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The barracks were bad, but mostly livable.  Everyone had a cot, there was water, and the temperature was mild.  Food was the biggest problem.  Days passed, and they were not given any.

The country had not been at war for many generations.  The government had taken a neutral stance since the country’s last war, which it lost.  Since that time, the country had thrived, becoming the technological, economical, and cultural leader of the world.  Then came the outside attack, and conscripts were immediately called.

Lou, who had heard tales of military tactics, but never studied them, wondered how starving to death could help win a war.  He didn’t resist, though, and neither did most the others. They trusted their leaders to do what was right.  Besides, the few that did resist were quickly executed in a very public manner.

Then, one night, the guards came in with their machineguns.

About a hundred men, strangers to each other before conscripted together, were taken into a cafeteria and seated at long tables.  The intense aroma of cooking food filled the air and caused Lou’s mouth to water.

Most of the soldiers moved off to the side.  One, who wore a sergeant’s stripes and did not carry a machinegun, moved up and down the aisles, looking over the conscripts.

At the head of the cafeteria, a very old-looking man addressed them.

“Welcome.  I know you are all very hungry, so I will not make you wait long.  In a moment, you will each be given a tray containing five cups of soup. Four of the cups will be poisoned.  One cup will not.  You will drink one of the cups or be executed.”

The old man looked around the room for a few seconds and then said, “We will now begin.”

Countrymen dressed in kitchen attire brought out their trays.  The cups were very small, more appropriate for tea than soup.  Lou thought it would take a few dozen for him to get his fill.

“Drink!” commanded the sergeant.

Lou felt two urges, one hunger, one the desire to live.  He studied his tray.  One soup was red, one green, one white, one brown, and one clear with noodles.  He saw nothing to tip him off to which soup was safe.

He started to pick a cup at random, but then something happened.  He could suddenly taste beef.  He drank the brown soup.

It was delicious, but he thought a rock might be delicious at that point.  He looked around again.  Many did.  About ten seconds later, men started convulsing and falling to the floor.  They grabbed their throats as they made gurgling sounds.

More men came in and took out those who were convulsing, while the kitchen helpers came out to remove the trays.  Two minutes later, all the fallen and all the trays were gone.  Lou thought the conscripts had been reduced by about the eighty percent they should have been reduced by.  One of the remaining conscripts sat directly across from him.

The old man spoke.  “Congratulations.  Now we begin the next round.”

More trays were set before them.  They contained the same five soups as before.

“Drink!” shouted the sergeant.

Lou scanned the soups.  He was pretty sure he had just been lucky before, that tasting the beef had been his imagination being fed by a craving.  It happened again, though.  This time, he tasted potatoes.  He drank the white soup.  It was also delicious.

Once more, after about ten seconds, men started convulsing.  The efficient processes of tray and man removal were repeated.  In the end, five conscripts remained.

“Wait!” the sergeant shouted.  He rushed over to the man across from Lou.  “I think you will be more comfortable at a less crowded table.”

The man sputtered, “I . . . I . .  .  I am comfortable here.”

The sergeant drew his pistol and held it to the man’s face.  “Move to a place where you can’t see him.”

The man, slowly, while shaking like a leaf, did as the sergeant said.  Once he was situated, the sergeant commanded, “No one will look up once the soup is before him!”

Lou went ahead and looked down before the soup even got there.  Then the tray arrived and the sergeant shouted, “Drink!”

Lou studied the tray.  Several seconds passed, and a new taste had not come.  His mind forced upon him images of convulsing men, and then it made him imagine what it felt like to choke.  He felt an urge to run.  Maybe someone would shoot him in the brain, and he could die quickly.

A new taste came to his mouth.  At first, it was only slight and hard to distinguish from the aftertaste of the soups he’d already drunk.  Then it cut through and became the overpowering flavor.  The taste was tomato.  He drank the red soup.

Having taken so long to drink the soup, he was finished just on time to hear gurgling.  He didn’t look up, just waited, hearing the rushing footsteps around him.  Finally, another tray was placed before him.

“You are the only one left,” said the sergeant.  “Drink.”

He was not surprised when he didn’t immediately get a new taste.  He wondered how much time they would give him.  After about twenty seconds, the strong flavor of beef arrived.  He drank and lived.

They repeated the process a couple of more times, each time taking longer.

“That is enough,” the old man finally said, his voice right beside Lou.  Lou looked up and saw a smiling, grandfatherly face.

“You have a rare gift,” the old man said.  “I’ll bet you did not know that.”

Lou shook his head.

“That is because you’ve probably never needed the gift.  It’s buried deep within your subconscious mind and requires a combination of sensory deprivation and mortal fear to bring it out.  The sense we deprived this time was taste.”

Lou looked around at the guards.  There were only a few of them now.  “But you murdered young men from our country!” he hissed.

“Yes, but only to find you.  We will find a few others like you, and in doing so, will have to kill many more of our countrymen.  But I assure you, the number of men we save by using men like you will be much greater than the number of men we lose finding men like you.  With powers like yours to guide us, the enemy will be defeated in short order.”

The old man put a hand on his shoulder, which Lou hated.  He could not participate in what they were doing.  He wanted to die with dignity.  The poisoned soups were still on the table.  He was getting ready to reach for one, when the old man spoke again.

“The sense we deprive doesn’t have to be taste, and the mortal fear we provide doesn’t have to be fear of your own mortality.  We’ll soon take prisoner several members of your family.”

The old man gave a slight grin.  “You will soon be deprived of light for several days.  This will cause you to have visions.  We require these visions to show us paths we can take to weaken the enemy without weakening ourselves.  If they do not, we will execute one of your family members, and you will be asked to try again.  If you choose not to participate, we’ll promptly execute them all.”

Lou thought he would rather die than be their pawn, but when he thought of his family, he was unable to reach for the soup.


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