Session 1.1 The Taste of Coffee
Lush green bushes strewn with strings of red fruit, arranged in rows inside an arched greenhouse.
Although Damien had never seen a real coffee tree before, he assumed that the picture on the sticker was that of a coffee plantation, since the cargo was labelled “GDG Coffee”. Actually, the colors on the sticker had faded. Damien, being homesick, must have only imagined those long forgotten colors from his farmstead.
Everything here was gray. He picked up the sticker, which had fallen onto the ground, and tried to put it back on the crate. But, it would no longer stick. He would’ve tried harder to paste it had he not heard the driver’s impatient goading. So, he simply stuffed the sticker into his pocket.
“Check complete. Everything’s fine!” Damien reported as usual.
As he jumped off the truck, he was once again facing the heavy downpour that had been prevailing for days. It almost felt as if he was standing under a waterfall. The rain pelted down like bullets on his helmet and military uniform. It seemed that the world was bent on crushing them with rain.
“Let them through!”
Upon the sergeant’s order, the convoy passed through the checkpoint and headed for the Agurts border, while Damien returned to his post. The chugging of the engines faded away slowly into the background, but the annoying, rustling sound of the rain remained. These torrential storms had been persisting for an entire month now. From what Damien could recall, it had been raining already on his first day of being dispatched to Zamaii from the training camp—it had never stopped since. The sky remained the same grayish-black no matter the time of the day, making it impossible to tell day from night.
Nonetheless, the number of trucks passing through did not diminish despite the downpour. The same was true of the number of Soil Ghosts who encroached on the border. The only thing that the heavy rains were successful at was in making the members of the patrol unit stationed there complain for days on end.
Damien sat down against a dilapidated wall beside another soldier. The wall might have belonged to someone’s bedroom or kitchen. It could even have been a church. All that was left now was a fragmented brick wall, which somehow miraculously survived the bombings. Everything else had vanished long ago, and the acid rain washed away any distinctive features which might have provided clues as to what this place used to be.
People like Damien, who were born after the Gray Summer, found it hard to believe how others before them had referred to the water droplets that descended from the skies as “nectar”. Nowadays, the acid rains that fell from the gray clouds destroyed much of the environment, leaving behind layers of smog. The long-term inhalation of this smog would result in damage to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems of living beings. They also had that foul smell which the metals give off when they erode.
Through his gas mask, Damien could still detect a vile stench—Isn’t it smelling more intense than usual?
“I think I smell something strange,” he murmured, adjusting his mask in apprehension.
“Didn’t your training instructor teach you anything about light gas masks?” grunted the soldier next to him, “They should only be used as an emergency measure when the readings drop below 2.2.”
Damien grew more uneasy by the second. He hesitated over whether he should take off his mask and replace the filter.
“Then should we… erm… should we remind the sergeant to distribute combat respirators?”
“You could try.”
Not getting what the old soldier meant, Damien tuned his radio to the squad channel. The sergeant was just there on the other side of the jeep. But in the environment they were in, one always had to use the radio unless the person one wanted to talk to was right next to you.
“Captain, the current EHI (Environmental Hazard Index) reading is 2.1, I think we should change our masks…” Damien voiced his concerns with a serious tone.
“Oh! Well done, newbie! Looks like you know how to look after the squad better than I do,” sneered the captain, “Boys, be sure to hand over your masks to this germophobe at the end of today’s shift. Pansy’s volunteered to clean them tonight.”
Sneering and laughter from other squad members tittered through the channel before the transmission ended abruptly.
“There are never enough gas masks… Or even filters for that matter. The army would never issue quality gas masks to low-ranking soldiers. Forget it,” said the old soldier flatly.
Damien’s shoulders sagged in disappointment as he came to realize that he had it coming. He only wondered why the old soldier let him fall into the trap despite knowing what would happen.
“Don’t worry, kid. Your mask will just make it to the end of the shift,” the seasoned soldier promised as he patted Damien’s shoulder. “These masks are worn-out, but there’s a way to make the filter last longer. I’ll show you when we clean up.”
Damien was grateful. It turned out that the old man was using the opportunity to teach him about life in the camp.
Each soldier in the camp looked the same in their masks and military uniforms. Their standard-issue equipment almost erased their identity, making it hard for one to recognize the other. Damien could not see that the soldier in front of him was an old man, whose hair and beard had already turned white.
Bob was indeed an experienced veteran, one who willingly taught others the practical skills that could not be learned in the training camps. Damien was not liked by others in his squad and were alienated by them. Even the sergeant was not very fond of him. So, he really enjoyed chatting with his new friend.
Their chat was suddenly interrupted by shouting and the sound of gunshots that erupted nearby. Damien nervously grabbed his rifle and swung around while keeping his back against the wall. But, all he could see in the heavy rain was the obscure silhouettes of his companions jumping up out of nowhere.
“Cease fire! That was just a damn stray dog! Who shot at it first?”
“It jumped out of nowhere. It was asking for it.”
The soldiers reported and laughed over the open channel as if it was no big deal. However, the sergeant remained silent.
“Don’t do what they just did, kid. If this was the battlefield, they would’ve exposed our location and brought trouble right to our doorstep,” the old man whispered. Damien nodded his head and sat back down.
“Maybe they shot because they’re afraid of running into the Soil Ghosts. Everyone’s on edge these days…”
Sergeant Han and Bob aside, Damien’s entire squad consisted of new recruits. Some of them were rich brats from the capital who just wanted to complete their five years of compulsory military service and go home. Nobody wanted to cross paths with the savage Soil Ghosts and die on this lifeless, barren land along the border. There were almost no survivors from the patrol team that was ambushed by Soil Ghosts the previous month. The poor soldiers did not realize that the Soil Ghosts had long been hiding among the inconspicuous dilapidated walls and heaped rubble around them until they were met with the sweeping light-machine gun fire. One couldn’t blame the squad members for opening fire like mad men whenever they saw any sign of movement. After all, their superiors did issue a shoot-to-kill order.
Bob only smirked when Damien brought this up. “Troops have been stationed to drive out Soil Ghosts here in Zamaii for quite some time now. Do you know how many soldiers were killed on an average each month just half a year ago? And are you aware about how many died this month?”
Of course Damien did not know—he was just a new recruit. He did not understand what Bob was saying.
“They’re out of their minds, right? There are so many soldiers stationed here, but they still have the nerve to steal. No wonder the government says that they’re animals. Back when I was in the South, I thought what they said on TV were just fibs.”
“You shouldn’t believe things that you haven’t seen with your own eyes so easily,” sighed Bob.
“Have you ever seen a Soil Ghost?” asked Damien, his curiosity aroused.
“An old soldier like me has seen all sorts of strange things…”
When Bob said this, Damien could not help but want to hear him say more. The young man hailed from the countryside in the South, and he had not even had the chance of going to the neighboring town, which was over a hundred kilometers away, before he was conscripted.
“Have you ever had coffee?”
Coffee was said to be a very popular drink before the World Wars. Damien came to realize that although Bob was old, he was probably not old enough to be born before the war.
“Yes… A long, long time ago.”
The old soldier’s answer surprised Damien, making him even more curious.
“What does it taste like? Is it really as good as they say?”
The old man seemed to be lost in remembrance. He did not answer until quite some time had passed.
“It was bitter… It had a heavy bitterness to it.”
“Bitter?” muttered Damien, “The rich have weird taste.”
Coffee was something that only the wealthy could afford. In this Acid Rain era, Agurts was one of the few nations that still had some arable land left. Greenhouse farms owned by the central government, like the one where Damien’s family worked, put priority on the production of genetically modified crops which grew quickly. With the exception of only a handful of rich people from the capital who could afford them, luxury goods like coffee were mostly exported to generate national income. Ironically, coffee was the reason why Damien was stationed here now.
“We’re clashing with Soil Ghosts here because of this bitter drink?” Damien said while thinking to himself that he did not even know what coffee tasted like.
“If nobody’s stationed here to protect the transport route, all this produce would be plundered in the blink of an eye.”
“But if I go back to the farm, I can grow more crops for our country. I think I’m more useful out there than here, pretending to check trucks…”
All trucks headed to the border had to pass through a dozen checkpoints like theirs along the way. The other trucks did not matter, but everybody knew that they could not mess with the ones carrying coffee beans. The coffee bean companies were too powerful. So, it was best to just to let them through. This was what Sergeant Han had told Damien and his squad the day they got assigned here. Having performed such a meaningless task hundreds of times over, Damien could not help but question his purpose.
“Every mission has its purpose,” the old soldier said. After a brief pause, he continued, “Everyone has his own mission…”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t doubt the orders of my superiors.”
It occurred to Damien that he should not be saying things like that. Bob was so kind that he got carried away and started to whine. But, the old man seemed dissatisfied with this reaction.
“Is that what you really think?”
“We’re soldiers after all…”
“Well, what if your superiors ordered you to die?”
Damien looked at the old soldier next to him with shock. How could he ask such a question with such indifference? he thought. On second thoughts… Is a soldier even allowed to ask a question like that?
“Do you mean risking our lives while fighting against the enemy? I think… that is the duty of every citizen of Agurts.”
“You don’t have to tell me the answer. Keep it to yourself.”
Bob’s assertive tone unnerved Damien. No wonder the others thought him to be strange and were worried about getting in trouble by being associated with him. Very few professional soldiers his age still fought on the front lines, and he was not even a corporal. Everybody said that something must have been wrong.
However, Damien himself stood out like a sore thumb among his fellow squad members. All the squadron members thought that he was a slow-witted and backward hick. Damien did not want to butter up to those rich kids. He felt that they were all equals in the army, and he did not understand why they had to act all high and mighty.
Two outcasts in the army Damien thought, mocking himself. Just as it was for Bob, a smooth promotion was probably not in the cards for him. In any case, he would be going home after completing his compulsory military service. He had absolutely no interest in being a professional soldier.
“How long is this rain going to last?”
Damien wiped the raindrops off the lenses of his mask. He missed the milder climate of his hometown.
“It’s going to rain for a few more days yet… Or at least that’s what my knees are telling me.”
Bob stretched his leg. This was not the first time that Damien had heard about the arthritis pain in the old man’s knee. As a matter of fact, a walking stick would suit him better than a rifle. Damien thought that after they got to know each other better, he would try persuading him to retire sooner and go home.
“Attention! We’re moving out in 30,” the sergeant ordered over the squad channel.
At long last, they managed to survive another day without incident.
“It’s fragrant,” Bob suddenly murmured.
“Are you serious? It still reeks.”
“I’m talking about coffee…”
“Didn’t you just say it was bitter?”
“It was bitter, but it also had a flavorful aroma. It’s a scent that I can’t explain…”
As he was saying it, Bob carefully took out a waterproof pouch from his pocket and shielded it from the rain with his hand. He then plucked out a small brown oval bean from it. The bean had a deep crack down its center. Damien instantly recognized what it was, despite never having seen the real thing.
“Is that the real deal? Where did you get it from?” Damien’s eyes widened. That small pouch of coffee beans alone might be worth his entire month’s salary. Bob did not seem like someone who would steal from the trucks. He had never even been near one.
“This is a memento… A reminder of what I’m fighting for.” Bob’s voice conveyed a sense of fatigue. He put the pouch of coffee beans back into his pocket.
Damien was surprised that Bob was carrying something so valuable on him, and that the old man actually let him in on it. The gesture made Damien quite happy since he thought that it meant that Bob trusted him and considered him to be a friend.
“What… What are you fighting for?”
“I’m fighting so that I can drink a cup of coffee brewed from beans that I grow myself.”
The old soldier leaned on his rifle to stand up. It was time for them to assemble. Damien followed the old soldier, a little surprised, a little awed, but all the while imagining what coffee tasted like.
Original Story : Kit Lau
Author : Perl Grey
Translator : Johnny Ko