Jeremy Voss parted the bushes in front of him and pointed toward the tavern half a kilometer away. His friend looked at it, shook his head and retreated further into the thick brush lining the road. Jeremy followed, a frown creasing his brow.
He looked down at his dark haired friend. "What's the matter, Scott? Don't we deserve a little rest and relaxation?"
The shorter youth adjusted his beret and shrugged. "What if we get caught, Jer? You know how the Commandant feels about bothering the locals. This is bigger than putting a smoke bomb in Lieutenant Reily's drawer."
"We're not going to get in any trouble. We'll just go down and see what the locals are really like. Haven't you ever wanted to meet these mysterious Highlanders?"
"What's mysterious about them? They're almost de-civilized, barely above barbarians. They sound like a quick way to get killed."
"That's not what the classified section of the library says." Jer smiled at Scott's look of astonishment, knowing his small friend would never dream of cracking the security around that section of the library files. "According to the files I scanned, these Highlanders are as civilized as we are."
"I don't believe it. What if you accessed the wrong files?"
Jer shrugged. "Then it's just a tavern filled with ordinary men and women. We're being trained to be Suto Warriors, to be rulers of the Empire. I think that qualifies us to handle any trouble some locals may cause."
Scott tugged at the edge of his green tunic. "I don't know, Jer. We've only got a few hours until evening formation."
Jer swatted a leaf with his open hand. "At which point they discover we aren't there and check the computer log. That'll tell them we're out working on our survival skills, just as I programmed it to, and they'll think nothing more of it. Now, are you with me or not?"
Scott shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "What can the locals offer us that we can't get at the Academy? I mean, what makes it worth all this trouble?"
Jer straightened and stepped back from his friend, then turned and pushed his way through the bushes. "Freedom," was his only reply.
Jer stepped aside from the door and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the tavern, forcing down the uncertainty and fear that suddenly filled him. The air was still, filled with the scent of sawdust and spilled beer. His spirits rose as his vision improved. A long bar filled the wall to the right, balanced by a huge stone fireplace to the left. The space between the two was filled with tables and chairs, only a few occupied. Without knowing why, he decided he liked it.
"Grab a table, Scott, and I'll get the beer." Before his friend could respond, he stepped up to the bar and hailed the large bartender. Within a moment, he had two large mugs of dark ale.
"I told you it would be all right," he said as he sat down across the table from his friend.
Scott gave a light snort of disbelief and eyed the large man behind the bar. "What's that he's wearing? It looks like a skirt."
"No, it's a kilt. And, if you get the next round, you'll note that the thing in his sock is a knife." Jer smiled at Scott's worried look and took a long pull on his beer.
"The locals originated on a place on Old Earth called the Scottish Highlands. Evidently, it's a traditional garment they brought with them when they moved here. If it wasn't all sewn up with pleats it would be termed a plaid. They're supposed to be made of enough cloth to fully cover a man at night; kind of like a ready-made sleeping bag."
Scott shivered, as if thinking of a cold night spent outside. "I can think of a few exercises where that would have been nice to have." He took a sip of his own beer and then smiled. "So, how did you learn all about these Highlanders?"
"I told you, I took certain liberties with the security software in the library. How did you think we got those floor plans for the instructor's hall?"
"But why? You could have pulled off those gags without screwing with the computer."
Jer took another long pull on his beer. "Yeah, but when we came up with that plan, I already had access, so I figured I might as well use everything at my disposal."
Scott's eyes narrowed, his thick eyebrows bunching together above his nose. "How long have you had access to the classified sections?"
Jer shrugged and took another drink. "Half a year, maybe a little longer."
Scott gasped. "Why? Why'd you break in?"
Jer clenched his jaw, holding distant feelings in check. "I had to find out what happened to someone. It was classified." He shrugged.
Scott sat back in his chair for a moment. "Half a year, that was just about the time of the last trials. Who did you want to track down?"
Jer made a fist beneath the table. "Drop it, Scott. I've got access, and that's all you need to know."
"Bullshit. You've involved me in a serious crime. I'm not talking about pranks anymore, Jer. They're going to be seriously pissed if they find out about it. I want to at least know why."
Jer forced himself to relax, pushing away the memories of pain and anguish. "Do you remember Sheila Norcross?" Scott nodded. "She was the one I was looking for. I had to find out what they did with her."
"Why? Once someone goes to the trials and becomes a Suto, it doesn't matter where they go. She's probably in some troop out in the Empire."
Jer shook his head. "Don't you ever wonder what happens to the ones that don't make it through the trials?"
Scott frowned. "What are you talking about? Everyone with a great enough psycho-potential to be sent to the Academy has enough strength to make it through the trials. That's what they train us for, to survive the trials and become a fully operant Suto."
Jer gripped his empty mug and looked his friend in the eye. "They lie to us. Only a little better than half of the people who go to trials succeed."
"How do you know?" Scott asked, reaching for his own beer.
"Sheila and I were out one night, looking for some excitement, and we followed an instructor to a meeting. It turned out to be the selection board for the trials. Her name was picked."
He didn't mention that his own had been discussed at some length. "She was pretty excited. Three nights later they sent for her. I happened to be with her. I don't know how they missed catching me, but they did, and I followed them and watched the trials."
Scott took a gulp of his beer. "What was it like? What did they do?"
Jer shook his head, refusing to discuss the painful memories. "It was too intense to describe. It was--" His voice caught for a moment. "Sheila didn't pass the trials. The last time I saw her, she was on her knees sobbing, begging for another chance. The Commandant walked up to her and stared at her for a moment. She stopped crying, and almost smiled. Then an attendant led her away. The next day I broke into the system to find out what they did with her. She was listed on an outbound ship to Asgard. A month later, I learned she was a bureaucrat on the capital, nothing but a fucking servant. I wrote her a letter and she replied with a note that she did not know me; that I must have gotten her confused with someone else."
Scott finished his beer and shook his head. "Maybe she just wanted to put it all behind her."
"We were lovers, damnit! We meant more to each other than that. She wouldn't have sent that note."
Scott glanced around the room. "So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that the Commandant reprogrammed her mind when she failed. He's a full Suto. He could do it as easily as I could rewrite a piece of code."
"But why would he do that?"
Jer waved two fingers at the barman and then truned back to Scott. He smiled with cold humor. "What's the motto of the Academy? 'Loyalty.' If she remembered her shattered dreams of being a Suto, would she stay loyal to the Empire? Would she be a productive member of society? Now, she has no choice in the matter. She's loyal and supporting the Emperor to the best of her abilities. I doubt that she even remembers her life here."
They sat in silence until the barman walked up to their table and placed two more drinks before them. Jer paid him with an Imperial mark.
Scott smiled his thanks and took a sip. "So what do we do about it? It's not like we can go somewhere else. I'm not even sure I would want to if I could." Jer frowned at him. "I mean, we're being trained to become the rulers of the Empire. You said as much yourself. If we do make it through our trials, we'll be the leaders of millions of people. We'll have mental powers unequalled by normal men. Isn't that worth the risk and pain?"
"We'll be slaves of the Emperor, you should say."
"Everyone's a slave in one sense or another, Jer. Being a Suto is a much better lot than many others I can think of."
Once again, Jer stared into his mug and then looked up. "If it's such a good life, why do you jeopardize it by coming around with me?"
Scott flushed, then grinned. "Okay, maybe I dream of something different too. That doesn't mean I'm not going to make the best of what I've got and enjoy it as much as I can."
Jer smiled back. "Then what do you say we stay here tonight and see what the locals are really like?"
Scott looked at the barman and then at his beer. "Are you really sure about fixing the computer log?"
Jer grinned and raised his glass in a toast. "As sure as I am of anything, right now." The two friends laughed and turned their conversation to lighter topics as a fiddler across the room struck up a tune.
.... There is more of this story ...