Worth My Life
By Hope Schmidt
Everyone wears necklaces, heavy gaudy things that can’t be missed. Soldiers and babies are the only exception. They wear tight wristlets that lock onto the wrist like a manacle…the soldiers so they can operate better and the babies so they don’t lose their identification.
Because that what the wristlets and necklaces are…identification: Name, date of birth, government number, occupation, class in life. The babies don’t have the last two. From age five to eighteen we go through rigorous studies, tests, and mental and physical exercises. When we graduate we are given our official necklace and informed of our occupation and position in the social pyramid we like to call home.
I am a soldier. The manacle on my right wrist is engraved with bold letters: Private Nathan Allen Truth, first class; number 391077; DOB, February 15, 2573.
I shiver slightly. My dark fatigues only keep out a portion of the cool fall breeze. Around me other soldiers shift slightly as we stand at attention, awaiting the pleasure of Major Bryst. We’ve been standing for at least half an hour, since dusk. Already the waning moon is peeping over the horizon.
I glance up at the clear sky and sharp points of stars, idly noting that it will be a cold night. My thoughts drift elsewhere, to a night eight months ago. It was right after graduation. Earlier in the day I’d been given my official identity necklace…the one that marked me as a soldier.
My mother and I were walking through one of our city’s sprawling parks. We didn’t speak until we were in the middle of a wide swath of clipped turf and could see a good distance in all directions.
We were speaking there because our house, probably even our car, was bugged with hidden microphones. Everyone’s house was these days. Any stray word criticizing King Darren Wizer, absolute monarch of the Americas, would be met with stern reprisals.
“Are you still going to do it?” Mother kept her voice at a whisper.
I nodded silently, watching emotion quiver behind her calm expression. We were outlaws, criminals, Mother and I. Or at least we would be if the government ever found out we were Christians. We would be imprisoned and no word would ever reach the outside world about what happened to us. It had happened to many others. It had happened to Father.
“You know what the others will say, don’t you?” Despite herself, worry showed through my mother’s eyes. “And if things go wrong, no one will ever know.”
I had to smile. “The other Christians can think I am fighting for Darren if they want to. I’ll have bigger things to worry about. But don’t worry,” I took Mother’s hands. “I’ll find him.”
Being chosen as a soldier was something I had always feared until Father was captured. And then it was my only hope. As a soldier it would be easier to gain access to the prisons and the regime’s main center of information in the Capital.
“I’ll be praying for you.” Mother smiled bravely up at me.
The next day I was on a train, traveling to the Capital. Seared into my mind was the location of the ruins of a tavern where every night three friends who had gone underground (meaning they simply vanished from the government’s eyes and went to live in one of the vast network of homey caves and tunnels crisscrossing the country) would be waiting.
Eight months later I am standing in the cold, wondering if the Major has actually forgotten that he ordered us out for roll call.
So far I haven’t discovered anything directly related to my father. But I have found out that all the regime’s information is connected into one big network. All I need is a chance at one of the computers…something we common soldiers are never allowed near.
I’ve already swiped Major Bryst’s password and I am confident I can hack into higher levels of security if I have to. Internet is not allowed for ‘common people’ like my family, but a friend taught me many tricks on a hidden computer he owned. How he got the computer and what he used it for himself, I never asked.
The door of the concrete building to my left opened and a block of warm light spilled onto the steps. I pulled myself upright and shouldered my rifle but couldn’t resist stealing a glance at the Major walking toward us.
He looked pleased. I felt a surge of excitement flow through me. There was only one thing that pleased Bryst.
An impending fight.
I had been in intensive training for six months and then spent two months on duty at this mid-sized outpost about ten miles outside of the Capital. I have yet to enter a fight and risk my life for King Darren and his goals.
Truth be told, I don’t intend to ever fight for him. His aspirations are not worth dying for. My father, however, is worth the risk.
Major Bryst is speaking and I snap back to reality.
“A band of rebels has been discovered about thirty miles due west from here.” The Major doesn’t mince words. “Their strength is only about two dozen men but they are in a wild stretch of mountains so I’m taking the whole Battalion, with the exception of five soldiers to man the outpost.” The Major pauses. “We attack at dawn.”
I force myself to keep a straight face. I happen to know the ‘rebels’ are Christians simply trying to hide from the regime. I also happen to know that there are more than two dozen men… all well-armed.
Then Major calls for volunteers to stay behind on guard duty. I step forward quickly. The Major scowls at me.
Volunteering to stay out of a fight is considered cowardly. For me, having never been in a fight, this action could stain my record for the rest of my life. Not as though I’ll care about my reputation or cover after tonight. The time has finally come for me to do what I joined the army to do. I’ll have one chance, and one chance only.
“Truth, Nathen!” The Major steps forward and grasps my wrist to read my name. “Fall out!”
I obey and Bryst chooses four more men make up the rest of the guard. He glares at me one more time before dismissing us and ordering the rest of the men to line up and receive their quota of ammunition before heading to their places in the troop trucks.
I head inside the main building of the outpost and turn the coffee pot on.
The night is going to be all too short for what I need to do.
Before long I hear the troop transports roar off down the road. The rest of the guard is in the next room, relaxing for a few minutes and rolling a die to see who will get the first watch.
I pour four cups of coffee, and slip a flavorless addition of my own into the mixture before carrying the mugs to the next room.
“A hot drink before a cold evening?” I inquire.
The men accept the cups gratefully and I head back into the other room and fill a mug for myself. Slowly I sip the bitter darkness then check my watch.
Five minutes have passed.
I glance into the next room. The four soldiers are lying across the table or slumped to the floor, fast asleep. They’ll stay that way for twelve hours if my calculations are correct. This outpost will just have to manage without guards for one night.
I feel excitement surge through me as I hurry though one corridor and turn into another. The third door to the left is Major Bryst’s workstation…and it also holds his computer imbedded in his desk.
I settle down in the Major’s chair and hesitate for the fraction of a second, my fingers poised over the electronic keyboard. After all my working and praying and waiting I can finally find out if my father is alive or not.
I type in the Major’s password and breathe a sigh of relief as mid-level access is granted me. If he had changed his password I could have hacked through but that would have taken precious time.
As much as I long to search for my father, I first dash off a quick message to the ‘rebels’, telling them of the approaching battalion. Another message goes to my friends, waiting nearby. It only contains one word.
At least that is what I hope.
Then I look up the prisoner list. My body is rigid as I scroll down the list of names. I find I am gnawing on the knuckles of my left hand.
Travis….Trenton….Truth, David L.
Relief surges through me. So he is alive then. My hand trembles as I tap my father’s name. His picture comes up in one corner, pale and haggard, but with the defiance I know so well still in his eyes. I quickly scan his file:
Arrest date: November 8, 2591
Criminal status: Felon, dangerous. Arrested for rebellion and subverting the government.
I have to laugh. Father is dangerous, for doing what…preaching? Helping organize the Christian Underground?
There is more information but I skim through, searching for the prison he is being kept at.
Location of Detention: Classified.
Of course, it would be classified. I put the skills my friend taught me to good use. I haven’t practiced for months but soon I relax, a smile spreading across my face as I work. Within five minutes I’ve hacked my way up to the next level of clearance. A little more searching and I find the information I want.
Father is incarcerated in Blackstone Prison, cell 28. I lean back in the Major’s chair, considering. Blackstone is on the outskirts of the Capital, fifteen miles from here and the same distance from the tavern where I know my friends are preparing.
As a high security prison, Blackstone might be hard to break into. I begin searching through files on the prison’s structure and defenses. Two connected fences of barbed wire, another one of concrete, ten feet tall. Lights blazing down all night onto the ten acre field surrounding the electric fence which in turn surrounds the prison itself.
I hunch forward, my hand resting on my chin as I think. There are only three possible ways of entrance. Above, below, or from the side. Above is out. We don’t have a helicopter and even if we did, a helicopter isn’t exactly secret. Below is out too. We don’t have any tunnels to that prison and it would talk to long to dig one. We have to act tonight.
That just leaves the sides.
There is only one gate into Blackstone. Either we enter that gate or we go over the walls…or under the walls. Simply driving through the gate would be the easiest. An escape in plain sight. I grin as a plan starts to form.
I tap a quick message into the computer and then glance around the room. The Major has a dress uniform in a narrow closet and I pull it on. It hangs a little loosely about the shoulders and the trouser legs are a little short but nothing that should attract too much attention. I grin at myself in the mirror.
Major Nathen Allen Truth. I like the sound of it, but I doubt the army will let me keep the rank if I stay here much longer.
I scrounge through the Major’s desk, finding an army pass as well as an identification card…without Bryst’s picture. I pocket these along with the Major’s car keys and head back into the room where my fellow soldiers are still fast asleep.
Muttering quiet apologies I roll them on the floor and strip off the outer layer of their uniforms. It takes me a good twenty minutes before I get all four of them off and folded up in a nice stack. I only have three friends but the Underground will have some use for the extra one.
I hold the uniforms under one arm and hurry outside. The cool air feels good now. I head to the side of the outpost, where the Major’s car is parked. A sleek black car, one I’ve been itching to drive ever since I’d arrived.
Without hesitation I unlock the door, toss the uniforms on the seat next to me, and start the engine. The car drives even better than it looks and I turn out of the outpost and soon I am speeding along the road. A few miles and I turn down an abandoned gravel road that strikes deep into the forest.
The going is rougher here, but within fifteen minutes I ease the car to a stop, retrieve the uniforms, and step out of the car.
I know I am in the right spot, but the darkness is so dense I can see nothing. I glance in all directions, trying to get my bearings. Finally I give a soft call.
“Nathen? That you?” A whisper comes from the trees to my left.
“Kenton?” I whisper back in relief. “Where are you?”
The light of a dim flashlight appears, wavering between the trees. I squint, trying to look beyond the light, but my friend is just a dim shadow.
“Nice ride.” He runs his light over the car.
I grin. “Very nice. Where are the others?”
“Waiting.” Kenton turns and together we shove through the underbrush until we break into a small clearing. The weak light of the flashlight barely reveals a sagging tavern…a building from older and better times.
The door creaks as Kenton pushes it open. I step through the door and brush aside a thick black blanket, then burst out laughing. Kenton latches the door behind me.
“Do you like it?” He asks.
Sturdy beams prop up the entire structure…It is almost as though a second tavern has been built under the rotting shell of the building I saw from the outside. Warm light fills the room and thick blankets hang in front of the windows and door to keep any light from betraying our presence.
“Titus! Carl!” I greet them and shake their hands as my grin grows wider. I haven’t seen either of them since I left home.
“I got your message.” Titus sits back down at the table and opens a laptop. “So what’s the plan and what is the story with your outfit? You can’t fool me into thinking you are a Major.”
I chuckle and lay out the uniforms on the table. “Figure out which one fits who and leave the extra here, but do it quickly.” I say.
As my friends change, I tell them my plan. They love it.
Soon we are back in the car. Titus is driving and I am sitting next to him. In the back, Carl and Kenton settle back comfortably, chatting and laughing.
But as soon as we are on the road, a tense silence reigns. I think we are all realizing the full weight of what we are about to do…and the consequences if we fail. But I am not deterred in the least. If anything, I am more determined than ever to do what it takes to rescue my father…even if it means giving my own life or freedom.
Soon we turn onto the main highway and, before long, the lights from scattered buildings start to break apart the darkness.
My heart begins to beat faster as a brilliant glow outlines several hills in the distance. I realize I am twisting my fingers of my right hand with my left hand. I stop immediately. I am supposed to be a cool, confident Major, not a fidgety impostor.
The night’s darkness is shattered completely now. Titus turns onto a side road and the headlights of the car pass over the sign.
I glance over my shoulder. “Everyone alright back there?”
“Can we be anything else?” Carl grins back at me.
“Not now.” I turn back as the first pair of iron gates loom before us, stark in the harsh light.
A guard holds out his hand…while two more behind him ready their rifles. Obediently, Titus pulls to a stop.
Another guard, who I hadn’t noticed earlier, steps out of the shadows of the guard house. I roll my window down as he approaches and hand out my credentials…the Major’s credentials I should say. I can only hope the guard doesn’t look at my identification wristlet too closely. There hasn’t been time to forge a new one.
The guard hands the papers back but is still watching me suspiciously. “Why are you here? You aren’t on the list of visitors.”
“Order 736,” I make an effort to sound bored and slightly irritated. “It just came through. Go look it up if you want to, but be quick. I don’t have all night.”
“No, no!” The guard stands to attention and salutes quickly. “There is no need for that.”
It is dangerous to aggravate an officer, and the guard knows it. He steps to the side.
“Open the gate!” He hollers.
I lean back and roll up the window and Titus slowly eases the car forward and we drive past the barbed wire divides and concrete wall.
Outer defenses; passed.
As we drive down the road toward the inner fence Carl and Kenton begin to laugh.
“I thought this was supposed to be hard.” Carl finally catches his breath.
“Don’t worry.” I grin. “That was the easy part. Getting out might be harder.”
We stop at the inner gate and go through the same routine as at the first one. The guard has no reason to suspect us…after all, we have passed the first line of security. A minute later we are at the very jaws of Blackstone Prison. Considering the guards and security surrounding us, a better analogy might be that we are behind clenched teeth and in the throat of Blackstone.
I push the thought out of my mind as Titus pulls to a stop just outside the main entrance. He stays in the car as Carl and Kenton get out. In the brief moment before Kenton opens my door, I lean over.
“If anything happens, and Father is in this car, then get out.”
Our gaze meets. Titus’s eyes are deadly serious.
“Go without me if you must.” I press.
As Kenton opens my door, Titus nods slowly. I feel a sense of relief. I know I can trust Titus.
Taking a deep breath, I step out of the car. Kenton shuts the door and he and Carl fall into step behind me.
I can hardly believe that I am marching into Blackstone. It is insanely crazy. I whisper a quick prayer inwardly as the iron doors of the prison open automatically. Once I and my friends are through, they shut with a resounding clash.
The wide hallway is drab and gray. I’ve memorized them from the feed I hacked earlier and know right where I will have to go. Swiftly, my boots clicking at every step, I turn left at the first corridor opening onto the hall and then right at the next one. We pass several guards and soldiers, but I have long ago learned the value of moving quickly and decisively.
If you look like you know where you are going, then not many people will stop you…especially if you are a Major.
But there is no time to think, no time to be afraid. I am at my destination. I enter a wide room and knock precipitously on the bulletproof glass window set in the wall at the far end. A guard appears, looking sullen. He snaps to attention when he sees my uniform.
“May I help you?”
“I am here for a prisoner.” I tap my foot impatiently. “Order 736. Name of the prisoner is Truth, David L.”
“One moment, Sir.” The guard taps something into the desk computer. “Just need to confirm, Sir.”
“Quickly then.” I cross my arms and smile inwardly. Order 736 didn’t exist until I sent it a few hours ago. Hacking is very useful…I’ll have to learn more when we get out of this.
“Confirmed?” I demand after about thirty seconds. The guard has barely had time to pull up the order but I feel the need to keep him off his balance. Besides, impatience and condescension go well with my assumed rank.
“Confirmed, Sir.” The guard fumbles at his two way radio. “I need prisoner 87342 at the transfer desk ASAP.”
“He’ll be here within two minutes.” The guard turns to me.
“I suppose that will do.” I keep my stiff posture. I can’t believe this is going so well.
A minute later I hear footsteps. I can’t stop myself from turning slightly as two soldiers escort my father into the room. He is handcuffed and shackles are fastened to his legs as well. But he still holds his head high. For the briefest of moments our eyes meet. He shows no sign of recognition but under his thin uniform I can see his body stiffen slightly.
I nod to my friends and they take the place of the soldiers, grasping my father by each arm.
And then we are walking out of the prison. Walking out of Blackstone. I feel like I am in a dream, and now I am afraid. I am almost trembling.
There are so many things that could go wrong. Too many things. It can’t be this easy.
I am right.
As I watch Carl and Kenton push Father into the car, trying look rough and be gentle at the same time, a movement catches the corner of my eye.
A soldier is standing at the door of Blackstone. I don’t know where he came from or who he is, but he is speaking quietly into his radio and he won’t take his eyes off us.
Carl has got in the car and Kenton is opening my door for me. The man steps towards us. For one awful second time seems to freeze.
Then the man draws his gun and points it at me. Our time is up.
“Get in!” I yell to Kenton as I spring towards the man.
A shot rings out, then another. The next moment I am on the soldier and we are rolling on the ground in a tussle for the gun. For a brief second I am reminded of the brawls in movies.
I am dimly aware of the car’s doors slamming and the revving of its engine as Titus speeds towards the gates.
My one to one fight with the soldier doesn’t last very long. Pretty soon it is a ten to one fight and moments later I have been restrained and several guns are pointed at me. For a second I think they will shoot me then and there, but they don’t. Instead, they haul me into Blackstone.
My only comfort is the sight of the car with my friends and father exiting the outermost gate. And that is comfort enough. I wonder how Titus managed it.
My own condition is fairly serious. My wristlet soon sets matters right and with a few phone calls and e-mails, my whole record has been laid bare. They know I am a deserter. They know I am David Truth’s son. They know I am a Christian. And right now I couldn’t care less.
Of course the authorities want to know who I was working with and who I was working for, but I tell them nothing. Apparently they don’t want, or need, the information too badly because after only a few hours of intense interrogation they send me to a cell deep in the heart of Blackstone.
They tell me I will be executed at dawn.
I lay in my cell, staring into blankness. Now that the excitement is over I feel nothing but peace. This had been the plan all along, hadn’t it? To free my father, even if it meant my own death. And through God’s grace I and my friends had succeeded.
I pull my thin blanket around me and close my eyes. A minute later I am asleep.
The next thing I know my door is opening. I sit up and blink in the bright light of a flashlight. But instead of a harsh shout I hear a voice so soft it is almost a whisper. A voice I know well, though it has been months since I heard it last.
“Come along, Nathen. You have more work to do before these men kill you.”
My father’s voice.
I can’t help but smile.