A/N: This chapter provides some background and recent history on Traynor's and Yuán's previous partner/squad member, Griffen Buchanan, from just after the end of the Reaper War.


No, this is not the beginning of a new chapter in my life; this is the beginning of a new book! That first book is already closed, ended, and tossed into the seas; this new book is newly opened, has just begun! Look, it is the first page! And it is a beautiful one! — C. JoyBell C.


Kalinan's Best – A salarian drink brewed with marsh grass, winter salt and barley. (Source: CDN)


• ROYAL LONDON HOSPITAL, EARTH · SOL SYSTEM •
▫ June 2187 · Two Months Post-War ▫

Master Chief Petty Officer Griffen 'Griff' Buchanan was attempting—without much success—to find a comfortable position for his 206 cm, 97 kg frame in a bed that was clearly designed for someone of a much more modest stature. After insuring the head of the bed was lying flat, he carefully rolled up on his left side—taking care to ensure all the tubes and wires plugged into his body were free and clear—and slowly drew his legs up with knees bent, until his feet were no longer hanging over the edge of the mattress.

Finally able to relax just a bit, he closed his eyes while attempting to ignore the constant aching of his right shoulder, side, lower back and hip. Despite receiving the best of care by the doctors here, Griff's injuries had not responded positively to treatment; he had been in this facility since being retrieved from the area where the energy beam from the Citadel had been used to abduct people for conversion. That he had not died was considered to be a minor miracle by most of the people hearing his story—Buchanan just considered himself fortunate to be alive. His entire unit, 96 soldiers strong, had been annihilated by overwhelming numbers of Reaper creatures—mostly Husks and Cannibals, with numerous Marauders in the mix.

He didn't remember, but had been told of being thrown 15 to 20 meters through the air by a passing Mako as it violently exploded upon encountering one of the multitude of red energy beams with which the Reapers were sweeping the area. He had landed like a discarded child's toy, coming to rest nearly as destroyed as the pile of broken concrete and shattered steel on which he landed; this hard landing was responsible for his concussion, along with his dislocated right shoulder, five fractured ribs—one of which punctured his lung—bruised liver, three fractured vertebrae and the broken right side of his pelvis. After undergoing a number of surgeries and spending a full month with his right leg in a traction splint, he was recovering … slowly.

Buchanan's only family had been in San Francisco at the beginning of the war; he had made several attempts to contact them or discover their whereabouts without success; as the megalopolis had been virtually leveled in the first wave of Reaper attacks in 2186, it seemed increasingly unlikely that any of his relatives had survived the invasion.

Thinking of family led him to think of his comrades in the military; he wondered, not for the first time, what had happened to Samantha Traynor after she been transferred off of Arcturus Station. Last news he had of her, she'd been reassigned to the Alliance R&D facility north of London, a number of months prior to the invasion.

His expression clouded at the thought of Sammy fighting against an overwhelming hoard of Reaper creatures; as good as she was—and he had witnessed just how terrifyingly efficient she could be in close-quarters fighting—he felt she would have been overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, particularly since the creatures seemed completely immune to fear … or pain.

Best not to think about that! he thought. Think about something positive, like walking out of this place without crutches. Clearing his mind of thoughts about the recent past, particularly of the terrifying final battles, he finally managed to drift off to a dreamless sleep.


• ALLIANCE BASE, LONDON · EARTH, SOL SYSTEM •
▫ August 2187 · Four Months Post-War ▫

Navy Lieutenant Commander Allison McIntyre looked up from the datapad she was inspecting as the door to her office slid open. Her aide, standing in the doorway, stated in a moderately loud voice, "Master Chief Buchanan is here for his appointment, Ma'am."

"Please send him in, Corporal … thank you." Rising from her chair, she schooled her expression of surprise at seeing the size of the man that literally filled her doorway as he entered her office.

Bearing only the slightest trace of a limp that seemed to favor his right leg, Griff walked up to her desk, came to attention and said, "Master Chief Buchanan reporting as ordered, Ma'am"

McIntyre smiled as she responded, "Nice to meet you, Master Chief." Indicating the chair beside her desk, she added, "Please, have a seat." Retaking her own chair as he moved and sat down, she continued, "I was just looking at your service record, Mr Buchanan. Seems you're fortunate to have survived the war."

With a self-deprecating grin, he nodded his head once as he replied, "So I have been told … by everyone that has heard about how I was injured, Ma'am." After a brief pause, he added, "And now, thanks to the actions of Commander Shepard on the Crucible, the soulless constructs are helping to repair and rebuild all they destroyed." Shaking his head in seeming disbelief, he sighed.

"Sounds as if you're not completely happy with how the war concluded, Master Chief." She studied the solemn face of the man as he looked down at his hands, fingers spread atop his thighs.

Bringing his head up to return her gaze, he explained, "They were winning, Ma'am … no way in hell we could have prevailed against them. So, I am happy that Shepard and the crew of the Normandy found a way to stop them … permanently … but my feeling is that after all the destruction and loss of life galaxy-wide, it seems just a bit strange to be trusting them to help us." Griff slowly shook his head as he concluded, "It just feels like we may be unknowingly asking for trouble in the long run."

McIntyre leaned back slightly as she spun her chair in order to look out the window beside her desk. "You make a valid point, but we really have no other options; the machines are in the galaxy to stay … at least for the foreseeable future. We need their help to rebuild, so we accept them and move on with our lives, best we're able." After a few moments, she turned back towards Griff and said, "Speaking of which, I need to see about your future with the Alliance, Master Chief."

Retrieving the datapad she'd been reviewing before he had entered her office, she studied it for several seconds before saying, "You've been released for light duty, Master Chief, which means you'll be stationed here on Earth … probably for the next six to seven months … maybe up to a year." She made several entries on the datapad before looking up at the calm, greenish-gray eyes regarding her. "You'll be coordinating the receipt and delivery of relief supplies at the nearby freighter docks. I know it's not exactly what you're used to doing, but there's a real shortage of people with your organizational skills, Master Chief. You can make a real difference there while you continue to recover from your injuries."

The Lieutenant Commander touched the surface of her datapad, prompting Griff's omnitool to light up in response as it downloaded all the pertinent information from the device. "Everything you need is on your omnitool, Master Chief … where you'll be working, who you'll report to and where you'll be staying. Your new CO should be able to assist you with anything else you need."

McIntyre stood from her chair, prompting Griff to follow suite; she stuck out her hand as she faced him and said, "It was nice to meet you, Mr Buchanan. And, thank you."

Griff clasped her hand and pumped it twice as he asked, "For…?"

The woman grinned at him as she explained, "For your service during the war. Many of our people … too damned many, in my view, gave their last full measure. I intend to thank all of those still alive as I meet them." Releasing his hand, she added, "Good luck to you, Master Chief."


▫ October 2187 · Six Months Post-War ▫

It had taken Griffen Buchanan nearly eight weeks to come to a decision regarding his continued service in the Systems Alliance Navy. As he packed his bags for his move out of base housing, he thought about everything that had taken place since he'd been discharged from the hospital. His stint as a freight coordinator had been … merely okay. It was a job he was more than capable of doing; after only four weeks without any real challenge, he was bored nearly out of his mind.

Griff didn't know where he was going or what he was going to do next. His physical recovery from his many injuries had progressed to the point where he was no longer in constant pain, but he had accepted the realty that he would never again be able to jump into trouble without thinking of the consequences. His numerous surgeries had mended his bones as well as could be expected; thinking of how Yuán Xiùlán's injured thigh had been repaired after their mission to Cartagena Station made him truly wish he'd been on Thessia for his own bone surgeries.

Choosing to request a medical separation from the Alliance hadn't been an easy decision; like many of his friends, he had joined right after celebrating his eighteenth birthday. During the ensuing thirty years, he had participated in numerous police actions on a variety of human colonies and gone on several clandestine missions with a pair of women he hadn't seen or heard from since right before the start of the Reaper War.

Thinking of Yuán and Traynor brought a grim smile to his face. He had only just learned of Yuán's transfer from the Tokyo to the Hong Kong II in the spring of 2186; on the other hand, Traynor's current whereabouts was a mystery. He had totally lost contact with her after she'd been transferred from Arcturus Station to an R&D facility on Earth … he could only hope she had not still been on the planet when the Reapers appeared.

He had fought and destroyed Reaper spawn in a number of cities in North America, but the final battles in London were among the ugliest, most expensive—in terms of human lives lost—actions he'd ever been involved in. His injuries had been acquired before the fleets arrived with the Crucible; he had a dim, hard to recall memory of the green wave that washed over everything when Shepard activated it, losing her own life in the process.

Standing in the middle of his sitting room, he placed his hands on his hips and slowly turned, visually inspecting his surroundings while mentally calculating what had been here prior to his move-in the beginning of September. Hardly been in here long enough for the dust to settle, he thought. Seeing nothing that belonged to him remaining in the room, he sighed as he picked up his travel packs, turned and left the apartment.

He had been granted sixty days of terminal leave before his resignation became final, enough time to get established as a civilian. He had decided to leave London … the best place to find the sort of job that suited him was in Council controlled space. The Citadel—relocated from Earth orbit to the Widow System and still being repaired by Reapers and the onboard population of Keepers—was the hub for a large number of commercial freight haulers, and he wanted to land a job on one as either a cargo master or cargo handler, a line of work with which he was familiar.

Shortly after arriving on the vast space station, he took a short-term lease on a tiny apartment in Alpha Ward; he needed to be within walking distance of the many freight docks on the station. Additionally, there were a number of small bars and cafés near these docks, though the smaller ships in which Griff was interested were not as well-served by such places.

Buchanan knew the larger ships were all owned by syndicates or corporations, so wasn't interested in working on any of them; on the other hand, small-to-medium capacity freighters were generally operations consisting of less than five vessels owned by just one or two people.

As their owners normally filled the role of captain for their own vessels and they generally paid their crews by the trip, these vessels had a lot of employee turnover; with razor-thin profit margins, every credit saved by paying crew members miserly wages meant some extra rations or fuel could be bought for the next trip. Transporting cargo paid best when a large amount could be moved all at once by just one vessel. Split among several ships, the same amount of freight had to buy more fuel and pay more people to transport it. It went without saying owners of smaller ships had to walk a fine line on wage parity in order to retain skilled laborers.

Once Buchanan discovered a small café close to the docks and his apartment, he began frequenting the place. Sitting at a table with a good view of the docks, he used a datapad to run a comparison program on the various ships that regularly docked to discharge cargo, then load up for delivery elsewhere. In only a matter of days he had narrowed the choices down to three vessels, all salarian-owned. Upon completing a bit more research, he approached Valon Hurix, the owner and captain of the MSV Seeker's Sunrise, immediately after it made port during the last week of October 2187.

Griff was in luck … after checking his background to confirm he was former Alliance, Hurix hired him on the spot to assist the other human on board; Griff would be working in the refrigerated section of the cargo hold, monitoring and adjusting temperatures in the several areas set aside for either frozen foodstuffs or shipments that simply needed to be kept at a consistently cold temperature.

The other cargo-master, also former Alliance, was Curtis Mellor, a quiet man in his early seventies; as the two men were assigned alternating work-shifts, Buchanan only saw Mellor during shift-change, when they would get together to go over their daily reports and equipment cry-lists. The work itself wasn't difficult, but it did require skill at organizing the loads, since each load was generally destined for several recipients. All things considered, Griff felt that leaving the Alliance for work in the private sector was going to be a positive experience.


▫ Mid-December 2187 · Eight Months Post-War ▫

In just six short weeks, Buchanan had settled into a comfortable routine aboard the salarian-owned freighter MSV Seeker's Sunrise; Captain—and ship's owner—Valon Hurix had an easy, dedicated week-long run from the Citadel to Annos Basin; from there, the ship next entered the Exodus Cluster, then returned to the Citadel.

Because the weekly round-trip was so repetitive, Griff had developed an increasingly uneasy feeling that the predictability of the Seeker's Sunrise's trips out and back had made the ship an attractive target for mercenaries.

The only person questioning Griff's motives for having all his gear safely stowed in his heavy travel bags, rather than in the lockers and bunk-side cabinets provided for his use, was cargo-master Curtis Mellor, who soon decided that emulating Buchanan's precautions and enduring a small amount of daily inconvenience was preferable to losing his pitiful few possessions in the unlikely event of being forced to evacuate the ship with little to no warning.

Griff's sense of uneasiness concerning a merc attack turned out to be erroneous, but his gut feeling that something was going to happen actually proved to be accurate during his shift the evening of the 20th, just prior to their return trip to the Citadel from the Exodus Cluster. As they were approaching the Utopia relay, the pilot activated the ship's PA to report a delay, saying the relay was aligned to receive traffic from another system. Acting totally on instinct, Buchanan ran to his quarters, woke Mellor, grabbed his travel bags and trotted to the closest escape pod, there to wait beside its open entrance hatch.

Curtis, grumpy at being dragged from his rack for no apparent reason, walked up to Griff and plopped his bags down on the deck. Using his own nickname for Griff, he asked, "What the hell are ya doing, Buck? Is this some kind of sick joke?"

Buchanan frowned at the man, replying, "No joke, Curt. Something bad is about to happen." His gaze steady, he continued, "If I am wrong … if I interrupted your sleep for no good reason … I will stand the first half of your next shift."

Curtis only had time to nod in acceptance of Griff's offer when they were both jolted by a violent shudder through the deck, coinciding with a low-pitched rumble from the stern; this was immediately followed by the trilling sound of the collision alarm accompanied by the slamming of every internal hatch in the habitat area of the ship. The alarm was silenced long enough for Captain Hurix to make an announcement. "Catastrophic core breach in engineering … drive core failure eminent. All personnel, abandon ship! Get to the escape pods! Abandon ship!"

"He does not need to tell me twice! Come on … we need to get clear!" Griff grabbed his bags and pushed them and his bulky frame into the escape pod, followed by Mellor. Closing the hatch from inside the pod initiated a fifteen-second countdown, enabling the two men to stow their gear, get seated and pull the restraint bars down; as the bars latched, the pod was ejected from the ship.

The onboard computer rotated the pod on its axis and fired the maneuvering thrusters to slow their flight away from the ship. Buchanan was able to catch a glimpse of the stricken freighter through the viewports as the pod rotated around; from this vantage point, the thruster packs on the freighter appeared undamaged.

There were several escape pods in their immediate vicinity; the computer in each pod caused all of them to maneuver towards each other. Auto-survival protocols in the programming would bring all the pods within a few meters of each other, creating a larger target for a rescue ship's detection equipment.

Buchanan had started to doubt himself and the ship's captain when the Seeker's Sunrise unexpectedly exploded, the fireball erupting from the drive section as the suddenly liberated, white-hot core of eezo mixed with the rapidly expanding helium-3 from the ruptured tanks. The shockwave jostled the escape pods, but all were far enough from the detonation to avoid damage. Curtis inspected the auto-distress transmitter to confirm it was working; in theory, each of the seven escape pods should be transmitting a homing signal. With any luck, all would be retrieved and their passengers rescued, most likely by an Alliance team dispatched from Eden Prime, within the next twenty to thirty hours. Upon contacting the people in the other pods, Buchanan was happy to learn the entire crew had managed to escape the Seeker's Sunrise. As there was nothing more to be done, Griff and Curtis each sat back to relax and wait to be rescued.


Rather than having to wait for twenty … or even thirty hours, the escape pods from the MSV Seeker's Sunrise were not retrieved until nearly forty hours had passed. By this time, the pod in which Griff and Curtis had survived the freighter's destruction was on reserve power—Griff had reduced the lighting and heat levels to their minimum settings, preferring to keep the atmosphere scrubbers adequately powered. They had resorted to rationing their drinking water when it became apparent their recovery would not be as immediate as they had believed.

When their pod was finally retrieved—along with the others—Griffen had mixed emotions. While glad to be out of the escape pod, he was more than a little troubled to find himself on a Blue Suns corvette—the Golden Nova—the captain was a turian, with the crew a mix of batarians and humans, none of whom appeared to be overly friendly. As for Griff, he and Curtis were happy they'd taken their travel bags with them, until Captain Hurix questioned why they were the only two members of the crew to have been so well prepared for a catastrophe.

Hurix was fortunate to have made his veiled accusations in the corvette's small mess hall; there were nearly a dozen other people nearby—rescued and rescuers alike—close enough to save the salarian from having his neck broken if Griff had chosen to reach out and grab him. As that thought crossed his mind, his thoughts tumbled back to Specialist Samantha Traynor. She would have killed him where he stood and taken on the rest of the bastards in this compartment without a second thought. Wish she was with us right now. As all the salarian had was an unfounded suspicion, there was nothing more he could say or do without incurring a libel accusation from the two humans; he couldn't even refuse to pay them the salaries they were owed.

With the Seeker's Sunrise completely destroyed by the core breach and her jettisoned cargo pods salvaged by the Blue Suns, Hurix had no way to prove the explosion was anything more than an unfortunate accident. The salarian prevailed on the Golden Nova's captain to transport them to the Citadel, promising a payment—less the salvage value of the escape pods and cargo the Blue Suns had retrieved—once he received a settlement from insurance. The turian acquiesced, as rescue and salvage customs and laws in space had to be obeyed—it wouldn't be wise for anyone, even the Blue Suns, to run afoul of accepted standards of conduct in space, lest they find themselves in a similar situation at some point in the future.


• ALPHA WARD, CITADEL · WIDOW SYSTEM •
▫ January 2188 · Nine Months Post-War ▫

Griffen Buchanan's terminal leave from the Alliance had ended in December; as the explosion that destroyed Seeker's Sunrise had also taken his livelihood, he was forced to return to the tiny apartment near the freight docks. Buchanan still had a modest savings account, which he had managed to maintain since his departure from the Alliance, but he was now back to square one, in that he once again found himself looking for employment as a freight handler or cargo master. He had purposely not asked for a recommendation from his former captain, as the salarian harbored a completely unfounded suspicion that either he or Curtis Mellor, the other cargo master on board and also a human, had somehow engineered the ship's destruction.

Fortunately, Griff was able to find a berth on the third ship he contacted; the MSV Celestial Viper was in need of an experienced assistant cargo master to work with Surnal Gaemnor, the salarian cargo master in charge. Griff wasn't a xenophobe by any stretch of the imagination—he'd even worked with batarians on occasion—but he wasn't really thrilled to be working on another salarian-owned and captained freight hauler; worse, it seemed the universe was punishing him by forcing him to answer to the human-hating salarian in charge of the ship's cargo hold. He could have refused the job offer, but the pay was fair and the Celestial Viper had an exemplary safety record. Griff felt he could endure working on the ship long enough to increase his savings back to a comfortable level, particularly once his medical disability pension from the Alliance kicked in at the end of the month. After a few months, he could leave and find another job, hopefully a more agreeable one, with fewer aliens running the show.


• OMEGA STATION, SAHRABARIK SYSTEM · OMEGA NEBULA •
▫ April 2188 · One Year Post-War ▫

Buchanan, nursing a large, icy-cold mug of batarian ale, was sitting in a dark, dingy bar located seemingly in the bowels of Omega Station. The turian barmaid had assured the human that the ale was uncut; he had been forced to take her at her word, as the ambient light was so dim he couldn't accurately discern the liquid's color. It was rather bitter in taste, but Buchanan didn't drink often enough to know if what he was tasting was thin or not; he did know the ale had a fair percentage of alcohol, if the immediacy of his headache after downing the first mug was any indication. He had decided to savor this second one; he didn't wish to discover how poorly a drunken, unconscious human was treated down here.

He was on a one-day layover, as the Celestial Viper was waiting for a freighter to arrive from the Shrike Abyssal. He could have returned to his bunk on the ship, but decided he'd seen more than enough of the damned thing in the seven or so weeks he'd been on board; sitting in the twilight darkness of this bar, sipping from a mug of bitter ale, suited him for the moment.

He had studied the freighter's scheduled itinerary, noting they would next be calling on the port of Milgrom, the nearly destroyed capitol of the human colony on Bekenstein. Studying the manifest of cargo coming from Bovis Tor revealed the majority of the payload was going to be palladium and iridium, raw materials that would either be refined in orbit or on the surface, then utilized in the manufacture of high-end, finished goods in the rebuilt factories on the planet.

The other palladium-rich planet in the Urla Rast system had the misfortune of attracting a disproportionate amount of attention from the Reapers during the latter stages of their invasion; despite massive reconstruction efforts by the now peaceful machines, the volus population—estimated at 3.8 billion people before the invasion—had yet to recover their former numbers. Their capitol city of Usra Dao had been leveled by orbital bombardment; the ruined city still entombed countless volus. Reconstruction work in the ammonia-rich atmosphere could only be undertaken by the volus; anyone else working on the surface needed to wear a sealed environmental suit, something that made working on the heavy-gravity world extremely tiresome. Even with the capable assistance provided by numerous Reapers, it was a slow process.

The Viper would also be receiving a load of platinum—ten containers of a metric tonne each—from the dwarf planet Rosh. Griff had already cleared one corner of the cargo hold in anticipation of receiving these containers. They would be loaded first in order to provide a bit of protection from casual theft—the containers of palladium and iridium would have to be unloaded before the more expensive containers of platinum could be reached.

As Buchanan took another swallow from his mug, his thoughts drifted back to his time in the Alliance Special Ops group, especially his time with Samantha Traynor and Yuán Xiùlán. He really missed those women, Sammy in particular—not that their relationship had ever been anything but that of a brother and sister; even without being told, Griff knew that Sammy and Xiùlán were lovers, and respected both of them enough to not question their life choices. Ever since then he had never had dealings with batarians that didn't bring back intense memories of Traynor and her rather … unique … methods of dealing with the pirates that infested Cartagena Station. Sadly, he didn't expect he'd see her—or Yuán—ever again.

Heaving a heavy sigh, he downed the rest of his beer in one go, grimacing at the bitter flavor that had only grown more intense as the liquid gradually warmed during the time he had spent staring into its depths. He got to his feet, wincing at the bit of pain that shot down the back of his left leg. His doctors had repaired his broken vertebra to the best of their abilities, but there was still a bit of damage to the nerves going to his thigh muscles—something he'd have to live with, or so he'd been told.

He left the bar and strolled back to the freight docks, there to reenter the Viper and head for bed. He wasn't looking forward to the headache he'd no doubt be nursing by the time he woke up.


• MSV CELESTIAL VIPER, DOCKED AT OMEGA STATION •
▫ June/July 2188 ▫

Griffen Buchanan awakened rather slowly to the uncomfortably loud—to his ears, anyway—trilling of his omnitool. After sleepily managing to make the noise stop on the third attempt, he discovered it was announcing an urgent message from the ship's executive officer, U'mal Votol; the salarian needed to see Griff as soon as possible to discuss a rather pressing issue.

As he had mentally predicted to himself the previous evening, he was suffering from an alcohol-induced headache, although it wasn't as severe as he'd expected—probably because he had purposely limited his drinking. After relieving himself, he winced at the image looking back at him in the bathroom mirror; he splashed warm water in his face and dampened his hair, then scrubbed his face dry with a small towel. The reflection staring out of the mirror looked a bit fresher than before … certainly better than he actually felt. Brushing his teeth and rinsing his mouth helped lessen the taste of stale beer; feeling somewhat better, he donned clothes and left his sleeping compartment to go find the ship's XO.


"Enter!" The nasally voice of U'mal Votol sounded about as Buchanan expected … impatient. Nothing new concerning salarians, he thought as he swept his hand through the haptic interface to open the hatch. Presenting an appearance of moving swiftly was really no problem for Griff—his long legs rapidly ate up distance, even when he was simply strolling. He was standing in front of Votol's desk before the salarian could raise his eyes. Waving Griff to a nearby chair, he said, "Please sit, human."

Votol continued speaking at a rapid-fire pace as Griff took a seat in the chair. "As you are no doubt aware, Surnal Gaemnor is … or rather, was … no fan of humans. I am not blind, nor am I ignorant of what transpires on this ship, Buchanan; I am aware Gaemnor made you perform every miserable, dirty or difficult job he didn't wish to do himself." He paused, waiting for a moment to see if Griff would respond; when he remained silent, Votol continued, "Late last night, Gaemnor actually allowed his low opinion of humans to take control of his mouth. This was no doubt a direct result of the amount of Kalinan's Best he had imbibed, if the unpaid bar tab is any indication. His unkind words about your kind was repaid by a couple of mercs inside a lower-level nightclub … the Medtechs that attempted to resuscitate him reported he suffered a crushed heart and broken neck. They also said he probably never felt a thing. Um, too bad, that." The salarian looked down as he shook his head slightly and added mirthlessly, "Needless to say, he will not be returning to his former position on this ship."

Griff had the good sense to refrain from laughing as he thought, Who would have thought Votol possessed a sense of humor? Asking "What does that mean for me, then? Do I still have a job?" He waited to see what this salarian would do after the violent death of another of his kind at the hands of some insulted humans.

The salarian was impossible to read as his eyelids slowly swept up across large, golden-flecked eyes. Looking straight at Griff, he said, "You are now the chief Cargo Master on this ship, Mister Buchanan. I will be looking to hire an assistant for you, but in the meantime, your monthly compensation will be increased to the amount previously being paid to Surnal Gaemnor." After a brief pause, he added, "You are no doubt aware a freighter arriving from the Shrike Abyssal will be unloading cargo for us. They are due to dock in just under three hours."

Sensing a dismissal in Votol's tone, Griff expressed his thanks, stood from his chair and left. Feeling a bit lighter in spirit at his apparent good fortune, he went down to the small mess hall to have some coffee and breakfast before he needed to oversee the cargo transfer from the volus system. He expected it would be a very long day.


• MSV CELESTIAL VIPER, FREIGHT DOCKS · MILGROM, BEKENSTEIN •
▫ August 2188 ▫

Captain Max Silva had nearly changed his plans and docked and unloaded the Viper at the orbital 'goods-in-transit' facilities near the gigantic freight forwarding structure in a geo-synched orbit above Milgrom. For Silva, emptying the ship's cargo hold in orbit would have saved fuel for the necessary landing near the import/export warehouses on the outskirts of the city. Over time, two of the port side maneuvering thruster packs on the ship's bow had become increasingly erratic when activated—their uneven firing had nearly caused a collision on close approach to a much smaller transfer vessel over Eden Prime; Silva was not going to wait for an expensive, possibly fatal accident to get the thrusters repaired, so had decided to have the work done on Bekenstein.

In the end, he had stayed with his original plan of grounding the Viper near the warehouses to unload his cargo; after the raw palladium, iridium and platinum was unloaded, extraction and refining of the ore would be completed at one of several nearby facilities. From there, the refined materials would be transferred to a number of nearby manufactories in the city.

As soon as the cargo hold was empty, Silva relocated the vessel to the nearby shipyard for repairs to the bow thrusters. While the ship was being serviced, Buchanan used the opportunity afforded by the unscheduled downtime to visit a human-run bank located a few klicks from the shipyard. Here, he opened an account and established the auto-deposit protocol that would enable his work-related compensation to be electronically transferred from the Celestial Viper's operating budget once each month.

After enjoying an early dinner at a nearby café, Griff returned to the shipyard in time to board for the short hop to the import/export docks, where he began his preparations for loading the outbound cargo the Viper would be delivering to the Citadel.

This trip would be different for Griff, as the entire job of organizing the freight in the massive hold was his responsibility alone, and he couldn't simply stuff the containers and crates in the cargo bay without some degree of organization. The manifest listed cargo from nearly a dozen manufacturers, each of which had a number of customers on the Citadel. Griff needed to load everything with an eye towards an organized unloading at the other end, so needed to know exactly where every last item was placed in the hold and group each shipping container with others that would be going to the same customer; this would enable the cargo to be unloaded and stacked in an orderly fashion.

Invariably during the process of loading the cargo, another pallet or container would arrive later than promised; this sometimes necessitated the removal and relocation of a few containers already on the ship in order to ensure everything destined for each customer on the Citadel was grouped together. By the time every last container and pallet had come aboard, Buchanan had a graphic representation of the Viper's cargo on a datapad. He was as ready as he could be for the ship to leave Milgrom in order to travel to their next port of call … the Citadel.


• COMMERCIAL FREIGHT DOCKS, ALPHA WARD · CITADEL, WIDOW SYSTEM •

By the time the Celestial Viper had docked at the Citadel, Buchanan was beyond ready for the trip to be over and done; upon its arrival in the Widow System, the ship—along with a dozen or so other freight haulers—had been directed to park in a holding queue near the relay. What began as a short arrival delay soon morphed into a several-hour-long postponement before the ship was permitted to dock. For a few crew members on board, such as the pilot, navigator and engineers, their work on this trip was complete; for Griff and the rest, the real work was just beginning.

Griff had totally expected the salarian cargo master's death on Omega to increase his own workload; as he had been doing the majority of the work under the human-hating Gaemnor anyway, he was happy to discover he was able to get all of his own chores—along with the salarian's—completed with a lot less effort, as he no longer had to redo some of his own jobs just to please Gaemnor.

Walking down the broad ramp deployed from the freighter's main cargo hold, Buchanan idly gazed around the docks before crouching at the end in order to inspect the heavy cables—two on each side—between the ramp and anchor rings rising from the metal surface of the dock. He had just turned to go back into the cargo hold when I said it; his nickname, whispered in a voice that may have seemed familiar … but was most definitely out of place, here on a bustling cargo platform, as we had not spoken since before the war. "Griff?"

After pausing briefly to turn around and look at the dock once more, he resumed walking up the ramp just as I de-cloaked; if I hadn't stepped aside, his collision with me might have knocked me down. The expression on his face when he saw me told me all I needed to know; he had thought to never see or hear from me again. "Samantha? Samantha Traynor!"

Wrapping his arms around me, he lifted me off my feet and hugged me tightly—a bit too tightly—as he happily gushed, "My God, where did you come from? You haven't changed a bit!" He kissed me on both cheeks before setting me back down on the metal surface beneath us; obviously thrilled to find me alive and apparently well after so much time, he continued with, "I did not think I would ever see you again, Sammy! What the hell have you been doing since the war ended?" Buchanan's joy at seeing me—his former sister-in-arms—quickly turned to worried concern as I leaned over, placed my hands on my knees and took a couple of shuddering, deep breaths of air.

He waited as I slowly straightened to stand erect; in a slightly wheezy voice, I exclaimed, "Damn, Griff! Never knew you to try'n crush the life out of a friend … but it's bloody good to see you as well!" Buchanan reached a hand out to assist me, which I gratefully grasped with both of mine, even as I painfully gasped, "Not to worry, Big Guy. Got caught in an explosion in Delta; still recovering from a case of blast lung, among a number of other injuries."

After taking a couple more deep breaths of air, I peered up at him and added, "Doctors released me to light duty, right before I resigned from the Alliance." Still holding onto Buchanan's hand, I finally managed to breathe normally and got to the reason I had come to see him. "Can you leave for a while, have a late lunch … or an early dinner with me?" At his look of hesitation, I released his hand and added, "My treat, Griff. I really need to speak with you."

Something in the way I phrased the question must have set off mental alarms. Back in the day, he would have willingly died to keep me safe … to enable me to complete a mission. Now, despite loving me more than his own sister, after a galaxy-wide conflagration, his hesitation told me he needed a bit more information before saying yes. Crossing his arms across his massive chest, he replied softly, "Not right away, Sammy … I have to oversee the freight transfer off the Viper … I will have a bit of time afterwards … before we begin loading cargo for the next port." Fixing me with a steady gaze, he asked, "What is this all about, Sammy? Are you in some sort of trouble?"

"No trouble, Griff. I just need to talk to you … and it has nothing to do with the Alliance military. I'm done with 'em, Griff … for the first time in ten years, I'm a private citizen."

Buchanan broke into a grin for a moment, only to have the suspicious frown from before return. "Aw hell, Traynor … you finally let General Park get under your skin … got yourself court-martialed and discharged … am I correct?"

I could actually feel my face going dark with irritation, and replied in as snarky a voice as I could manage with my still recovering lungs. "That hurts me, Griff … that really fuckin' hurts!"

Buchanan's grin returned slightly as he raised his hands, palms facing me. "Okay, okay … I am sorry." Glancing at some dockworkers approaching the ship, he said, "Now, I really need to get our cargo unloaded. Outbound freight begins loading around 0710 tomorrow, so I will have time to sit and chat with you this evening. Will that be okay?"

"Works for me, Big Guy." Activating my omnitool, I forwarded the restaurant's name and location to his tool. "Meet me here." I nodded, turned and walked down the ramp; once on the docking area's paved surface, I turned and set off at a brisk pace for my speeder.

I could literally feel Griff's eyes on my back—probably watching my ass—as I walked back down the ramp. I knew he would be thinking about what little I had told him. Just enough to pique his interest, I wondered? After all the months without hearing anything about him or from him, to find Buchanan alive and working was like a balm on my soul. I was relieved to discover he was relatively healthy, but I would need to find out what he'd been doing since the end of the war … particularly why he was no longer in the Navy. I glanced back once to watch for a moment, as he began directing the unloading of freight. I was really looking forward to meeting him later.