now those profits could be bankrolling his campaign against Humanity. Furthermore, Saren had his own research complex here. Which could mean….. "Is Binary Helix developing weapons for him?" Chief asked.

Chok paused. "I'm not really supposed to answer that. The NDC enforces a very strict privacy policy regarding our clientele. Even we aren't privy to everything they do in the labs. Sometimes they tell us, sometimes they don't, it's all purely at their discretion. After all, they came here to avoid people breathing down their necks. As long as their research doesn't blow up the planet, what they actually research isn't really our concern."

Chock then smirked. "That said, to answer your question, probably, yeah." he chuckled. "He is a Spectre, after all. His job involves killing people and blowing things up."

This wasn't good. This explained where Saren gets all the money to hire all those Krogan mercenaries and even worse, he's probably been developing new weapons to use against Humanity. Thankfully, if Chok's word is anything to going on, whatever project Saren was working on has hit a snag for some reason and he sent Benezia to deal with it. He still needed to get to Peak 15, but the stakes have just been raised. His objective isn't just to arrest Saren's accomplice anymore; now it's also to shut down whatever Saren's been working on.

"I need to get to Peak 15, ASAP." Chief told the administrator.

Chok winced just as he was about to ingest another h'orderve. "Sorry….but that's a no-can-do." he replied. "Peak 15, like all our other research labs, is privately owned."

"And?" Chief asked.

"Well, do you work for Binary Helix?" Chok asked.

"No." Chief asked.

"Well, there you go." Chok replied with a shrug. "Binary Helix personnel only. I'm afraid you're not allowed up there."

"I need to get up there and speak with Benezia." Chief said. "That's the entire reason I'm here. Getting up to that lab is critical to my investigation."

Chok groaned as he put down his snack. "You are really tugging my feathers, here." he commented. "Look, I can't just let a Spectre poke around wherever he so pleases. If I do, that would scare off our clientele and hurt our bottom-line."

"Five minutes ago, you called me the uplifter of your entire species." Chief pointed out. "And now you're not only refusing to help me, but hindering me outright, because of company policy?"

"Pretty much." Chok said with a shrug. "I can't make exceptions to the rules, Master Chief. Not even for you. We have a way of doing things on Noveria, and it has kept Arax's dream alive and thriving for over twenty years. I can't risk throwing all that away." He turned towards the window. "Just as well anyway. In case you haven't noticed, there's a real nasty blizzard going on outside. All shuttles are grounded and surface access has been cut off, so you couldn't reach Peak 15 even if you were allowed to try."

"I'm a Spectre, Administrator Chok." Chief pointed out. "I'm above the rules."

"Not here you're not." Chok said as he turned back to the Spartan, his tone suddenly gaining a venom it didn't have before. He activated his omni-tool and started tapping on some keys. "And just in case you've got a funny idea about ignoring me and driving up to Peak 15 anyway, I just ordered a full platoon of ERCS specialists to guard the garage and outer defenses are now primed to watch the roads; specifically to open fire on anything that leaves our garage without clearance."

The Chief said nothing as Chok finished tapping on his omni-tool. Chock walked back to his desk and sat down. "As I said before, great scientific discoveries lay hidden beneath the snow here, like flowers awaiting Spring. This place is a garden, and I am its groundskeeper." He leered at the Chief. "Which means that, uplifter or not, I'm not about to let one of the Council's lapdogs dig up this garden, ruining twenty years of loving work and care, just because he's looking for a bone. Am I clear?"

"….Crystal." Chief said before he turned around and walked out of Chok's office.

"Well, that was a bust." Cortana commented. "So I guess we'll be shooting our way to Peak 15?"

"I don't wanna do anything too rash." Chief said as he walked past Parasini's desk. "There's gotta be some other way-"

"Mr. Chok isn't the only one with a pass to leave Han'Shan…." Chief suddenly heard someone mutter. He turned and saw Parasini standing behind her desk. Gone was the perky and polite secretary that guided Chief through Noveria's dock. In her place was someone who gave off an entirely different air. She looked at the Chief with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.

"You've never worked in the corporate world, have you Master Chief?" Parasinni asked as the Chief walked up to her. "You can't bludgeon through bureaucracy."

"So how do I beat it?" Chief asked, his guard raised. This was definitely not the same Parasinni he met earlier. It would seem that there was more to her than met the eye.

"Talk to Lorik Qui'in." Parasini said. "You should be able to find him at the hotel bar. Can't say more. Not within earshot of Mr. Chok."

"Thanks." Chief said.

"No need to thank me, Spartan." Parasini's smirk grew. "This is my job, after all."

Chief nodded and headed out the door.

…..

Truthfully, the Master Chief didn't altogether trust Gianna Parasini. Mostly because his gut was telling him that she wasn't helping him out of the kindness of her heart, not completely anyway. She had an ulterior motive, that much was clear as day. Still, he didn't have much of a choice. With Administrator Chok locking him down, the only way to Peak 15 that the Spartan could see now was through the mysterious Lorik Qui'in.

Parasini said that Qui'in could be found in the 'hotel bar,' though she failed to specify which hotel exactly. According to Cortana, that was because she didn't need to. Han'Shan was not a large port and so only had one hotel, where Noveria's many wealthy visitors stayed as they conducted their business on the planet. It was located on the other side of the port, through the Noverian markets, further down the plaza.

According to the codex, pretty much any and every Kig-Yar planet can be considered a trading post, and Noveria was no exception to that rule. While the NDC's target consumer-base was made up mostly of corporate officials, the markets were more geared towards the crews of the ships that ferried the officials here in the first place, as well as the mercenaries that occasionally visit the planet if Wrex's earlier words were any indication.

Just about anything that could be sold here, was. Food and drink for travelers passing through, weapons and armor for the mercenaries and bounty hunters, and so on and so forth. Of particular note were all the less-than-wholesome goods and services available for sale here. Noveria was exempt from Council Law, something that several merchants here took full advantage of, openly selling vices that would get them arrested anywhere else. Red sand, varren fighting, prostitution, it was all on sale here.

"Think about it." a familiarly filtered voice said. Chief turned and saw Tali talking to a Kig-Yar merchant. "All the Quarian pilgrims working here? That's an untapped consumer-base right there. Normally they're too poor to afford armor mods like these, so if you slash your prices, they'd come running."

"You think so, huh?" the Kig-Yar replied as he scratched the underside of his beak. He paused as he thought about it for a second. "I know you're just trying to convince me to slash the prices so you don't have to pay as much."

"Just because that's true doesn't mean I'm not right." Tali countered.

"…Point taken." The Kig-Yar said as he tapped a few keys on his omni-tool. "There we are. Enjoy. Just be sure to tell all your pilgrim pals about it."

"I intend to. Thank you." Tali replied as she walked over to the racks where the mods were kept and the shopkeeper went to some kiosk to do something else. She eventually noticed the Spartan walking over. "Oh. Hey Chief. How did the meeting with the Administrator go?"

"Not as smoothly as I hoped." Chief replied. "I'm still working on getting us a ticket to Peak 15. I see your resupply assignment is going well."

"I'm a Quarian." Tali replied with a shrug. "Half of the resources my people acquire, we get from trading with others. Haggling is a skill we learn at a very young age. The trick is often to use a little charm. You'd be surprised at how many people can be swayed by a polite suggestion or an appeal to their ego."

She stepped back and gestured towards the mod rack. "Care for an armor mod? I'm buying."

"That offer extend to me too?" a deep voice asked. Chief and Tali turned and saw Wrex approach. "I'm not one to say no to free stuff." he commented. He turned to Chief. "We heading out to Peak 15?"

"Still working on it." Chief said.

"Lemme guess; the administrator was an ass and wouldn't give us clearance?" Wrex asked.

"Aren't you supposed to be securing supplies?" Chief asked in turn.

"Just hit the mother load." Wrex replied with a grin. "There's a Hanar who runs an emporium further back up the plaza." he said as he pointed his thumb over his shoulder. "Hired me to smuggle a weapon mod past dock security for him."

"How did you pull that off without alerting the guards?" Chief asked, suddenly tense. The situation was delicate enough. The last thing he needed was Wrex getting the team in deeper trouble with criminal shenanigans.

"Cortana hacked the alarms for me so they wouldn't go off when I passed through with the package." Wrex explained.

"You did that?" Chief said as he looked off to the side, subtly indicating to Wrex and Tali that he wasn't talking to them, but rather the woman in his helmet. "When?"

"While you and Chok were chatting." Cortana replied. "I'm an AI, Chief. Multi-tasking is something I'm good at."

"Anyway, after I delivered the mod to the jellyfish, he offered me two hundred and fifty credits." Wrex resumed. He chuckled a bit. "Managed to scare up that price to five hundred instead."

"Scare up?" Chief asked.

"You know. 'Big angry Krogan want more money?' That act has always been good for making a quick cred." Wrex replied. "Hell, you could've done a 'Big angry Spartan' act on that administrator. Bet he would've been more cooperative if you threatened to break his legs."

"He's the administrator of an entire port full of guards." Chief pointed out. "In the long run, threatening him would've done more harm than good."

"All I'm saying is that you're a very scary person." Wrex said. "You should take advantage of that more often. Like you did with that pencil-pusher on Feros."

"That was a special instance. He was threatening an entire colony. Chok's just being an obstructive bureaucrat." Chief said. "I can't just threaten to shoot every single person who gets in my way."

"It would save you some time." Wrex pointed out.

Chief sighed as he checked his mission clock. 1830 hours. "Look, I've got someone I need to meet. You just keep gathering supplies and meet me back at the elevator in thirty minutes." he turned to Tali. "That goes for you too, by the way."

Tali nodded, as did Wrex, albeit with a huff and a shrug. On that note, the Chief continued on his way towards the hotel.

…...

Not really finding anything too useful in the Noverian Markets, or even anything that was tasteful, Ashley decided to forego gathering supplies and instead opted to gather more information. She walked all the way to the other end of Port Han'Shan, where the garages and maintenance bays were. She figured that the average joe mechanics here would be more willing to provide some information than secretive business executives. All she needed was an excuse to chat it up with them.

She walked up to the first mechanic she saw standing in the concrete hallway between the markets and the garage. He was a Turian wearing an orange and blue jumpsuit that was stained with grease, on break judging from the way he was casually leaning against the wall. She walked up to him and tapped his shoulder. "Excuse me. Could you take a look at my hard suit?" she asked. "Shields have been acting wonky all day. Think a circuit got crossed or something."

"Uh, sure." the Turian replied. Unlike a lot of Turians she's seen, this one's facial tattoos weren't terribly elaborate. Just a green line on each mandible, the rest of his face was naked. Ashley had always been secretly grateful for all the different tattoos raptors sported; they'd be impossible to tell apart otherwise.

Ashley turned around and allowed the mechanic to fiddle with her hard suit. She actually scrambled it herself earlier to give herself the excuse she needed to talk to a mechanic. "I'm Ashley, by the way. What's your name?"

"Just call me Lee." the Turian replied. "Humans have a problem saying my full name."

"What do you do around here Lee?" Ashley asked.

"I'm the Chief Mechanic for Han'Shan." Lee replied. "Got a team of twelve under me, keepin' the shuttles comin' and goin'. You?"

"Alliance Marine, here on Alliance business." Ashley replied, deciding that a vague hint of truth would work out better than an outright lie. From the sound of his dialect, Lee didn't strike Ashley as a terribly sophisticated individual. He was definitely not one of the corporate executives who typically did business here, which made him trustworthy enough in Ashley's book to ask him a few other things. "So, anything interesting happening around here?" Ashley asked, trying to disguise her queries as innocent small talk.

"There's problems up at Peak 15, Synthetics Insights was shut down by Chok, and a Matriarch came through." Lee rattled off.

Peak 15. That's where the secretary said Benezia went. "Matriarch? You mean an Asari Matriarch?" Ashley asked, continuing to play dumb.

"Eyup. She took her shuttle to Peak 15 before we lost contact." Lee replied.

"Lost contact?" Ashley asked in response. "What happened?"

"Don't know." Lee admitted. "There's a blizzard up there, but we've had those before. Never cut the satellite uplinks before." he paused. "Okay, I think I see the problem. Circuit's fried. Like somebody poured cheap soda on it."

"Really? Huh. Wonder how that happened." Ashley said.

"Anyway, fifteen's always had a lousy reputation." Lee went on as he turned on his omni-tool. "Nobody talks about what they do there. And everyone sent up comes back a little quieter."

Ashley felt a shiver go down her spine. She suddenly got a bad feeling about having to go up there. In retrospect, pouring leftover root beer on her own shield system's circuitry right before going up there was not one of her better ideas. "What was that about Synthetic Insights?" Ashley resumed.

"Scuttlebutt says Lorik Qui'in, the SI manager, was on the take." Lee answered. "So Chok shut down SI's offices. Quiet-like, so no offworld lawyers come in on it."

He groaned. "I can't do nuthin' with this. I'm gonna hafta call in one of my boys." He then held his omni-tool up to his mouth as he pressed a few buttons. "Yo Thundus. I've got an Alliance marine down here with a fried shield system. You free?"

"Well, I was eating lunch…." a deep voice, presumably Thundus, replied on the other end.

"Well wrap it up and get up here, will ya?" Lee ordered. Thundus grumbled before the communication was cut off. "Don't worry about Thundus. He can be grouchy sometimes, but he can work miracles with electronics." the Turian told Ashley.

After a couple of minutes, Thundus arrived, much to Ashley's surprise. She was surprised because it turned out that Thundus was a Jiralhanae. He wore a blue jumpsuit and a pair of goggles, the various tools around his belt jingling as he walked over. "This the marine?" he asked.

"Eyup." Lee replied with a nod. He then checked his omni-tool. "And just in time. My break is up. Back to work for me."

"I had a break once." Thundus said as Lee walked away. "I was enjoying it. I was eating a sandwich that my wife made. And then it was interrupted!" The brute shouted that last part, but the Turian was already out of earshot before Thundus could finish his rant. The creature growled as he went to work on Ashley's shields. To say that Ashley suddenly felt awkward was an understatement.

"So…Jiralhanae mechanic." she said. "Don't see many of those."

"Yeah, I get that a lot." Thundus grumbled.

"So what's a guy like you doing in a place like this?" Ashley asked.

"I've got a family to feed, figured this was a good place to do it." Thundus replied.

"Why not just go pirate?" Ashley asked. "You know, like other Jiralhanae?"

The brute audibly sighed. "Because most Jiralhanae pirates wind up either getting killed by elites or captured by elites, branded by elites, and then killed by elites. Never sounded like a good deal to me."

"Huh." Ashley said.

"What." Thundus snarled.

"Nothing!" Ashley replied. "Just….never really heard of a peaceful Jiralhanae before. So, what is your story?"

"Doisac refugee." Thundus replied.

"You mean you're one of those guys who left Doisac in search of a real job?" Ashley asked.

"…Yeah." Thundus replied. "That's kinda what 'Doisac refugee' means." he sarcastically added.

Ashley suddenly wasn't sure if 'peaceful' was quite the right word to describe Thundus. He was clearly less murderous than the other brutes she's met, but he was kinda snippy. In fairness, Lee did kinda warn her about that. "So, how's this job working out for you?"

"Aside from that split-jaw from the Imperial Immigrations Office dropping by every month to search my home? Great." Thundus replied.

"Split-jaw? You mean a Sangheili?" she asked.

"Eeeyup." Thundus resplied.

"Why does he search your house?" Ashley probed.

"Oh you know. Make sure I'm not up to anything. No stolen goods. No missed tax payments. That kinda stuff." Thundus said.

"And you put up with that?" Ashley asked. "Does he even have a warrant?" In Human society, authorities needed a court-issued warrant to search somebody's house, a law that had been first written nearly a thousand years ago, and even when they do have a warrant, authorities searching your house and going through your belongings was never a welcome sight, regardless of whether or not you were actually guilty.

"Got no choice. He's part of the deal." Thundus answered. "My passport is valid only as long as I follow the hingeheads' rules, one of which being that I not 'interfere with or refuse routine progress reports.'"

"And if you do break any of their rules?" Ashley asked.

"They dump me back on Doisac." Thundus casually replied. "The refugees who last longest beyond the Forerunner Cluster are the ones who memorize their contracts. On the bright side, one skill I learned quickly was how to read fine print; a skill that serves me well on a Kig-Yar world like this one."

"They just deport you? No trial, no due process, they just dump you back on your homeworld, just like that?" Ashley asked.

"Eeeyup." Thundus replied. Ashley wasn't sure how to feel about that. On the one hand, he was making it sound like the Sangheili were ignoring civil liberties in their efforts to make sure refugees don't cause any trouble. On the other hand, these were brutes they were talking about. Ashley wasn't prepared to feel particularly sorry for them in light of everything they've done to Humanity. Thundus was alright, but brutes like him were few and far in between.

"Okay, your shield systems should be working fine now." Thundus said as he closed the hard suit port. Ashley powered up her kinetic barrier and found that, true to Thundus's word, her kinetic barriers worked like new.

"Thanks." she said as she turned around towards him.

"It's what I do." Thundus replied with a shrug. On that note, he turned around walked back down the hall. Ashley suddenly exhaled a nervous breath that she had only just realized she was holding in. She made a note to tell Sarah about this during their next communique. She might get a good laugh out of it.

The Type-55 Directed Energy Rifle was a weapon that had a bad reputation amongst the Sangheili. It was mostly because it was the weapon of choice of the Covenant remnant, the terrorist group that harassed Arbiter 'Vadam's faction in the latter half of the Great Schism, the faction that would eventually become the New Sangheili Empire. It was for that reason and that reason alone that it was one of most unpopular weapons within the Imperial military.

It was a real shame in N'tho's opinion, because it was actually a pretty good weapon. He tested out the sights, the weight and feel of it, in front of the Kig-Yar merchant running the arms store who was hoping to make a sale. The extended barrel of what is colloquially known as the 'storm rifle' afforded the weapon better range than most other plasma-based assault rifles, and the high-mounted cooling shroud and rotating modular coil set meant it could fire for several seconds longer than conventional plasma weapons without overheating. But the real icing on the cake was the RPS, rounds per second, which easily outmatched its brethren. From a distance, it was an excellent suppression weapon. Close up, it turned your ass into well done hamburger meat.

A 'real' Sangheili would probably never be caught dead with the weapon of an enemy. But then again, according to most conservative pundits back on Sangheilios, squidheads like N'tho weren't 'real' Sangheili. "How much?" N'tho asked.

"Six hundred." the Kig-Yar said.

"Done and done." N'tho asked as he turned on his omni-tool to transfer the desired amount of credits. With the sale complete, the young Sangheili walked away with a shiny new assault rifle. It wasn't a plasma mini gun, but it would do. Best of all, it was lightweight, so it would suit his new team role well.

After exploring the markets a bit more, N'tho felt a grumbling in his stomach. He was getting a bit hungry. He didn't really get a chance to eat dinner before the team had to disembark to Noveria. He began looking for a restaurant, making a note to eat something that wasn't too filling. He had a feeling that the mission was going to get a lot shootier once they had Matriarch Benezia cornered, and he didn't want to feel too full to fight.

He eventually stumbled across something suitable; a donut shop. Forming his mandible-like jaws into a smile, N'tho slid his new storm rifle into the assault rifle slot on his armor and headed in. A raspberry danish should be just what the doctor ordered.

The donut shop's interior was nothing too fancy. This wasn't the mezzanine, after all. These were the markets, targeted towards maintenances workers, spacers, the common folk who worked for all the executives who did the 'real' business here. The shop's customer-base reflected that, as N'tho really only saw ERCS guards on break as well as rough-looking ship servicemen. There weren't very many of them here though. Unsurprising, as donuts were traditionally more appropriate for breakfast or lunch than dinner.

N'tho approached the counter and took a seat on one of the many cushioned stools that lined the front of the counter. "Hey there handsome." a female Kig-Yar behind the counter said as she walked over. "What can I get ya?"

"Got any raspberry danish?" N'tho asked.

"Can do." the clerk cheerfully replied. She turned around and craned her head into the kitchen. "Raspberry danish." she said. N'tho heard a grumbling in the kitchen as he spied a skirmisher wearing a feather-net get to work baking. The clerk turned back to N'tho. "I'm Ruki, by the way." she introduced herself.

"N'tho." the Sangheili replied with a nod.

"We don't get a lot of Sangheili on Noveria." Ruki commented. "No offense, but a lot of you tend to think you're too high and mighty for a place like this. So what's your story?"

"You heard about the Spectre right?" N'tho asked.

"You mean the one that's making all the executives crap their pants?" Ruki asked back.

"That would be the one." N'tho replied. He stood up a little straighter. "I'm on his team." he stated.

"Uh-huh." Ruki replied. N'tho couldn't shake the feeling that she didn't quite believe him. "So what brought your Spectre friend here anyhow?"

"Classified information. Official Council Business, very hush-hush." N'tho smoothly replied. It wasn't just a boast; the Master Chief had briefed Blue Team on how most of their missions weren't really public knowledge, save for the ones deliberately approved for media review by Alliance Brass for publicity purposes, such as the Feros mission. In fact, most of the general public didn't even know that Saren Arterius had gone rogue and is the leader of the Geth. Even N'tho knew better than to openly talk about classified details with a civilian.

That said, he saw no harm in teasing a little.

"All I can say about my assignment is that we're looking to head up to Peak 15 later." N'tho added.

"Peak 15?" Ruki asked, her tone and mood suddenly pulling a one-eighty. She shook her head. "You know what? Forget I asked. If it involves fifteen, I'm better off not knowing about it." she said.

N'tho was taken aback by this response. "Something I should know?" N'tho asked.

Ruki paused and looked around, then leaned in close and answered the squidhead's question quietly. "Fifteen's the shadiest lab we've got. Nobody knows what Binary Helix does up there. Anyone who comes back from visiting always look spooked, like they just saw a ghost. They never tell anyone what they saw though. Management wouldn't let them. Hell, management still usually transfers them somewhere offworld just to be sure they don't go squawkin'."

"Aren't all of Noveria's labs kinda shady?" N'tho asked.

"Yeah, but fifteen's the reigning champ of shade." Ruki replied. "Like I said, nobody knows for sure what they do up there, but there are plenty of rumors. Growing monsters in vats, mind control experiments, I even heard one guy say they're trying to open a portal to another universe up there."

"You think there's any truth to those rumors?" N'tho asked.

"There probably isn't." Ruki conceded. "But remember, this is Noveria. Scientists come here specifically so they can do research that's illegal everywhere else. Can't really rule out anything with guys like that."

"Order up." the skirmisher said as he slid the danish through the window. Ruki grabbed it and handed it to N'tho.

"Might wanna wait a few minutes. It's still pretty hot." she advised. She paused. "You know a Matriarch Benezia?"

"….Should I?" N'tho asked. Of course he did, but he wasn't sure if he wanted Ruki to know that. Classified information, and all.

"First, Peak 15 goes dark." Ruki said. "Then a Matriarch shows up and heads up there. Now a Spectre shows up and wants to head up there too. Doubt it's all a coincidence. I think it's pretty obvious that there's something going on up there. Something big. Probably nasty, too."

N'tho paused in thought for a moment. A team of commandos going off to investigate a lab complex with a dubious reputation that had suddenly and mysteriously gone dark. N'tho had seen at least a couple dozen sci-fi horror vids with that exact premise; ones with mad scientists that 'toiled in God's domain,' trying to bend the laws of nature in ways they were never meant to bend. Well, not only was it evidently for real this time, but he was one of the commandos in question. "Any advice for when I get up there?"

"…Honey, I sell pastries." Ruki stated. "Doubt I can tell you anything your Spectre hasn't already; stay sharp and bring a big gun."

N'tho nodded in reply. He tested his danish, determined that it had cooled off enough and began eating it as Ruki went off to take the order of another customer that just came in. As several worst-case scenarios regarding what could be waiting for Blue Team on Peak 15 whizzed through his head, the Sangheili mentally shoved them all aside, dismissing it all as little more than pre-battle paranoia. The rumors that Ruki just told him about were just that; rumors and nothing more. Sure, it was possible, likely even, that something thoroughly unpleasant was in store for the team, but really, it wouldn't be anything they haven't dealt with before. He probably wouldn't encounter any monsters, twisted experiments, or anything like that.

…Probably.

After another long elevator ride up, the Master Chief arrived in the hotel, located on Port Han'Shan's mezzanine level. On the Spartan's left was another series of large windows that allowed the natural light in. However, the blizzard outside was getting worse, as the light shining in was no longer pure white, but more of a blue-silver tone, like the light of a full moon. It was a reminder that the Chief was running out of time.

To his right was the hotel bar proper, and he soon saw that calling it a bar was an understatement. It was structured more like a night club, complete with a hovering holographic logo of some kind above the bar itself and pulsing music that was good for dancing. It had not one, but two levels; the ground floor and a large balcony above. Immediately to his left was a fountain made up of boulders, the tallest of which had a holographic ring around it. Evidently a piece of modern art meant to give the area a bit more aesthetic flavor.

The Chief walked up to the bar. "I'm looking for Lorik Qui'in." he said to the bartender. The jackal bartender pointed to a lone Turian sitting at a table near the hotel entrance, enjoying drinks all by himself. He was wearing a blue business suit tailored for his species. The Spartan nodded his thanks to the bartender and marched over to the table. The Turian looked up at him as he approached.

"Evening. Sit down. Have a drink. What can I do for you?" he rattled off in a polite and sophisticated tone.

"I don't drink on duty." Chief replied. "Lorik Qui'in?"

"That would be me, yes." Qui'in drolled.

"I need your help." Chief said, cutting straight to the point.

Qui'in leaned back in his seat and took a couple of seconds to eye the Chief. The Turian's skull was black, his face was grey, and his facial tattoos of choice was an elaborate pattern of stark-white stripes all across his face, as well as a mark on his forehead. The Chief could see his yellow eyes moving up and down, examining him. "You are the Spectre who just arrived, are you not?" he asked. "What could an old Turian like me possibly help you with?"

"I need to leave Port Han'Shan." Chief said. "But Administrator Chok won't give me clearance."

"You need a garage pass." Qui'in stated. "How fortuitous." he added. The Spartan was on high alert now. Despite the fact that the Qui'in was obviously unarmed, he could tell that the old Turian was sizing him up like a potential enemy combatant.

"I'm the manager of the local Synthetic Insights office….for the moment at least." Qui'in went on. "Mr. Chok has closed my office. He claims to be investigating reports of my corruption." he paused. "The administrator is an interesting man. He wasn't always an executive you know. He used to be a mercenary. Even ran his own small little outfit. And as is the case with most mercs, not everything he did was…..ethically sound."

"That a fact?" Chief asked.

"Indeed." Qui'in replied. "I recently acquired evidence of…..what is that charming Human expression? Skeletons in his….basement? His hired goons are ransacking my office to find it. Here is my proposal; if you recover that evidence from my office, I will give you my garage pass, as well as a sum of credits."

"You have a pass?" Chief asked.

"As I said, I'm a manager." Qui'in said. "Most executives on Noveria are free to come and go as they will, managers included."

"How do I know yours is still good?" Chief skeptically asked. "If you're on Chok's bad side, he could've canceled your pass clearance."

"Why should he?" Qui'in asked. He nodded to the window. "There's nothing outside but snow and hungry nathak."

Alright then. The Master Chief would head up to Qui'in's office, grab the evidence, and come back. Simple enough. There was really only one obstacle. "What can you tell me about Chok's thugs?" the Spartan asked, wanting an idea of what kind of fight he was about to get into.

"Violence against them may be necessary." Qui'in said. "Chok has members of Han'Shan's security team searching my offices. He's paying them under the table. Ms. Matsuo is unaware of their 'outside employment.'"

"Anything I should know about them?" Chief asked. "Training? Armaments? Capabilities?"

"They're rent-a-cops." Qui'in said with a chuckle. "You're a super soldier Spectre. I'm fairly certain the odds will be in your favor. Really, the only person you would have to worry about up there is Sergeant Stirling, Matsuo's second-in-command. She's on the take as well. You should know that she is a biotic, and an ill-tempered one at that."

Chief remembered Stirling as the blonde-haired guard at the dock who seemed far less than happy about his arrival on the planet. The revelations that she was a biotic, one that he would probably have to fight, was not an altogether pleasant one. Still, she was just a dirty guard, so hopefully she wouldn't give him as much trouble as Horridus or the Asari commandos back on Eletania. "I think I can handle them." the Spartan said.

"Excellent." Qui'in approved. He pulled out a card from his pocket and handed it to the Spartan. "Here is my pass into our offices. It will activate the elevator." he pulled something else out of his pocket, an OSD, and handed it to Chief as well. "The evidence is on my office computer. This OSD contains an encryption key to access it. Slide it into the drive and it will auto-execute. Oh, and do try to keep blood stains off the carpets, would you?"

Chief nodded as he took everything from Qui'in and stuck them in the pockets of his utility belt. He then turned around and headed back to the elevator that would take him back to the main level of Port Han'Shan. "Plotting a course to the Synthetic Insights office now." Cortana said.

"Send an update to the rest of the team." Chief said. "Change of plans. We all rendezvous here in the hotel bar at 1915 hours."

"Confirmed." Cortana said. "You don't want anyone to come with you into the SI office?"

"I can handle a bunch of thugs on my own." Chief said. "I've won tougher fights."

"If you say so." Cortana said.

…..

Codex Entry (Planets and Locations): DOISAC

The homeworld of the infamously ferocious Jiralhanae, Doisac is a high-gravity garden world located in the Forerunner Cluster. The planet's atmosphere has 10% more oxygen than Earth, resulting in numerous ecological and atmospheric quirks, such as notably large insect life, and flash fires being a common occurrence, the latter of which has given the Jiralhanae an almost instinctive fear of fire.

The end of the Great Schism saw the Sangheili Empire pushing the Jiralhanae all the way to Doisac, forcibly stripping them of space-flight technology, and leaving their old enemies to their own devices on their homeworld. Some Sangheili leaders at the time proposed glassing Doisac as a way of exacting vengeance for their attempted genocide of the Sangheili race, but Arbiter Thel 'Vadam quelled such suggestions, citing an ancient Human saying he had then recently learned; 'Two Wrongs do not make a Right.' He instead proposed that a large fleet guarding the planet from orbit would not only keep future Jiralhanae threats in check, but also give the Jiralhanae themselves a chance to atone for their sins. The fleet charged with this task was the Fleet of Stalwart Wisdom, which continues to serve as the planet's quarantine fleet to this day.

Much like Tuchanka, Doisac has no organized government save for chieftains who lead their tribes in wars against other tribes over territory. These conflicts are usually not the Sangheili Empire's concern, so long as they remain restricted to the planet's surface. Between constant wars and corrupt, power-hungry chieftains, it is not uncommon for some Jiralhanae to seek to leave Doisac and pursue a better life elsewhere in Citadel Space, something they can legally do as, since they are under the Empire's rule, they are technically considered Imperial Citizens. Such individuals are often referred to as Doisac refugees.

In order to leave Doisac however, a Jiralhanae would have to acquire the proper immigration documents, which are rarely easy to obtain from the planet's surface, as few territories have extranet access. Additionally, if these refugees are found guilty of any serious crime, they are usually taken into custody by the Empire and unceremoniously deported back to Doisac. Some humanitarian groups within Citadel Space have criticized the Sangheili for this allegedly harsh treatment, accusing them of turning the Jiralhanae's own homeworld into an internment camp. The Empire has shrugged off these allegations, claiming that the Jiralhanae chose their path long ago, and so must shoulder the consequences.

….

I'm back! And after four months of careful introspection, playing World of Warcraft, crying myself to sleep, playing Minecraft, babysitting and entertaining my niece, re-evaluating my life, and playing Team Fortress 2. Not necessarily in that order.

In all seriousness though, I've kinda been taking a break from this fanfic. I felt like I needed it to get my head on straight while I rethink my whole approach to fan fiction in general. But yes, after four long months, Chapter 43 is here at last! Hopefully you enjoyed reading it. If not, don't worry. Chapter 44 will be here later this week, so hopefully it will make up for any flaws in this one.

"Later this week you say? How the devil are YOU gonna pull that off, DinoJake?" Easy. I'm currently visiting family whose house has no internet access. But you know what DOES have internet access? The McDonald's by the Gas Station a few blocks away. I was eating McDonald's food while I was posting this for you.

Don't say I've never suffered for you all.

But yeah. It's amazing how much writing you can get done when there's literally nothing else to do, what with lack of internet and all. Makes fact-checking kind of inconvenient though.