The Price of Refuge

Another missing scene from Day of Wrath, between Chapter Thirty-one and the Epilogue. Bennet has recruited Grant, the ex-quaestor in the Presidential Guard, to help him merge the remaining Fleet pilots and Infantry soldiers into a single force. He has just returned from his second Command meeting as overall commander of Gyrfalcon’s forces.

 

Every form of refuge has its price
– Eagles, Lying Eyes.

 Day of Wrath +11, late morning

Grant was waiting for Bennet in his new office. “Do I have a job?”

“You do.” Bennet dropped his stuff onto the desk and gave his new office the once-over. Not bad. Between them, Flynn and the quartermaster’s people had done wonders. Flynn had even squeezed in some upholstered seating units—“For those days when you’re not around and I can take a nap.”—and a conference table. Bennet nodded towards the table. Grant joined him, sliding into a chair to his right. “From tomorrow, you’ll come to morning command meeting with me and the Fleet captains. You’re on the team.”

Grant whooped and held out his hand for a congratulatory shake. “Thank you! I think. So it went all right?”

Bennet snorted. “I wouldn’t say that, exactly. Let’s just say that we learned early in our family never to do things like throw my father a surprise party. When I told him that I was going to cross-train every surviving pilot and soldier and I’d brought the infantry over here so I could convert the three corvettes into forward scouting ships, there was a lot of spluttering and choking. He got his own back, though by picking over everything I said, looking for holes in it, and getting Quist and Etienne to help him do it.”

“You were expecting that.”

And since he and Grant had spent much of the previous day plotting all the likely scenarios, and because he knew his three tormentors pretty well, Bennet most certainly had been expecting that. “And I had answers. They agreed that it would be a good idea to have forward scouting ships. Well, they did until I said I could fit up to five Hornets onto each corvette. Then they got agitated thinking that’d mean I’d be taking Hornets away from the immediate defence of the refugee ships, and I had to remind them that I had twenty-two in storage down on Deck 30.”

“That was far-sighted of you.”

“I’m just thrifty. The squadrons got a few new Hornets over the last year, and we had the older ones stored away to be cannibalised for parts. Jordan—my ground crew chief—is down there right now, checking how many we can bring out of mothballs and back into active service. Anyway, I won’t recount every point we covered, but I battered ’em with the numbers and analysis and logic until I got agreement in principle. We can start work. We’ll run the detail past Quist as we work on it. She’s a stickler for rules, but she’s not stupid. She’ll be a good ally.”

Grant nodded. “Where do we start? Training schedules?”

“Yeah. Boot camp for the pilots and flight school for infantry. Work with Tomas and Flynn on the programme. And we’ll put out the call to reenlist old service people from amongst the refugees so you can pull together the scout ship crews and get us started.” Bennet pushed over the datapad for Grant to note the signatures. “It’s like having my personal press gang.”

“I’m proud to be of service. And right now?”

“Right now, we get to tell the rest of the team what joy’s in store for them. Hill will be the first one to object, but probably because it’s me suggesting it. Lucia won’t say much—she’s a quiet one—but she organised Demeter to hell and back, and I reckon she likes challenges. She’s doing really well in sorting out the new squadron duty rosters while Hill broods, and she’ll be key to making this work. Cruz won’t much say much either. She likes to mull things over and she’s cautious, but she’s as loyal as they come and as good as Lucia at making stuff happen. Tomas, I really don’t know. But I bet you anything you like that the first one to spot what we’re planning, will be Flynn.”

Right on cue, Flynn poked his head around the door. He raised an eyebrow at Grant, possibly at the sight of the mish-mash uniform that appeared to be the quartermaster’s nod towards Grant’s new role or possibly just at Grant’s being there at all. “Tomas is here. Ready for everyone, and do you want me in on this as well?”

“Yes and yes. Wheel ’em in.”

There was just enough room to get everyone around the table. Flynn squeezed in last, pulling his desk chair forward and getting himself between Bennet and Grant. He gave Grant a beaming smile. Hill, Lucia and Cruz stared. Maybe it was seeing Grant in Fleet battledress with an Infantry jacket that bothered them.

Bennet did quick introductions and sat out the pleasantries with as much patience as he could muster. Then he hit them with it. Ten minutes of closely reasoned argument and strategic proposals that boiled down to We failed. We failed catastrophically. We can’t afford to fail again. It’s my job to make sure we don’t. Your jobs are to run the squadrons and Infantry units, day-to-day. Grant’s is to help me integrate everything into a single service.

“Whoa!” Flynn was the only one to react verbally.

The others just looked stunned. They’d looked like that often over the last couple of days, now Bennet came to think on it, as if they were having a bit of trouble keeping up. Even Cruz looked shocked and she should be used to it by now.

Then Flynn laughed. He tugged at Grant’s sleeve. “I guess this is the quartermaster’s compromise huh? Is she out of black dye?”

It was good to be right about something. For a moment, that cold little spot behind Bennet’s ribs that he kept iced over because of, oh, everything, warmed with pride and a deep, abiding affection. A smart man, his Flynn.

Bennet gave them a minute to let the spluttering die down “So, let’s start discussing it. What I’ve talked about so far is headline stuff—cross-training, manning and equipping the corvettes, recall and recruitment… There’s a helluva lot of detail needed to make this strategy work. Let’s get some of that teased out now, work out our timeline for how we’ll make it happen, and when and what and how we’ll tell the troops. Open discussion now where you can say whatever you want. But take the opportunity to bitch here and now, because outside that door you will wholeheartedly support what we agree today.”

Bennet watched as Hill opened his mouth and took a deep breath. He was right about that one, too. He really should have taken a leaf from Flynn’s book, and made a real bet with Grant. He’d have cleaned up.

 

Four hours later they had at least an outline plan agreed. Not without argument, and not without dissent. But they were started. Flynn closed the door after Grant and the others had left—and how telling was it that Bennet was already thinking of them in those terms?

Flynn dropped a blister pack of pills onto Bennet’s desk. “I saw that you kept rubbing your neck. Headache?”

Bennet nodded, popped the blisters and swallowed two pills.

“Here.” Flynn’s tone was rough, but his fingers on the back of Bennet’s neck were gentle and knew just where to press and rub. “That was quite the bombshell you just dropped on us.”

“I know.” Bennet closed his eyes and arched into Flynn’s hand. That felt damned good.

“It’s going to be a lot for people to take in. They’re still reeling from everything, from trying to deal with it. Hill and Lucia only told them what squadrons they’re in a couple of hours ago.”

“I know. I know they’re reeling. But we still have to get the job done.”

“And you think the job’s changed.”

“Oh, it’s changed. We’re not protecting a fixed number of planets anymore, a fixed area of space. We failed at that. We’re not at war now, Flynn. We’re running, and it may be a very long time before we stop. Maybe years of travelling, never knowing what’s in the next system, what we might face, who we might have to fight to get through, what natural hazards there are… We can’t afford to fail again. Those ships out there are all humanity has left.”

“I get the message.” Flynn’s hand squeezed gently. “How much of it is us really needing this change, and how much is you trying to get Shield back?”

He should be offended. Mind you, there wasn’t a lot of point with Flynn. Instead, Bennet twisted his head to catch a glimpse of Flynn’s face. “What do you think?”

Pursed lips, a grin, a shake of the head; but there were worry and concern in Flynn’s eyes. “A little from Column A, maybe more from Column B.”

Fingers squeezed again, stroked down the side of Bennet’s neck until he shivered, then were withdrawn. Bennet shivered again, missing Flynn’s touch. Flynn dropped into his chair, on the other side of the desk and Bennet looked away quickly, letting the warmth subside.

Flynn might be right. Maybe Bennet was trying to rebuild Shield, but because it was the right thing to do. Shield was the best of Fleet and Infantry. Shield never gave up, never surrendered and even now, whatever was left of it was lost to humanity, obeying Last Order and harrying and fighting the Maess until even Shield could fight no more. He’d give his right hand to get the remnants of Shield back, but that would never happen. They were dead. They just hadn’t laid down yet.

The tension in Bennet’s neck eased and he rotated his head and shoulders, feeling the pressure lift. He dropped the remaining pills into the desk drawer. He’d probably need them later. He reached for the datapad and the next task because that too never gave up and never surrendered, the relentless press of work.

He met Flynn’s concerned gaze. “Yes. Yes, I am trying to get Shield back, because we need everything Shield was and stood for. If we’re to survive, it’s time to resurrect the dead.”

Flynn reached out, and took his hand, linking their fingers together. His hand was warm, and Bennet tightened his grip on it. Thank the gods, Flynn wasn’t one he needed to resurrect.

“All right then,” Flynn said. “Where do I sign up? I always did look good in black.”

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