I guess it was unusual to send someone new to the job for such an important task. But those were crazy days. The Secret Service was spread thin; 120 men and women responsible for the President, Vice President, members of the Cabinet and their families. Congress had their own worries and their own branch to take care of them, but Father and Mother and all the rest of the Family were our responsibility.
We’d been rehearsing scenarios for such an occasion ever since I had gotten out of the Academy. But just as some wise general said, strategy never survives contact with the enemy. That’s why he’s called the enemy.
I was three months out of training and scheduled to be backup to those responsible for the Secretary of State, code named Aunt Margaret. And then I got the message that I was to travel to Baltimore by surface transportation, identify and isolate Father’s daughter, code named Pilgrim. A helo would meet us there and transport us to Camp David and from there to Camp Zion in the west.
I knew how short handed we were. I knew how little time there was. And so I didn’t argue with the orders, but jumped in my own car and drove the 60 miles from D.C. to Baltimore. I must have broken every speed limit between here and there, but the cops were already on board and had their own checklist of responsibilities. So I didn’t see one black and white for the 38 minutes it took to get to St. Eloise Academy for Girls.
From our records, I knew that Pilgrim was supposed to be in American History class with a teacher name Wiseman. I didn’t worry about stopping at the office to clear things. Instead, when campus security met me to ask questions, I flashed my Secret Service badge and my gun and they backed off. I ran down the hall toward the classroom, my standard issue wingtips making way too much noise in those hallowed halls.
I stopped outside the classroom and looked through the glass into the class inside. I had a photo of Pilgrim, and saw her sitting in the second row. I don’t know what I was expecting. She was 15, and maybe I had flashes of that old Britney Spears video with her in the Catholic school uniform.
But Pilgrim didn’t look anything like that. She had blonde hair, all right, but it was cut short. She was small and slight, and at 15 she was just beginning to show a transformation from childhood to womanhood. She wore the typical uniform for that school: blue sweater, plaid skirt, white blouse. She looked innocent and trusting. I wondered how long that innocence would last, knowing what was coming.
I opened the door silently and slipped inside. Dr. Wiseman was lecturing on a subject I knew something about: the expedition of Lewis and Clark. He paused when he saw me come in, looking my way with a slight annoyance plastered on his face.
I cleared my throat and gestured toward Pilgrim. She looked at the teacher, then at me and rolled her eyes. Letting out a sigh, she gathered her books and stood up from her desk and walked forward. I held the door open for her, nodded to Wiseman, who started back into his lecture and I closed the door.
“I’m here to take you to Camp David,” I told her. “The password is Switchblade.”
She stared at me blankly. “What? What are you talking about?”
I hesitated. Was I getting the password wrong?
“The password is Switchblade. I’m with Secret Service.”
She rolled her eyes again and waved her hand. “Oh, that. I never remember that stuff.” She looked off down the hallway as if she were bored already.
“A helicopter will be here in a few minutes. We are here to take you to safety.”
“Safety?” she echoed, as if she were trying to understand the word, then shook her head. “No. I have midterms next week. I have a date with Damien this weekend. I can’t go anywhere.”
“Miss, I am not here to ask you. I am here to tell you. You and I are leaving here, whether you are ready or not.”
A hard line formed around her mouth. “No, we are not leaving here. If you don’t believe me, let me scream rape here in the hall and see how quickly you have a major problem on your hands.”
I stood and stared at the girl. Her boyfriend Damien had been given the code name of Obstinate—a joke by her father—but I wondered if she should have received the name instead.
“Miss—Infinity, isn’t that your name? My name is Edward. I have had this job a total of three months. I had to beat out 3,000 other applicants to get this job. I went through two years of training to prepare me for the Secret Service. I have run the Boston Marathon twice, I have black belts in karate and aikido. I know of 35 ways to subdue you right here without making a sound. And I definitely don’t want to be known as the Secret Service agent who left a family member behind in a crisis because she had a date. Now, please come with me.” I tried to be firm yet polite, but I wasn’t sure how polite that really sounded.
Pilgrim blinked, apparently unused to people telling her no. Finally, she nodded.
We started down the hallway toward the main entrance, moving but not as fast as I would have liked. I pulled out my Blackberry and dialed the helicopter, letting them know that we were coming outside.
Just as we got to the hallway where I had first met the security agent, bells went off above us, and the classrooms started emptying out. I took Pilgrim’s arm and made sure she didn’t deviate from our plan to get her out the door and to the front lawn.
We walked down the front steps of St. Eloise’s, accompanied by a hundred other girls who were dressed just like her. The only different was that Pilgrim was the only girl there being held onto by a man in a suit with a Glock 9mm automatic pistol strapped to his hip.
By the time we got to the large lawn outside, I could hear the helicopter on approach. Several of Pilgrim’s classmates came out to see what we were doing, then they turned and watched with us as the large blue Sikorsky helicopter descended toward us.
The girls watched the helicopter, but I was distracted when I saw something else streaking across the sky, something that I knew signaled that we were too late.
I watched a contrail draw a white line across the blue April sky, faster than any jet anyone had ever seen. Instinct and training told me to turn away a second later as a white light appeared in the sky, behind the helicopter. There was a crack like a rifle being shot. A second later, I knew we were in trouble.
“EMP,” I breathed.
The girls watched the helicopter with United States of America painted on the side as the engine suddenly went quiet and the blades stopped turning. It stood suspended in the air a hundred feet off the ground, as if someone had painted it dark blue against the light blue background. And somehow I knew that instant was the beginning of a world that none of us would ever imagine.
The helicopter blades turned slowly, just as the huge machine began to fall to earth. It was above us and about 100 yards distant. But it had been approaching us, and the momentum it had continued to carry it toward us. Other girls turned and watched as the massive hunk of metal began falling right toward us. There was silence at first, as many couldn’t believe what they were seeing. I knew what was happening, and still had a hard time believing. But then the screams came. One, then several, then all of them. It took me a moment to realize that I was screaming too.
I grabbed Pilgrim and shoved her back toward the safety of the school steps. Others saw what we were doing and did the same. I ran as fast as I could, herding as many of the girls before me. I didn’t look back, but I knew what was coming.
Ten seconds later, the helicopter hit the ground with a massive explosion. It threw dirt, metal parts and jet fuel through the air. It sounded like a war had started. And I knew that basically it had.
“A lot has happened since that morning,” I said to the two emaciated girls sitting on the log, listening to my story. “My job was to get you on that helicopter. I failed in my job, but in doing so, I guess I saved your life.”
Infinity and Ellie stared at me for a long time, Infinity’s mouth turning into a hard line as if she were trying to decide something. Finally Ellie spoke.
“I remember bits and pieces,” she said. “I remember the helicopter. I remember confusion. I remember Dr. Wiseman trying to get us organized. But that’s about it.”
“How long has it been since that day?” Infinity asked.
“Two–,” she repeated. “Have we been in that camp all of that time?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. The EMP fried all communication and transportation. It would have taken you months to get this far on foot.”
“Where are we?” Ellie asked.
I looked around us at the piney woods and gestured vaguely with a stick.
“Eastern Tennessee,” I said. “Great Smokies are back that way,” I said , gesturing behind us. “Nashville is about 150 miles that way. What’s left of it, that is.”
“You said ‘it would have taken us months,’” Infinity said. “Where were you?”
“I got hit by a piece of debris from the falling school building,” I said. “Broke my shoulder. We got separated.”
I looked at the girls closely. “Taking care of you, getting you to safety, were the last orders I received. I take my orders seriously. I intend to carry them out.”
“But where is safety?” Infinity asked. “What’s happened to Washington? Baltimore?”
“Both gone,” I said. “As is most of the Eastern Seaboard. Camp David is gone. That’s about all I know. As I said, communication and transportation are gone as well.”
“So where is safety?”
“West,” I said. “Camp Zion was built for just a situation like this. Your father is there, leading out with the reorganization. He’s waiting for you to join him.”
I looked at Ellie. “You too. You are welcome to join us at Camp Zion.”
The three of us looked at each other silently before I spoke again.
“But first things first. You two need another day of food and rest. Then we will head west.”
“I have something I need you to do,” Infinity said to me quietly.
“What is that?”
“I need you to get my two friends out of that camp.”
I shook my head. “My first priority is you. They had their chance to join you.”
Tears came to Infinity’s eyes. “They don’t know what it is. They need help.”
I shook my head again. “No.”
That hard line came into her face again. “If you don’t, I will just go back in myself,” she said. “I will get them out.”
And having dealt with her stubbornness before, I knew that she might just do that. I hesitated.
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow. In the meantime, rest and food.”
I stirred the fire and poured them some more broth.