A missing scene–with a new PoV character no less–set between Bennet’s promotion to Shield Major and his discussion with Grant at the end of Chapter Thirty-one. Bennet and Flynn have completed the scouting run on Albion and returned with the depressing news that there is nothing left on their home planet. Humanity has no choice but to run for it, and hope they can find refuge somewhere far from the Maess. +9 days after the Destruction, Bennet puts on his Shield uniform. That morning in Command meeting, his promotion to Shield Major is confirmed and he is given command over all the pilots and infantrymen on the Gyrfalcon.
Day of Wrath +09 (02 Septimus 7491)
“Meet it head on,” Flynn said over lunch. “Fact is, Hill and Lucia have got a lot of Fleet seniority and they’re not going to like it.”
Breathe, Cruz told herself.
She poked at the meagre supplies the commissary staff had handed out and grimaced. “They’ve been pretty good so far, falling into line while we’ve been so focused on dealing with…” She paused and rode out the cold fist that grief had clenching around her gut. Breathe. Just breathe. “… with all this shit. But you’d have started falling over each other as soon as they got their breath back. There has to be someone in overall command and you weren’t exactly shy about taking that on after Thorn.”
Bennet shrugged as if he didn’t care, but Cruz could only grin at the thought of anyone trying to take the top spot away from him and hoping to get away with all their limbs intact.
She took a swig of coffee. At least that was real. For as long as supplies lasted, anyway. The gods alone knew what they’d be drinking by this time next month. “Things are bad enough without our captains fighting over who gets to give us orders. Having a line of command sorted out is pretty much obligatory for the military. At least we got you. That’s a plus.”
Bennet prodded at the mess on his plate with a fork, maybe to make sure it wasn’t still moving. He glanced at Cruz. “Is there much talk?”
She stared. Was the man daft? “Of course there is. The pilots from other ships and Demeter don’t know you.”
“But they do know I’m the Supreme Commander’s son and now I’m officially the one giving the orders. And they think that the two are connected.”
“Wouldn’t you, if you were in their combat boots?” Cruz said. “Everyone’s been working themselves into the ground since it happened, but it’s amazing how many people still find the time to do some complaining. Then this morning you popped up in that nice shiny uniform and they started to get a clue. And when they saw how pleased we were about you getting command, they stopped and thought some more. Since then it’s been less grumbling, more questions.”
Bennet’s grin was a pale, shadowy thing. A ghost of a grin, along with all their other ghosts. “I wasn’t expecting the reception you and the other Gyrfalcon pilots gave the news. Thanks.”
“Well, despite you being Shield and despite the genetic drawback, we quite like you.” Cruz copied Flynn’s comforting arm pat, breathed in, and tried to remember the Cruz of a week ago. “Don’t understand it myself, but I go with the flow.”
Bennet relaxed a bit more; smiled, even, though there was ice in it.
Cruz gave up on her fried whatever-it-was and pushed the plate away. Food was rationed now, and she couldn’t see a time when it wouldn’t be, but even so, she couldn’t choke it down. No appetite. Not since Albion had gone. She’d tightened her belt an extra hole that morning, to make sure her pants didn’t slip down. She hadn’t had any excess weight to lose, truth be told. She’d be tightening her belt more, she reckoned. “Flynn’s right, frightening as that thought is. You have to meet them head-on.”
“We all wish we weren’t in this place, Bennet,” Flynn said, for once sounding so reasonable and wise that Cruz could only stare. “But we deal with what we have, right? We trust you to keep our people safe.”
What was left of them, he meant.
Cruz wouldn’t let herself go there. She pulled in a deep breath, instead. How many times in the last week had her lungs been crafted from lead, as though they would never do their job again, and she’d had to stop for a moment and focus just on making them do just that? Pause. Draw in her rib cage, pushing up her diaphragm, raising it, make it all let the air flood into her? Just gulping in the air had been a miracle denied so many millions. Because she was still there, and they weren’t and never would be now. And when she had the time and she could let it happen, she’d be able to cry and mourn and live. Not like them. They’d never cry and mourn and live again. They were ash.
She wouldn’t think about it now. She just wouldn’t. It was far less painful to think about military politics. “You being Shield should be easier on the captains. They’re still the most senior Fleet officers and that might make them feel a bit better about this.”
Bennet snorted and finished up his slice of fried whatever it was. From the expression on his face, Cruz had been wise to reject it. “You’d better come with me, Cruz. Flynn, Tomas is on his way across from the MI corvette, so could you go and meet him and bring him up to the office? I want to get a few things started.”
“Do you really need me there?” Cruz had a much stronger imagination than anyone ever seemed to give her credit for. She didn’t fancy witnessing whatever chagrin the Fleet captains might feel about the day’s announcement of the new hierarchy, and she could imagine ‘whatever’ would have a value of ‘one helluva lot’.
“You’ve been my right hand these last few days, so yes. There’s still a lot of work to do and I trust you.”
“This,” opined Flynn, “is Bennet improving morale through positive feedback.”
“I’m desperate enough to try anything right now. Head on, you said, Flynn? Right then. Let’s get on with it.” Bennet pushed back his chair with more energy than Cruz had felt for a week now.
Cruz leaned over Flynn in the most menacing way she could manage. “If this head-on stuff goes bad on me, Flynn, I will hunt you down and I will make you weep.”
Flynn just laughed. He sounded like it hurt, but still… He managed it, the bastard.
“Not counting me and not counting Flynn—I’m keeping him as my wingman—and not counting you three, we have two hundred and sixty pilots. Split them between seven squadrons. Gyrfalcon will have two fighter wings, port and starboard. You each take a wing of three squadrons. I don’t care which of you takes which wing. Sort that out between yourselves.”
Hill opened his mouth but Bennet was in fine fettle and whatever Hill wanted to say died unborn. He just didn’t get the time to form the words.
“The seventh squadron, with Cruz as squadron leader, will be under my direct command because I don’t want to lose my flying privileges. As for how you split the pilots… well, keeping people with at least some of their comrades from former ships might help them, but we need to get a good mix across each squadron. Get the new squadrons as balanced as you can. Cruz has the lists. Oh, one of you take Jillia as your second. She’s earned that. All clear so far?”
Heads nodded, but both the Fleet captains looked stunned. Cruz looked down at her boots and grinned at them, hopefully unseen by anyone else. Bennet wasn’t just in fine fettle, he was in damned fine fettle. Hell, but it was a joy to watch. When Bennet did ‘head on’, he went for it wholesale.
“Work out the patrol and alert/standby schedules for three shifts between you for me to sign off. And we need some new squadron call signs. Not the old Gyrfalcon ones—we’re all in a new set-up here, including the old Gyrfalcon pilots, and we all have to start off new. And most of all, start thinking about how we’re going to integrate pilots from two dozen different ships and Demeter into a single force. They’re all Gyrfalcon now, but they’re going to need some help getting used to that. It’s going to be hard while we’re on constant alert, but we’re going to have to fit in training exercises and battle-station drills so everyone knows what he or she should be doing in an attack and what order they’ll be going into the launch tubes. That’s a priority.” Bennet paused and hunched one shoulder. “Along with all the other priorities. Let’s have some ideas to talk through by tomorrow, say.”
Everyone nodded again, mute. Bemused inexperience in coping with Bennet on the captains’ side, Cruz thought; sheer self-preservation on hers.
“As to how it all will work… I’m not going to sit here and manage the squadrons. That’s your job and I have too much else to do right now. I’ll let you get on with it.” Bennet jumped to his feet and grabbed a datapad from the desk. “I’m going to set Lieutenant Tomas off on a tour of the troop decks to locate enough space to move all his troopers over here. I’ll be back in half an hour and we’ll go to morning briefing. All okay? Fine. See you then.”
When the door closed behind him, Lucia made a soft sort of mewling sound and looked at Cruz, dazed. “What was that?”
“He can be a bit focused,” Cruz explained, which was as much as to say that Bennet facing things head on was the equivalent of an armoured transport rolling merrily over you and flattening all the bits that stuck up.
“I feel like I just got mown down by a shuttle,” Hill said. “A big shuttle.”
An armoured transport or a shuttle. Either worked. Cruz mentally reviewed everything Bennet had just thrown at them; he hadn’t missed much. She blew out a noisy breath, just about the same moment that the two captains came to the same realisation.
“He’s left us with a helluva lot to do.” Hill pulled the datapad towards him, the one with the pilots listed on it.
“Yes.” Cruz sighed again. “It’s a Shield thing, I think. Not missing a trick, I mean.”
“Still, he’s left us to do it.” Lucia looked thoughtful, then amused. “Ah. I get it.”
Cruz nodded at her. She was no fool and a great deal more relaxed than Hill was. Hill was a twitcher, if ever Cruz had seen one. “Bennet’s usually very clear about what he wants doing, but he’s also good about leaving us, the squadron leaders it was then, to get on and do it.”
“Another Shield thing, focusing on strategy? Or because he’s a member of the Strategy Unit?” Hill arched an eyebrow.
“More of a Bennet thing, I reckon.” Gods, but she sounded loyal to a fault, but they had to get this right. Bennet had enough on his plate without the captains doubting whether they could work with him. “He’s okay, is Bennet. He can be a bastard sometimes, especially when people do stupid things, and his temper can be on a short fuse—you’ll learn to recognise when to duck and run—but it never lasts long. He looks out for his people.”
“You think he’ll not interfere in how I run my squadrons?” Hill’s lip curled.
Hill was going to be a prick about it. So fuck him.
“Only when you cock it up,” Cruz said, sweetly.
Cruz didn’t let him get his feet under him again. “Bennet’s the best we’ve had as GyrLeader. You better get used to it.”
Hill and Lucia glanced at each other.
Lucia grinned. “Well, I suppose I can get used to working with a Shield in command. You obviously did, Cruz.”
“We already knew him.”
“Because he’s the Supreme Commander’s son.” Hill’s mouth twisted, but not as pleasantly as Lucia’s grin.
“That has nothing to do with it. He did a mission with us, five years ago. We didn’t know whose son he was, we just knew we were taking a Shield behind the lines so he could parachute at night into a Maess base. Once you’ve seen a man do a job like that and get back by running three miles in heavy gravity on a broken foot, you get to think he earns his pay no matter who his dad is.” Cruz took the datapad from Hill’s lax grip and turned it on. “Which one of you will be taking Jilly?”
They handed Bennet the first fruits of their labours in the early evening. He’d pulled them in for a quick status briefing and they took the opportunity to show him they’d at least got the squadrons sorted out and named. He took their proposals remarkably well, although he did look a bit like that armoured transport of his had got out of control and run over his own foot.
“You want to call them what?”
“I’ll take Port wing as PortLeader,” repeated Lucia, patiently. “With Lieutenant Gosse as my second, and Ra, Ankht and Min squadrons. Hill will be StarLeader with Jillia as his second, and has Bast, Neith and Set squadrons.”
Cruz had raised an eyebrow herself when the two captains had come up with the idea of naming the squadrons after the gods. Well, it had been Hill’s idea and now Cruz thought about it, had come pretty slick. Hill had a touch of religious fervour then.
“Right.” Bennet gave Cruz a hard look.
Cruz hadn’t thought Bennet would appreciate it much. Not that it was her fault, since both captains outranked her, so she just looked right back. “We’re Ma’at squadron.”
The look on Bennet’s face was priceless. “Ma’at. The Lady of reason, truth and justice.”
Both Lucia and Hill stiffened.
“You object to the names?” Lucia looked wounded.
Bennet’s smile looked a bit forced, but maybe only if you knew him. The captains were probably fooled. “I’m fine with the names, as long as no one expects me to have some sort of religious epiphany to go along with them.”
“Ah.” Hill relaxed. “We thought in the circumstances it would maybe comfort people a bit, give us a link back to our faith.”
“Right,” Bennet said again.
“I saw Carson coming out of the chapel yesterday.” Flynn was supposed to be occupying himself with compiling a list of Hornet armament spares but nothing would ever stop him putting in his bent credit’s worth. “I didn’t realise he even knew where it was. I guess people are looking for something to help them cope.”
“Attendance at chapel is well up,” Cruz told them. “Not that either of you two would know that.”
Bennet observed that he’d been scolded about his church attendance record by people with far more power and influence over him than Cruz could ever begin to hope for, and with about the same lack of impact. “But well done for the effort, Cruz.”
Cruz let her mouth turn up and it didn’t feel too forced. The two captains relaxed to the point where even Hill allowed those rigid shoulders to un-tense, and Lucia was openly amused. If Bennet had been too damn noble for Cruz’s good and she’d had to choose, Cruz would have opted to run one of her squadrons. Of the two of them, Lucia was far the easier to get on with; more receptive to new ideas and more laid back generally. Bennet would find Hill a harder cross to bear.
“The call signs are short and memorable and they all sound different, so won’t be confusing over battle comm links.” Bennet gave a decisive nod. “Okay, we’ll go with it. Register the names with the bridge and tomorrow, after command meeting, we’ll get all the pilots into the OC to brief them on the new set up and give them their squadron assignments.”
Which would be a fun way to start the day. At least Cruz had managed to hang onto their friends and keep them in Alpha squa… in Ma’at squadron.
Bennet sobered. “Anyhow, what I wanted to tell you was that we’re giving it two more days to allow any latecomer survivors to get here and then we’ll be on our way.”
There had to be something in the air to make Cruz’s eyes sting like that. She squeezed them shut for a moment. Hill scowled and looked away. Flynn stared down very hard at his list.
“Damn.” Lucia sounded tired.
“Yeah. Damn.” Bennet stopped with the brave little Shield warrior act and slumped in his chair, rubbing at his face with the heels of both hands “Double damn.”
“There’s nothing…? No way we can stay? No—” Hill stopped, shook his head.
No. There was nothing to stay for. There was nothing left.
“Where are we going?” Lucia followed Bennet’s lead, rubbing fiercely at her eyes.
“In the first instance, we’re heading towards the Apamea-Ragiana sector and we’ll work our way out from there.” Bennet dropped his hands, and straightened again.
“That wasn’t what I meant.”
I know.” Bennet didn’t look at any of them. “The Supreme Commander will make an announcement soon.”
And that meant that he knew what was planned, but he wasn’t saying anything. Cruz glanced at Flynn, but he shrugged a shoulder at her and raised his hands in a helpless little gesture. It looked genuine. Bennet hadn’t told Flynn anything, then.
Bennet gave them a moment before taking the datapad with the new squadrons on it. “Thank you for this and all your hard work. I’ll look it over, but I trust you to have covered everything. But first… Cruz, don’t you have a supply and resources survey visit planned?”
“I’m surveying the Sapphire, a freighter from the Kios colony that arrived last night. I leave in about thirty minutes.”
“I’ll go with you. I’ve not had the chance to get aboard one of the refugee ships yet.”
“You won’t like it. The one I saw yesterday…” Cruz paused, shook her head. “We have to do something about these people, Bennet, but I’m damned if I know what. They’re just jammed in there, and the pressure’s gonna build when they start to come back to life. They’re stirring, and they’re going to get to the stage where it won’t be enough just to be alive. We’re in for a helluva time.”
Bennet just nodded. “Yes. We are.” He pushed away from the table and stood. “And I can’t ever see an end to it.”
Neither could Cruz. So she breathed instead and thought about miracles.
If you’re interested in seeing the post-Thorn/Albion organisation on the Gyrfalcon, go HERE