Sabor by Jason P. Burnham

Rex is panting heavily by the time we get back to our porch. The neighbors say it’s cruel to have a dog at this latitude, but we go on walks at dusk when it’s cooler and before the mosquito onslaught. He still enjoys them and once he’s inside he has all the water and belly rubs he could ever need.

We enter to a blast of icy-cold air. Rex slobbers his approval and lies on the foyer’s cool white stones.

“Jonas, honey, you got a letter in the mail. I left it on your chair,” Terrence calls from the kitchen. When a carrier died from heatstroke and the Postal Service got sued, they changed their hours—dusk until dawn only.

The only letters Terrence doesn’t recycle are from the military.

“Did you open it already?”

No response except the clanging of dishes.

I pat Rex on the belly and peer into the sitting room, where the envelope sits on my plush brown recliner. The envelope is thin and yellow, like always. They don’t need much space to tell you that you’re shipping out, where to, and on what date.

The interval between tours has decreased as both able and disabled bodies dwindle. My fourth tour just finished last year. I considered retiring, but thought of all the dying needing palliative pain medications and couldn’t give it up.

Plus, there was coffee.

I joined the military for the coffee. That’s what you do when you’re young and unattached; this was long before Terrence.

The envelope and its possible contents freeze me—I don’t move to open it, I don’t call out again to Terrence, who still hasn’t responded from the kitchen. Terrence, who hasn’t had coffee since its endangerment resulted in its restriction to military personnel. Poor guy.

As a field medic, I could have a cup of coffee every day. That’s a lifetime’s worth of black-market expenses in a year. It was the most bitter piss water you’d ever tasted, but as glorious as anything had been in those days.

Thinking about that caffeine rush takes me back…

“Pain medicine,” I say. I know she doesn’t understand. Some understand a little English, but not this soldier. “Ow, ow,” I say, pointing to her macerated leg. Then I make an ‘X’ with my arms and pull out the injector. None of us or ‘them’ deserve this pain.

“Whole war is pretty ridiculous, huh?” I ask after injecting the opioids. I know she hears me because her screaming almost immediately stops when the syringe is empty. The fighting has moved further away and the sounds of gunfire taper off.

“I don’t know why we’re fighting anymore. Killing each other so wealthy corporations in our countries can pad their wallets as they distract us from a collapsing world. Wouldn’t it be nice to shake hands, make up, and go spend some time on a beach?” I throw a goofy smile her way.

“Beach,” she says in heavily accented English.

She does understand!

She smiles and drifts off, intolerable discomfort temporarily quiescent. Maybe she’s imagining herself on a beach, waves lulling her to sleep in a better world.

I like to think a few of the casualties I attended survived and remember the nice American who treated them like equals.

I haven’t moved from where I dropped Rex’s leash. I trudge sluggishly through the anamnesis of other tours that stand between me and the looming yellow envelope. The dramatic increase in acuity on the second tour. Hotter temperatures, the brass said, speeds up bacterial mutation rates. Less sewing, more amputating. By the third, they should have changed my title to hospice medic/coroner. If they weren’t dead, they were holding Death’s hand instead of mine.

I find myself sitting on the recliner near the letter, eliciting images of the love seat in the officer’s quarters after finishing the coffee investigation on my last tour.

“What are you doing in here?”

“I saw you in the freezer earlier,” I say self-assuredly.

“You aren’t ranked high enough to be in this room.”

“Interesting you should say that. Are you of high enough rank to override your own unauthorized use of freezer space for personal cooldown?”

His face contorts before he scans the room. “What do you want?”

“For you to look the other way when I freeze my coffee ration.”

His eyes narrow. “Why do you need to do that?”

“I think the fewer questions we ask of each other, the better off we’ll be.”

I froze a coffee ration under some meat slabs. I hadn’t been sure how long it would take to taste a difference, but three months later, I was so cranky after my morning cup of joe that I didn’t care if it had been long enough. I dug out the old coffee and thawed it under my armor. I didn’t even have to wait for my stomach to absorb it. The bitterness on my tongue had been sufficient to know that it had changed.

Terrence walks into the sitting room and flips gray-peppered brown hair out of brown eyes. “I said it is time for dinner.” He sees the yellow envelope next to me, unopened.

“Ah.” He removes his hand from his hip and rubs his hands together until they’re red. “Not ready to open it?”

I shake my head.

“Come eat with us,” he says, walking toward the kitchen.

I don’t know how long I’ve been staring at the summons. Rex has cooled off and moved away, the floor already dried of slobber. Dusk has passed and it is a pitch-black, moonless night.

They still need me.

Terrence has prepared one of my favorites, minestrone with heirloom beans. It’s an expensive dish these days—hard to get fresh produce. And the beans? Creamy and soft, even though we’ve had them dried for a few years. This is a special dinner and I’m not sure what I have done to deserve it.

“What’s the occasion?”

He stares at his bowl. “I heard the latest losses report on the radio. I knew a letter would be on its way soon. I didn’t know it was going to be today, but I wanted to give you some good meals before you had to leave again.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

He smiles, teasing with an ‘I know you don’t’ look.

“But why didn’t you just tell me that you were suspicious it was coming?” I ask.

“You’ve been in such a good place lately. I wanted you to be able to live there for as long as you could.”

I walk across the table to kiss him. “I love you.”

Rex, not wanting to be left out, walks over and puts his front paws on Terrence’s lap.

“Yes, we love you too, buddy.” Terrence says, rubbing his Rex’s ears.

“So, what else do you have planned for us before I leave?” I ask.

“How long do we have?”

I shrug. “Usually I get about a week.”

“Pizza beans tomorrow,” he says with a grin.

There are two ways to my heart—food and acts of service. This is both. “How can we afford all this?”

“Do you remember after your last tour, I told you how I had been fiddling around with the new coolant?”

I squint. I vaguely recall this. Terrence is always tinkering. He is a liquid materials engineer by training and has an entire garage full of projects in various stages of completion and success. I have no need for the garage and it keeps him intellectually stimulated, so I ignore the mess. He has too many projects to keep straight.

“Sort of. Remind me?”

He is so thrilled he forgets to be upset at me for forgetting. “The really viscous one? The one I compared to old motor oil and burnt sugar?”

“Yes!” It smells exactly as awful as it sounds.

“Someone bought the concept!”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” I am hugging him again, but he doesn’t hug back. “What’s wrong? I’m sorry I forgot!”

He shakes his head. “It’s not that. I was ecstatic, too. I-I’m afraid you won’t like who purchased it. Who bought all this,” he says, waving his hand at our dinner.

“Unless you tell me it’s my parents, I think we’re going to be okay.”

He laughs, but it is too short. “No, no.” He smiles, lips only. “It’s not your parents. It’s the EP.”

“EP?”

He looks at me expectantly.

“The Earth Protectorate?” I yelp. I step back from the table, knocking over my chair.

He has that sheepish look of his, eyes back on the table.

“I’ve lost my appetite.” I storm into the sitting room, a concerned Rex at my heels.

Terrence’s chair slides across the tile and stony footsteps approach, synchronized to the heartbeat in my eyes.

I bump into the recliner, knocking the yellow envelope onto the floor, but I’m too upset to bend down and pick it up.

“How could you? You know they’re dangerous! Especially for a military husband!” Veins in my forehead pulsate.

“I know! I know!” He touches my shoulder to arrest my pacing. “Hear me out?”

I turn and look down into his eyes. I’m ten centimeters taller than him, but at the moment, I wish it was ten meters. “I don’t think I’m in a space where I can hear this.”

“What if I told you they gave me a lot of money?” he asks.

“I don’t care how much they are paying you. They’re terrorists!”

“No, not anymore,” he says, hands patting the air. “Sure, that’s how they got started, but they’re not like that now. I swear. They’re going to use the coolant to help people.”

All I can picture are the video feeds from my second tour showing their logo stretched across the government buildings claiming responsibility for the deaths of people I knew. I hadn’t known them well, but as my senior officers, they held a certain importance in my life. And the EP had killed them.

“Why would they help after they killed so many?” I ask, unbelieving.

“It was different back then. The EP understood the ramifications of the war, long before…”

“I don’t want to hear any of that. They killed people.”

He holds his hand up to calm me. “I understand, I understand. I’m not trying to justify that. I’m only trying to tell you that they’ve changed. I’ve seen how they’re going to be using it.”

“You’ve seen it? What were you thinking? It could have been a trap!” The edges of my vision darken with anger.

“I know.” He rubs my hand. “You never would have let me go if I had told you.”

“D-damn right,” I stutter, hot tears welling up in my eyes.

He squeezes my hand. “Let me tell you what they showed me.”

Deep breaths slow my heart rate to normal after a time as I listen to Terrence talk. If he is to be believed, and it is hard for me to picture a world in which I don’t believe my own husband, the Earth Protectorate has a new modus operandi. Their previous fixation on violently deposing the tyrants destroying the planet has softened. When the younger EP members saw the US military doing the same thing, they changed their tune. They recognized they had to break the stagnant cycle of bloodshed.

Terrence finishes his recapitulation of the EP’s current activities. “The US government’s poorly hidden contempt for the wellbeing of the planet has un-radicalized the EP. They now focus on helping the millions of climate refugees created by the Anti-Earth faction of our government.”

How we managed to elect officials with campaign slogans like “Profit Over Planet” still boggles my mind. The cognitive dissonance required to work as a medic in the military supported by those officials was almost too much for me, but the dying soldiers kept calling me back. My duty was to the infirm, not politicians.

“That’s where my coolant comes in,” he continues, seeing me lost in thought. “EP wanted it for a suit they built from discarded plastics. Water heated the suit too rapidly; they needed something with a higher boiling point. EP estimates that based on plastic waste levels, they can make suits for every climate refugee on the planet.”

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah, holy shit. This will save millions of lives.”

How can I stay mad after all this? “How are they paying you?”

He smiles, sensing my attitude shifting. “Like I said, EP has changed. There are a few backers with actual credits that can be used to pay people.”

I see Commander Tyrgur’s body burning at the bombing site. The scene mixes with visions of civilians’ bodies in the field, some emaciated, others in the final throes of heat death. The civilian bodies greatly outnumber my former commanders.

“You’re playing against my sensitivity to helping others.”

He huffs. “It’s not a play against anything. I want to help and deep down, you do too. You just need someone to show you that EP isn’t the Big Bad Wolf anymore.”

I sigh and look over at Rex, his legs kicked up in the air on the couch. “What do you think, boy?”

He takes one of his front paws and rubs it against his face, then sits up, tail wagging.

“If the dog is on your side, I’m outnumbered.”

Terrence smiles, bigger than I have seen in a long time. “Let’s go eat some minestrone.”

Dinner was delicious, but the idea of being in bed with the EP doesn’t sit right.

After Terrence falls sleep, I get up to do some research.

It’s hard to get suppressed information. And risky. The only way to find it is by using military credentials. The catch twenty-two is if anyone is watching you dig, it could be the end of your military career, potentially even your life as a free person. Snooping on military secrets is punishable by a life sentence in solitary confinement without a trial. I have to trust that there is no bandwidth for anyone to follow up on alerts my searches might generate. It’s a fairly safe bet, especially if they have so few bodies they have to call me back in so soon after my last tour.

I prevent immediate incrimination. Searches about coffee plantations. Lots of people miss coffee and would read about it to reminisce. I hop from feeds about coffee yields to those about the environment. A search for the weather forecast, then annual weather trends. Those should be ignored.

What I find is not surprising. The coffee was weak and it had been because the crops were dying. The plantations had been moving up the mountains to continue to produce. Crop yields were crashing, inversely proportional to the altitude because strains with lower caffeine concentrations were all that could grow up there. Even those struggled.

The plants are dying and so are we. During my fourth tour, most of the dead and dying had no wounds—they were dying from heatstroke. Spending all their time outside above wet-bulb temperature meant that I found delirious soldiers, hot as the ground on which they lay, muscles rigid. If the war had favored one side or the other before, casualties were in balance then, the atmosphere equally laying us to waste.

I sigh and keep reading. Information on the EP as terrorists is widespread, but old. Terrence was right about that. No killings since before my second tour. But information about their beneficence is non-existent. In fact, their lack of mentions is glaringly unrealistic. The government is suppressing information on their goodwill.

Speaking of the government…

I close the feeds and go to find the yellow envelope. It’s time.

Rex snores on the couch, paws kicking as he dreams of a rabbit chase. There had still been rabbits when he was a puppy.

The envelope slid under the couch during our heated discussion. I bend over to fish it out.

M. Jonas Q. Aurelon,

This notification is to instruct you to report for duty to the U.S. Southern Hemisphere Installation on April 17th of the year 2357.

We regret to inform you that due to budgetary cutbacks, military personnel below the rank of Lieutenant Colonel will no longer receive coffee.

General Elena Kyle

I sit back, taking it in. I knew it was going to be a call for my fifth tour and I knew it would be soon. But I didn’t know they would take all the coffee away. Not that that was why I do all this, but it certainly made the tours more palatable.

My stomach throbs as if kicked. I leave the letter and envelope next to Rex, still on the hunt. I march into the study to rifle through the feeds for something, anything about EP’s recent activities. The US government isn’t that good at cover-ups anymore.

What if…

Using photos from the bombings that included the EP logo, I do an image search. If they were smart enough to block text and images, then I have to give them credit.

But they aren’t.

There isn’t much. Just a few feel-good pieces from low-tier outlets. Probably nothing that reached their radar for obfuscation.

Local Man Saved by Visiting Aid Group. Pictured: someone in an EP jacket.

Refugee Camp Fed by Care Organization. Pictured: a gathering of people standing in front of a van with EP logos.

There are a few other articles with similar plots. EP had gone to the front lines where civilians were struggling and saved some, providing what help they could.

I bet the EP needs medics.

After a few more searches to make my snooping look casual, I log out of my military credentials on the feed and log back in on RemoteVid. I have a call to make.

The next morning, I force myself awake early. Terrence usually cooks, but I want to surprise him. I can do it when I apply myself. Breakfast will be incomplete without coffee, but he is used to it. He does a double-take when he comes into the kitchen.

“What… what’s going on?” he asks, rubbing sleep from his eyes or perhaps pretending to be dreaming.

“Very funny. I can cook, you know.”

He smiles wickedly. “I know you can cook, it’s just that I think you might be confusing Rex. I don’t think he’s ever seen this before.”

 Rex is twelve.

“Okay, Sir. Do you want these pancakes and eggs or not?” I ask, feigning annoyance and dangling the skillet precariously over the trash receptacle.

“Somebody is in a good mood today. I’m shocked that’s possible with a yellow envelope in the house,” he says.

“I have some good news too.” I have difficulty concealing my smile.

He has loaded his plate with pancakes and eggs and was grabbing hot sauce out of the pantry, but stops at this. “Go on.”

“You’re not the only one working for the EP.” My smile erupts.

“What?” His plate and silverware clatter together on the granite countertop where he half-tosses, half-drops them. “What?” he repeats.

“They’re taking away my coffee.”

He fakes like he is going to throw the bottle of hot sauce at me. “Taking away your coffee? That’s what it took?”

I snort. “Ironic when you put it like that, isn’t it?”

“What are you going to do?”

“Well, you sold them your coolant, right?”

“Yeah…” he doesn’t see it.

“You will need to field test it, won’t you?”

He holds a fist to his mouth to prevent the tears and walks to hug me, fanning his eyes as he comes. Rex howls.

“It’s okay, boy. We’re not sad. We’re happy!” Rex doesn’t like when his people are upset.

Terrence pushes me away and stares. “But they’ll arrest you for desertion or whatever they call it.”

I shake my head. “Sometimes the bureaucracy works in your favor. I told them that since my last tour I had taken up Jainism and I could no longer be on a battlefield, even if it meant helping others. They can’t arrest someone for religious exemption. It’s their own law.”

Terrence is crying and hugging me again, provoking howls from Rex.

“Can I make one request?” I ask.

“Yes. Oh my God, yes! I can’t believe this! Anything you want!”

“If we ever get a chance to go to Latin America for field tests…” I let the words hang to see if he will catch on to what was roughly ninety percent joke, but he is too happy to notice. “Let’s see if we can’t help out a few coffee farmers. Maybe there will be some coffee in it for us.”

He punches me in the shoulder and my laugh is muffled by his and Rex’s embrace.


Jason P. Burnham is an infectious diseases physician and clinical researcher. He loves many things, among them sci-fi, his wife and sons, metal music, Rancho Gordo beans, and equality (not necessarily in that order). You can find him on Twitter.