Drinking Buddies, Part Two
Posted on August 9th, 2016 by Douglas McKnight and Ian Blackthorne
By Douglas McKnight and Ian Blackthorne
“I don’t know how you Marines like to do it, Colonel. But when a Starfleet Captain gives you a gag order, it doesn’t come with an expiration date. In fact, if you wanted to endanger your career by poking your nose where it doesn’t belong, you’d have been better served by doing it decades ago. You’ve built up plenty to lose these past twenty years.”
Even pushing 80, with all the wrinkles, thinned out hair and everything else that came with it, Doug had to admit that Commodore Daniel Philips (Ret.) had maintained what he remembered as the man’s most striking trait: an intense, unwavering stare, backed by brilliantly blue eyes that betrayed not one iota of warmth. Now, as 25 years ago when that stare had made him feel a bit like an ant under the magnifying glass, he suspected that was quite a sought after trait among intelligence people. Yet now, decades and a couple of interstellar wars later, it somehow didn’t hit quite the same way.
Everything WAS bigger when you were a kid, he supposed.
“A Marine takes that much like any other order, Commodore.” he answered, meeting that gaze head on with a tight smile. “He follows it. To the letter.”
Ah, there it was. Not warmth, per se. But as those blue eyes narrowed, McKnight definitely detected some heat, even over a subspace channel.
“What the hell are you on about, McKnight?”
“You told me never to speak about that mission. So, up until this very moment, I haven’t. But you never told me not to LOOK into it, with whatever resources I might amass over the years. Which might, in turn, allow me to discover that the folks you had my team extract from that shit show on Vendikar were not, as your briefing claimed, Starfleet Intelligence. Or, indeed, associated in any way with any branch of Starfleet or any of its subsidiary agencies. Which would make sending me and mine down there, by definition, an illegal misappropriation of Marine Corps resources, and any nondisclosure order given after the fact a coverup. So, I’m curious. Where do you figure the official axe would REALLY land if it starts swinging?”
“You need to listen to me, and listen good.” Philips began quietly, after several long moments of shocked and furious silence. “I know full well how unassailably tough you jarheads all think you are. But for once in your life, you need to to be smart about the fights you pick. What you’re trying to barge into-”
“A Starfleet Captain is dead!” Under other circumstances, perhaps he could have taken more satisfaction over shouting down a flag officer, particularly one who’d taken that kind of high handed tone with him. As it was, he’d at least content himself with it having worked. “Murdered! Now that’s all I should have to say. But I’ll add anyway that whoever did it also assassinated the Admiral in charge of the entire Third Fleet. That is, again by definition, a strategic attack on the Federation itself. I didn’t pick this fight, Commodore, but you better believe I want in on it.”
Well, it was all just about set. And after more than a decade behind him as part of the Atlantis’s marine complement, a unit he’d known simply and far more gratifyingly as HIS men for nearly as long, part of him wished it had been a longer and more complicated process to leave it all behind. And in a sense, it WOULD be harder. Impossible, in fact. How often did Admiral Zuriyev stake his claim to Atlantis, his mind drawn back to those grand, sleek lines and their promise of speed and the infinite horizon, even years after his own departure? Perhaps Doug’s own time in the command chair had been a fleeting novelty, but all the same, part of him would always remain with that ship. And he didn’t mind saying, he hoped it always showed.
But the actual logistics and such? A combination of his record and the wonders of 24th century subspace communication had made that a breeze. The biggest hurdle had been making the simple decision to start looking for other opportunities, finally take that next step in his career. And while it would be a lie to say he hadn’t considered Ron Gerard’s long standing job offer from time to time, it had only been once in his tenure, years back that he’d ever entertained serious thoughts of leaving Atlantis. But that was before marriage, a milestone he’d expected never to achieve, and the further conversation he’d not planned. But once he and Percy reached the mutual decision that they wanted to try starting a family, the rest naturally followed. A love one had for their ship was a special thing indeed, but all the same, they wanted their children to have a homeworld. And they wanted that to be Earth.
And that’s where Persephone McKnight was waiting for him, waiting on his help with the homestead to be. They’d closed the deal months back on some property up in the Coast Ranges north of San Francisco, but Percy’s wish list turned out to be a fair bit more extensive than that. She wanted a stables. Yes, and he’d had to ask for clarification on this point even in spite of having seen the virtual version she kept on the Lost Harbor program, for horses. And that WOULD be done in person. He’d be there giving it his best shot now, were it not for the circumstances of his wife’s new posting. The admin staff at Starfleet Academy had been just about beside themselves when a woman of her experience and proven ability agreed to a teaching position, but once the “honeymoon” ended, there was a syllabus to plan, a new department to meet, and it was HER who needed to be there in person. So off she’d went, with a promise that he and Hobbes would follow once their stuff was properly packed up for shipping.
He didn’t imagine his wife would hold the delay against him; she understood in ways that he never would just how fragile the quantum slipstream drive was at this early stage in its deployment. All the same, it was time he made good on that promise. The belongings in question were all neatly stowed in one of Alexandria’s many cargo bays, awaiting transfer to the USS Venture sometime between now and when he took it back to Earth the day after next. Hobbes was comfortably back aboard Atlantis, where he would remain up until the last moment. It had been that cat’s ship every last bit as long, after all. It seemed only right that they retire from that life together.
So, that left him at last confronted with nothing more than some time to kill, a problem he’d elected to tackle in pretty much the usual fashion. He’d gone down to the planet; he’d not been one of those poor souls trapped aboard that sinking station, of course, but even so, the last mission had left him desiring a bit of fresh air and open space. He’d found it, and a bit of mildly inclement weather in the form of a light drizzle before he’d found the bar on the water where he now stood, metallic dart in one hand, and a pint of something cold and relatively dark in the other. He’d played before, but it had been awhile, and while it required some of the same skills, it was rather different from his usual bit of target practice. A skill he’d simply need to retrain in the days ahead.
“Christ.” He muttered softly to himself after scoring a hit just barely inside the inner ring. “I’m gonna have to find a new watering hole.”
“Yeah, Jack’s his own man and free to do as he pleases, but I don’t think he’ll want to leave,” answered a familiar voice. Ian Blackthorne stood behind him with a pint in each hand and a half smile on his face. He offered one of the drinks to Doug while glancing at his pre-existing mug and added, “You can’t double park, you know.”
Doug’s initial response was not entirely verbal, kicking off with a low chuckle and a nod to a nearby table, occupied at present only by a dampened coaster and an extra two darts. It was only after that and then a long but unhurried pull of his beer that he offered a proper reply.
“Clearly, you’ve not spent much time in Boston. Set her down there. I haven’t bothered with anything I’d insult by chugging in a very long time, but I’ll get to it all in due course. Call that a soldier’s promise.”
With that, he silently walked away from the admiral to step on over to the dartboard and retrieve the missiles he’d already spent. If Ian was going to let Doug in on the tab, it seemed only right to open up the game.
“So did sheer coincidence bring you here first, or did you only just arrive?” He asked this even as he stepped back to the table and offered Blackthorne the first throw. “Can’t say either slipping my notice sits right after all these years playing sheepdog. Must have been indulging in a deeper reverie than I thought.”
“Well, you’ve earned it,” Ian answered as he put the beers on the table and accepted a dart. His throw hit outside and below the center ring. “I suppose I’m a bit rusty. Anyway, it’s no coincidence that I’m here, and I think you know at least part of the reason for my visit.”
“Me too.” Doug admitted in between pull of his original beer which, though he kept to his proclamation and went no faster than suited him, soon found itself in dire need of relief. “One more project to throw on the list, I guess.” And that was an oddly heartening notion, actually. Excited as he genuinely was about his new assignment back at Marine HQ, all his years of experience could not shield him from every career soldier’s fear of growing soft and complacent behind a desk. Some, he knew, would say he’d earned the right to finally let his edge dull a bit, and maybe some day, he’d be inclined to agree. For now though, he took an odd comfort in the idea of mastering a new weapon, useful or not. Speaking of which…
“I’ll pay Jack one more visit.” he continued as the dart landed, aware it came out a bit of a non-sequitur, but briefly more concerned about his placement. Not QUITE a bullseye, landing in the green just around it, and it had the distinct feel of a lucky shot at that, but even so, not too shabby. “It’s a powerful thing, that ‘one last time’, and here I find myself recognizing it, with a chance to do that properly. You don’t waste that kind of blessing. And anyone who cares to join me for that last round is more than welcome. But I don’t expect I’ll be saying anything too profound on the occasion. Some things just don’t work as well in a big group, and finding some pithy way to state what everyone already knows ranks highly on that list.”
At that, he finally reached over and picked up the second round that Ian had furnished him with.
“So, I’m guessing you’re here to see if it works any better one on one. I’m game. 11 years, and a whole lot of change. Hell of a thing.”
Ian took a long pull of his own beer, likely to gather his thoughts for a reply. “Yeah… with all we’ve been through, even the conflicts, this is almost as big as a change as I can imagine. I must confess that even though we, as Starfleet officers, are supposed to be inured to this sort of thing, it still feels like I’m losing my left hand. Not that I’m not happy for your career advancement – and also for Percy’s.”
“Well, you’re a righty, sir. And I hear they’re pretty damn good at limb replacement these days.” The moment taken to savor the new flavor of the beer Blackthorne had brought was valuable time; it allowed him to mentally translate from his native flippant. “As it happens, we’re actually pretty excited about it, too. Not that she needed validation from anybody, but an acknowledgement by the Academy as one of the most brilliant minds in the Federation doesn’t suck. And I’m looking at a front and center spot on General Tariq’s think tank; we’re restructuring to handle security on the frontier, and I’ve got a couple ideas I’m pretty eager to share. But I don’t think either of us would feel quite right about it if we really felt like we were leaving you in the lurch. Sure, everyone wants to feel like they’re both indispensable AND irreplaceable, but you and T’Kirr got along before Percy or I came. And I’ve got a feeling she’s not going anywhere. You’ll manage once we’re gone.”
After another sip at his beer, he abruptly broke into a grin as he thought of something else.
“Oh, and as for those conflicts? I won’t be under your command anymore, but I’ll still just be a subspace channel away. Any time you might worry you’re being an ass, I’ll be happy to run through the prospect with you.”
Ian erupted into laughter and rubbed his temple, recalling the last blow of their boxing match. “At least over subspace, I wouldn’t have to face that right hand of yours.” Finishing his beer, he regarded McKnight for a moment before speaking again. “Yeah, we’ll get along fine, Doug, but it won’t be the same. Never is when a such a fixture leaves, someone that you come to rely on, even if you have to beat the hell out of one another to get past some shit.”
Producing a small case from his jacket pocket, Ian continued, “I’ve always tried to look after my people, and if there was one thing I could do for you in thanks it was to be sure the promotion board knew damn well that you were deserving. Congratulations, Colonel.” He opened the case to reveal a set of silver colonel’s wings, and offered it along with a handshake to McKnight.
Doug returned the handshake a bit numbly, staring down at the emblem of his new rank with something akin to awe. Somehow, seeing something like that, something that physically encapsulated the incredible journey now coming to a close, just made it hit that much harder. And he found himself having to clear his throat a few times to get past a sudden tightness before he responded.
“I haven’t wanted to admit it, but this HAS been a goal of mine for awhile. Hard to believe that once upon a time, I couldn’t even see myself wearing the butter bar. Thank you, sir. I’m glad it came from you.”
After a moment, to his relief, the grin returned as he looked back up at Ian.
“But I’m still not going easy on you with the darts.”
“And incidentally, they were also my friends.” he finished in a somewhat hushed tone. But as he went on, his voice soon regained its strength. “So by all means, you finish that thought I so rudely interrupted. Tell me how I’m going to piss off the wrong people, and go down in flames for it. And then, I’ll spell out what I’m prepared to burn down with me out of spite. Starting with you, and your lovely, comfortable retirement.”
“…What the fuck do you WANT, McKnight?”
“Hang up this line now.” He answered quietly, but as he leaned in toward the screen, his gaze was not hurting for heat if its own. “Then, contact your friends at ‘Starfleet Intelligence’ and tell them Colonel McKnight wants to meet them. And advise them not to test my patience.”
“…I gave you a chance, McKnight. To listen to reason. Survival instinct. Try to remember that you chose to thumb your nose at it.”
“Semper Fi, sir.”
As the line went dead, Doug sank back into his desk chair and took a deep breath, taking just a little more reassurance than usual from the presence of the two-handed Claymore and brace of flintlock pistols hanging on the wall behind him. He allowed himself a few minutes of silence, then called his secretary to advise him that he’d be heading home a little early today. It would seem he may need to prepare for guests. And he intended that they should find a well-prepared host.