"John. You've got a phone call."
John Clark looked up at General Diggs's words as he swung the last of his gear from the chopper off his shoulder; a little distracted as he tried to process everything that had happened over the last few hours. He had led a special ops team on an all or nothing mission into Chinese territory and had ended up with nothing when a single missile— one of the twelve Chinese CSS 4 intercontinental ballistic missile with 3 megaton nuclear warheads they had been sent to destroy—slipped out of their reach. As far as Clark knew, once those birds were airborne, there was no sure way of bringing them back down. Yet somehow, this one had been brought down before it could hit its target— if he could believe what the General had told him upon landing a half hour ago.
John did believe in miracles but he never thought he'd be on the receiving end of one.
"I got it," Ding Chavez said as he snagged the strap of Clark's backpack. Clark shook his head clear then nodded, leaving the team in Ding's care until he got back, before following Diggs into a small office. The handset was sitting on the desk and Clark picked it up as the General closed the door.
He expected to hear Mary Patricia Foley—the Deputy Director (Operations) of the Central Intelligence Agency—or at least her husband Ed—the Director and the last person back home Clark had talked to before the antenna on the phone he had been carrying snapped off— answering him. Part of him hoped it would be his wife Sandy on the other end though he knew that wasn't going to happen. He was not expecting to hear the voice that actually spoke up.
"Thank God," the President of the United States said. "You're all right. You are all right, aren't you, John?"
Clark sank into the chair, the wooden frame creaking slightly as he blew out a breath and rubbed a hand over his face before answering. If he hadn't believed Diggs before now that the missile had been stopped, he did now. It was clear from Jack's voice that the worst had not happened after all.
"I'm all right; more or less," Clark answered as he stretched his legs out and leaned back. "Ding is too."
"Uh huh. Mind if I ask what you mean by more or less?"
Closing his eyes for a moment, Clark sighed then said, "We lost close to 30 good men out there, Jack."
Both men fell silent and Clark listened to what was going on in the background of the President's end of the call. The sound of glass clinking against glass and a voice calling out a toast brought a puzzled frown to Clark's face. Sitting up and resting his elbows on the desk, Clark asked, "Jack, where are you?"
"In the Situation Room getting drunk with the crew of the Gettysburg," was the answer he got. "I invited them over after we shot that damn missile down."
"Yeah. I rode it out with them."
Jesus Christ, Jack. "Did you even get on KNEECAP?"
"No," the President of the United States snapped irritably, "and I've already gotten that lecture from my Vice President, John; I don't need to hear it from you too."
Clark shook his head, smiling for the first time in hours, then suggested, "You know, you might want to make sure all the knives are under lock and key before your wife gets there."
"Oh yeah, that's a good idea." Clark had no trouble imagining Jack absently nodding his head as he added, "I should probably have someone disarm Andrea when she gets here too."
"You're damn lucky she didn't just shoot you in the leg to get you on that plane."
"Yeah. Going to be interesting to see which of them is going to kill me first for pulling that stunt..." There was a sigh on the other side of the world, and suddenly Jack sounded a hell of a lot less drunk than Clark suspected he actually was.
"I couldn't leave, John," Jack said softly. "I just... I couldn't do it. Maybe it was a cowardly thing to do. I don't know. I don't think I could have handled what our response would've had to be if that thing had hit its target. But like I told Robby, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
Clark nodded. He was probably the only person Jack could admit that weakness to right now and understand just where it was coming from. The sight of that one missile slowly arcing to the east, and what it could have done, was going to haunt his own dreams for a long time to come. He took a deep breath.
"God watches over fools and little children," he said, more to himself than to Jack.
Still, it was loud enough to be heard. "And I'm the biggest fool there is," Jack muttered back.
There was a whisper of self-pity in that response, and Clark was not about to put up with that. "No. You're not," he said firmly. There was no doubt, in Clark's mind, that had their positions been reversed, he would have done the same thing.
"All I did was watch. I could have done that on KNEECAP."
Clark shook his head. "I'm sure it didn't hurt morale any to have their Commander-in-Chief standing right there with them."
"Standing around doing nothing?"
"No, by standing there and showing them how much you trusted them to get the job done. That's what leaders do." He heard Jack breath out a laugh and smiled again.
"The job got done, Jack; that's all that matters in the end."
"And you, and your men, did good, John; no matter what you might be thinking right now." Clark gave the opposite wall a mildly annoyed look at how close to the mark Jack was. Still, it did help to hear the sentiment.
"Speaking of which," Jack continued, "I should let you get back to them. Drinks are on me and that's an order Mr. Clark."
"Thanks," Clark said, then couldn't help adding, "Good luck dealing with the press in the morning, Jack."
That got him an honest to God laugh out of his President. "Oh, you can just shut the fuck up, John."
"Yes, sir!" Clark carefully set the phone back in place and stood up, stretching out some of the stiffness that was setting in. The older he got the longer the recovery time was getting. Considering the emotional drain this mission had added to the physical toll, he was probably going to feel the fallout on this one well into next week.
Headed back out, Clark found Diggs still standing near the door. The man raised an eyebrow in question.
Clark smiled. "Drinks are on me, General."
He was not surprised when Ding checked up on him a few minutes later. A quick glance into the bathroom mirror showed Clark that Ding still looked a little shell-shocked, but was doing a good job covering it up. "You all right, John?" he asked as he crossed his arms and leaned against the edge of a stall.
"I'm fine." Clark knew Ding would have no trouble seeing through that lie, but his son-in-law was smart enough not to call him out on it. Instead, Ding pointed over his shoulder with his thumb and said, "That bar tab's gonna get a little high—you need any help with it?"
Clark shook his head and splashed cold water on his face then wiped it off with some paper towels. "Actually Jack's the one who's paying it. I just didn't think it was a good idea to announce to the world the President of the United States was giving us leave to get stinking drunk."
"So, that's who you were talking to?"
"Yep." Clark braced his hands on the edge of the sink and looked over his shoulder at Ding. "He rode out the attack on the ship that shot the missile down."
"You're shitting me. How the hell did he manage to get away from the Secret Service long enough for something that insane?"
"I have no idea. He's currently at the White House getting drunk with the ship's crew." Clark threw the paper into the trash and head for the door. "And from the sound of it, we've got a bit of catching up to do. I'm not about to let a Marine beat me in a drinking contest."
Ding grinned. "Copy that, Mr. C!"