Mountain Falls, Early June
Jason dragged out his computer and hooked it up. He searched through his files of music and videos. He looked at his e-mail stopped that fateful day over a month before. What had seemed important then didn't seem important now. It was all pretty trivial and banal--a lot of wasting time. Still, he missed his friends, Jim, Hector, and Sean and wondered what had become of them. Jim’s parents both worked in a Reston medical clinic founded by his father, so they were probably okay and saving lives. Hector had a stay-at-home mom, but his dad worked in DC at the Library of Congress, so he probably lost his father. Sean’s parents were divorced. His father worked for the CIA and his mother was a fundraiser for the Foremost Foundation. They traveled a lot and could have been anywhere. Looking over his friends, it seemed like over half of their parents worked in DC. With the evacuation order, they had all probably scattered, like him, to the assistance of relatives or out to many other places.
Jason had a Hotmail.com e-mail address, but rarely used it. He would have to go to that now. He had been using a high-speed connection for families of State Department employees at home. If it was up and running, and it probably was because of remote backup, it wouldn't be of much use to him now. Grandma Gail had refused even to accept a computer as a gift and relied on the telephone and snail mail to communicate with the family. Jason did not want to bother at this time with hooking up an Internet connection. Asking at the barbershop, he found that the local library, a one-room affair, had an Internet connection. So he went over there to check it out. Miss Smothers, the part-time librarian, was most helpful and told him that he could use, "The dang thing all he wanted."
The machine was a much-used Dell that has seen better days. After he cleared up a few glitches caused by spy ware and old programs downloaded by who knows whom, he managed to get that thing working fairly well by downloading the latest version of Internet Explorer. It had Longhorn, but that was out of date too, so he linked to the Microsoft site again and got that updated to Service Pack 1, too. When he finally got to his Hotmail account he discovered about 300 unread messages. Sifting through the spam, he found three messages of significance. One from Jim and two from Judy Estes. The first, a week after the bomb, read:
"I'm here at my grandparents place in Tampa. Mom and Dad are doing double shifts in a triage unit set up near Dulles taking care of the wounded. It took me three days to drive down here in the Beamer with Janie and Suze. Hard to get gas sometimes, a lot of crazy drivers, checkpoints, and worry about getting robbed. The weather is great except that last year they had a lot of hurricane damage from Harriet. The grandparents are not looking forward to this year's hurricane season because they are getting too old to evacuate again and then repair after their place is damaged (three times in the last 10 years).
"So, how are you doing, Bud. I miss you and the fun we had in school. I know you lost your parents and that's a terrible blow; but please, please, get in touch with me if you can. I have located Heck. He's up in Philadelphia with his grandfather. He lost his dad, too; but his mom is with him. We were wondering what's happening to our homes, but we can't go back there until they give us the all clear. We don't expect that will happen for months, because even though the rain-washed all the radiation out of the air, the radioactive dust mingled with the soil and has made the whole area a radiation risk until enough rain has fallen to completely wash it out of the soil. Of course some areas are much worse than others and some people to the west of Reston have already returned to their homes. I like it down here, but we are burden to Grandma and Grandpa and I do miss being home.
"If you get this, please fire me one back to let me know you're okay. Okay!
The next one was more poignant:
"Hi Jason, It's Me,
"I'm recuperating in the hospital here in Hagerstown from burns and that cut I got in the blast. Oh, Jason, I owe my life to you. After we got to the Inova emergency trauma center, it was full, so Coach Stevens decided to drive us on to Fair Oaks Hospital where he thought we could get in. We had no luck there either. The nearby streets were backed up for blocks with cars and ambulances trying to get there. People told us it was mobbed. We drove northwest on the Leesburg Pike, fought traffic for hours and nearly ran out of gas. Everyone was in so much pain and agony when we finally arrived at a Red Cross field hospital near Leesburg about 8 pm. It was terrible. Fortunately, everyone lived. My burns are severe and will take several months to fully heal. Oh, Jason. If you hadn't stopped my arterial bleeding, I would've died right there. At the Inova trauma center they got me some blood or I wouldn't have survived reaching the field hospital.
"Both mom and dad died in the blast, so my sister and I are orphans. She searched frantically for me for three days before she found me in this hospital in Frederick. Jason, if you're out there, I love you so much. I just wanted you to know that.
"With All My Love,
Three days later it was followed by:
"Jason, It's Me Again,
"I just found the most wonderful guy. Mike is a senior from George Mason High School in Falls Church. He has burns similar to mine and we are in therapy every day at the same time. Jason, I think I'm in love. Mike says that when we are well, he’s going to take me to California with him where his cousins are and start a new life. Isn't that wonderful? Oh Jason, you were the love of my life up until now. But being with Mike is something I always dreamed of. I hope you'll understand.
"All My Love,
"Wounded, But Much Better"
Jason wondered how she got his Hotmail.com e-mail address. He hardly knew her before he helped her that day in the lab. There wasn't any mail Erica, Lourdes, Tom, or Deke. He knew that they had his e-mail address. He thought about writing to all of them and some cousins in Texas from his mother’s side, but then thought again. All he could tell his Aunt Irene was that her baby sister was dead. Based on what he had learned from his Uncle Jim he didn't think it would be a good idea to try to reestablish contact with his best friends and family only to have to cut them off again.
Somehow, in all the commotion and the move, he had lost Shauna's address and phone number. As much as he wanted to talk to her again, his new life wouldn't allow it anyway. Best to let it go. On the mountain, eating his lunch in the warm sun, he often thought of her. He longed for the warmth of her touch and her kiss. It was fading already and he wanted more. But he knew it wasn't to be, at least for now. He planned to keep his Hotmail account current, in case he would need it in the future by sending e-mails to himself. It was all for the best, he convinced himself. He had never been a loner, always comfortable with himself and other people, but he was becoming one now.
As expected, a letter with the Great Seal of the United States from the State Department arrived in the mail. Grandma Gail didn't open the letter but held it until Jason came down from the mountain that evening. She served him some venison steak she had thawed out, and waited until he finished his pie before telling him about the letter. "I got a letter from the government today, but thought I'd wait to open it until you were here. Let's open it now and see what it says."
She took the letter from the counter and with a quick stroke of her letter opener, carefully removed the letter from the envelope. She handed it to Jason. "Here, Jason, you read it. I don't want to have to go get my eyeglasses."
Jason opened the sharply creased letter on heavy paper and began to read:
"Dear Mrs. Forsythe:
"Greetings from the President of the United States of America. Your grandson, Jason J. Forsythe, because of his outstanding record in school and personal life, has been chosen to take part in an elite program unlike any that has been offered by the government before. All we can tell you in this letter is that if he takes parting the program he will receive an all expense paid college education and be required to serve his country. If you are interested in having Jason serve the country in a unique way, please call 800 332-4444 for an appointment.
Maurice J. Johnson
Interim Secretary of State"
Jason looked his grandmother directly. She was looking directly back at him and shaking her head, " Yes".
Grandma Gail said, "We'll give them a call in the morning."
Two weeks later, 8 a.m.
A nondescript black government car just like the one his father always drove pulled up in the driveway. Jason and his grandmother were waiting. Normally he would be halfway up the mountain by now, but today, he had an appointment. A man and a woman both dressed in dark suits with a badge that carried the Great Seal the United States of America came up the steps to the porch to greet them. "Hello, my name is Sandra Sparks, Deputy Adjunct to the Department of State. This is my Assistant Mr. Elmo Roberts." Mr. Roberts nodded politely.
Gail Forsythe shook their hands first and motioned them toward the table and chairs on the porch. "Please have a seat, it's nice out here this time of day. I'll get some lemonade, I'm sure you're thirsty after you drive up here."
“Yes, that would be nice. We will be talking for some time.” Ms. Sparks didn’t say that she had just finished her thermos of coffee and would need a restroom, soon.
Jason shook their hands too and ushered them over to the table and chairs. Before they had settled in, Grandma Gail had a pitcher of lemonade and was pouring them each a glass. Ms. Sparks spoke first. "As you know, Jason, we are here on a very important mission. What I say here is highly confidential and subject to criminal penalty if ever divulged. Are you willing, Jason, to swear that you will not divulge what we'll say here to anyone?"
Jason shook his head, "Yes." And then said, "Yes Ma'am."
"Okay then. Elmo, will you administer the Oath?"
Elmo produced a worn, leather-bound Bible and placed it on the table in front of Jason and Grandma Forsythe. "Please place your right hand on the Bible--both of you... Now... repeat after me... I, state your name, do solemnly swear… that I will not divulge what is said here under penalty of criminal law."
Jason and his grandmother repeated the oath in unison to the satisfaction of Ms. Sparks.
"The President has established a unique corps of freedom fighters to help us overcome the tragedy that has occurred and prevent it or anything like it from occurring in the future. Mrs. Forsythe, no one, for as long as you live, shall ever learn of this corps from you. If you do reveal that it exists, you place your grandson and the sons and daughters of some of the best and brightest in the United States in severe danger. Do you understand the gravity of what I'm saying?"
Jason could see that his grandmother was getting a bit ruffled. Gail Forsythe narrowed her eyes at this intruder and said, "I have just lost my first son to this tragedy, and my second son only survived because he was in charge of the bunker under the Pentagon. We Forsythe women have stood by our men through wars going back to the Revolutionary War. We have kept secrets and stood by. How dare you question my integrity on a matter like this?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Forsythe, but it is our job and our honor to make sure that you understand fully what will be happening to Jason and others like him. I believe you when you say Forsythe women have had secrets to keep. But today, it is different. With the Internet and all the data gathering tools that are available to everyone, it is imperative that the secrecy of our corps remains intact. One leak could jeopardize the lives of thousands of young people and bring the whole program down. As I understand your situation, you are the only remaining relative for Jason. You are 82 years old. The time in service we are requesting of Jason is 20 years. If you survive, you'll be 102 when his term of service is over. In all that time, you will not be able to contact him in any way. Are you prepared to make that sacrifice? I'm asking both you and Jason, right now, to seriously consider the consequences of Jason entering the corps. In past wars, the military avoided enlisting the last son of a family. Jason does not meet all of the criteria to become part of the corps. However, upon the recommendation of his uncle, and the President of the United States, he has been selected to participate.
"Now that I've told you what I think is the full gravity of Jason's participation, do you both agree to our continuing discussion?"
Grandma Gail spoke first. "I apologize for my outburst. We Forsythes are very strong willed. Now that you've laid out the timeframe for Jason's service, I fully understand that I won't see him again. It will hurt me deeply not to be able to talk to him, but I want so much for him to participate in this historic endeavor like his forefathers have always done for our country. But it's up to Jason. He's young, but wise for his years. I'm sure he will make the right decision."
"Oh Grandma, you don't need to be dramatic. I've been doing a lot of thinking, and, except for service like my father to the government; I had few plans for my future. What greater good could I do except to serve this way? Grandma, forgive me, but I'm looking forward to joining this corps."
"Okay then. Mrs. Forsythe, you are willing to let your grandson go and expect never to see or hear from him again?"
"Yes." Jason could see a sad look come over his grandmother's face.
"I would like to outline for you what Jason's service will entail. If at any time, you find that it will be impossible for him to serve, just let me know and I will stop. First, about a month from now, Jason will be given basic military training. If Jason fails his basic military training or opts out, he will be given an honorable discharge and be forbidden, in writing, from divulging anything that he has learned up to the point of mustering out. After basic training, Jason will receive the finest college education, the equivalent of Harvard and West Point combined with some of the best professors the government can find. If Jason fails to measure up during his academy training and education he will be given a certificate from a college of his choice that is equivalent to the education that he has earned. Once again, he will be required, in writing, to deny that the program ever existed. Finally, Jason will be given Special Forces training to enable him to withstand and survive circumstances that may come up during his service. Once again, Jason may fail this task, and once again he may have to deny, in writing, that he ever participated.
"Your length of service will be 20 years, commencing upon entering basic training, and ending on the anniversary date 20 years later. During that entire time, Jason, you will be anonymous. We will give you another name and background. The Jason Forsythe as you are now known will be suspended until you return. At that time, you can resume your identity as a Forsythe. The United States government will maintain all documents so that that can happen.
"After you leave your special forces training you'll be on your own. The federal government will provide you with no support, financial or otherwise, in your endeavor. You must act alone without any ties that can be traced to our enemies. Your training and education will be your guide. You will learn a lot more about this during your academy study. Do you have any questions?"
"Where will I serve, and who? Will I be able to contact my friends--what if I run into them?" Jason had a lot on his mind. “Oh ya, what about my aunt and two cousins in Texas?”
"Good questions, Jason. Because of your ethnicity, you will probably serve in the United States, but there's no guarantee. You could serve anywhere in the world. You will have to cut off all ties to friends and family, even those you need in the academy and during your training. You will learn techniques for denying who you are. It may sound cruel, but it is essential for the survival of your mission. Who are these relatives?"
"That is harsh, but understandable. My mother has an older sister who lives in Kingwood, Texas. She has two daughters, my cousins, who are in college. Grandma, do you have any questions about this?"
"No, Jason. I'm stunned. Even during the worst wars, our family communicated. This will be very hard on all of us."
"Grandma, if you are talking about family, it will only be you, Uncle Jim, and Aunt Shirley. The Colonel is likely to be away most of the time and since her divorce, Shirley never even called Mom, so the only one to miss my friends and family will be me. I've been thinking about my friends. We were friends by circumstance because we lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same school, or played soccer together. This disaster has ripped those friends from me, but I don't miss them. I like being alone. Dr. Jones, my eighth grade Sunday school teacher told us that a friend is someone that will stick with you throughout your life. All the friends I had back in Reston were merely acquaintances. Sure, I'll miss their constant interruptions and activity. It was all pretty superficial compared to this. It made me a bit lonely in high school. So I don't mind being alone now. I love the time I spend alone on the mountain, thinking. I make friends easily. I'll be okay without my old ones."
"Now I know why your uncle spoke so highly of you. You seem to have the qualities we need in the service. Your grandmother has it too, a fierce independence born from hardship and suffering, but the kind of fortitude that heroes are made of. Jason, do you want to be a hero for your country?"
"I do. But right now all I want to do is learn and be the best I can be so that someday, perhaps, I will be able to do something heroic."
"Okay then, it's settled. There are a lot of papers to sign. We will give you one week to read all the papers, carefully sign them, and return them to us, registered, in the envelope we have provided. If all goes well, you'll receive your orders to go to basic training within a couple of weeks of our receiving the signed papers. Any other questions?"
Grandma Gail, a bit perturbed, spoke up. "You haven't said anything about whether or not Jason will be paid? Just seeing what it’s done to my Jim leads me believe that the military asks everything from its soldiers but gives very little in return. Jason won't be getting anything from you during his service, what about after?"
"Oh, Mrs. Forsythe, I'm sorry, I missed some very important parts of Jason’s service in the corps. Please forgive me; this is only the second time I've done this. I should be following the checklist instead of just speaking to you like I have been. If, at any time, Jason becomes injured or unable in any way to continue his service, all he has to do is call a special number with a special code word and he will be rescued and receive the finest medical care we can provide. If it is a minor injury like a broken bone, he will be on his own because contacting us would break his cover. If... say, in the worst-case... he becomes mentally ill, brainwashed, or otherwise mentally unstable because of his service and we find out, we will certainly provide him with the best care I've already talked about. However, in almost every case he will have to call us first.
"For compensation, the framers of the corps were adamant that the participants would benefit from their dangerous service. Therefore, for each participant we have set aside an account, backed by the Federal Reserve, paying monthly sums to these accounts equivalent to middle management in business and industry, say, at the vice presidential level. These accounts will be invested wisely so that each participant should expect to be a multimillionaire upon mustering out and never have to work another day again. However, participants may wish to continue to serve in the Armed Forces in other capacities and that will be welcome. In the unlikely event that a pension will be needed, full VA benefits will be provided."
Gail Forsythe smiled. "I'm going to read the fine print on that one. For once, it looks like the sacrifice we make in military service will be adequately compensated."
"Yes. The planners realized that we were going to be using the finest young men and women in the country. It is only reasonable, because if they did not enter the service they would go on to become corporate leaders or owners of their own businesses. In order to attract such quality to our cause, we must compensate well."
"Wow! A multimillionaire! I never thought of that at all?"
"That's why we chose you. It's not about money, but about the willingness to serve."
Ms. Sparks handed all the paperwork to Gail Forsythe while Jason watched. They all shook hands again. Jason and his grandmother still stood on the porch as Susan Sparks and Elmo Roberts got into their car, waved and drove off. They looked at one another. Jason shook his head from side to side showing his disbelief. Gail Forsythe smiled. It was nearly noon. "Come on," she said. "Let's go to the kitchen and I'll fix you a sandwich.