Morgan Stevens—known by some as “Mo”—is a fiction writer pursuing his Master of Arts in English at Western Kentucky University. This means Mo spends lots of time teaching general education English to undergraduates, grading their papers, or researching for his own graduate courses. If Mo happens to have any free time after all this (which is highly unusual), he likes to write fiction, watch films, play video games, or spend time outdoors wade-fishing and hiking. He is passionate about nature and sustainability, and hopes his writing will draw more attention to the environmental issues society faces today.
The Bornean Uprising
Static crackled from Cho’s radio. He gave the console a good thump with his fist, and the noise vanished. And stay quiet, he thought. He settled back into the driver’s seat and waited for base camp’s morning orders to arrive, smacking the radio when more interference came. Operations started slow like this most days. Unless their fuel shipment had arrived early today, which wasn’t likely, the office pencil pushers were probably preoccupied “inspecting” their first round of donuts. Cho sighed, and let his eyes wander outside the cabin of his bulldozer. A morning mist, in tandem with a robust rain, lent the jungle a disarming ambience today. The thumping and plinking of raindrops hemmed him into his little space, and he watched as snaking rivulets of water shimmied down his windshield. He imagined them to be tears, and inevitably thought of the last time he saw his daughter cry. That had been in Sandakan, where jobs grew harder to find by the day. The city was in rough shape—all of Malaysia too, for that matter. The economic recession is certainly here to stay for some time, all the experts were saying. Four hundred more workers laid off today.Sixty-three percent drop in output over here, ten-thousand ringgits gone over there. It drove Cho bonkers hearing these headlines on the news each day. They reminded him that his family teetered a single, minor setback from disaster. The situation was so bad that even the sound of Agung Teoh’s voice—the lead anchor on Channel 13’s nightly news—was enough to make Cho switch the television off. He’d eventually been forced to sell the damned thing to pay rent anyhow, but by then he was glad to pitch it: the move cut back on their electric bill, as well as how much of Agung Teoh he heard on a daily basis. Cho and Ting had proved how scrappy they could be in such times. They’d searched for jobs like bloodhounds after Cho got laid off at his engineering firm, and though the pickings were slim these days, Ting found a gig scrubbing dishes at an old acquaintance’s noodle stop. The pay was horrendous—only about twelve hundred ringgits a month—but even a low, steady rate beat the hell out of nothing. She made decent tips, too, a fact which stemmed not just from her increasing skill as a server, but her astonishingly pretty face as well. Pretty girls make money in this business, Ting’s boss had apparently told her. Now get out there and be pretty. Cho didn’t like that it worked that way, but if some gentleman from uptown wanted to give Ting a few extra ringgits because he thought she looked nice…well, he could stay his feelings on it given the circumstances. Unlike his wife, however, Cho hadn’t been so lucky finding a job. His ideal companies—places like prototype design corporations, factories, or even consulting firms—were too busy slimming their herds these days. It was hard to believe someone like him, who had a master’s degree in engineering from an American university, had been reduced to taking odd jobs and seasonal work wherever he could find it. Most of that temporary employment came from either a small rotation at an auto-repair shop, or the considerably more lucrative logging expeditions that took him out of Sandakan for weeks at a time. He could earn two or three thousand ringgits in half a month doing the logging, but the trouble there was consistency, as openings only appeared every few months. He and Ting had to make their collective income stretch until the next one popped up…though there wasn’t always a guarantee one would. Every month was a game of roulette for their family. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. A month where they “won” meant fuller cabinets, a house with more laughs and smiles, and a happier Leela, their four-year old daughter. It meant a happier Ting and a happier Cho and even better intimacy between them. They made love more frequently, and with more charge between their skin. A “losing” month looked different. It meant late nights of frustrated budgeting. Arguments. Selling off more non-essentials, or even skipping a few meals. It meant Leela groaning and wailing at night because her tummy feels empty and it hurts. Now that, Cho could stand least of all. Those cries kept him wide awake on bad nights, his eyes glued to the ceiling and bloodshot while Ting rested her head on his chest. She would kiss his face and tell him everything will be alright, baby, as one of them went to collect their daughter and distract her from the pain in her belly. Ting would hardly sleep either, though her exhausting work at the noodle stop often gave her a run for her money. She didn’t get enough credit for what she did. It was like that every night during the bad months, though. Even if Leela’s cries didn’t haunt the halls of their home, echoes of Agung Teoh’s dreary news stories would. Cho might’ve been able to throw out the TV itself, but he could not, to his everlasting annoyance, do the same with the headlines already etched into his brain. Keeping those bad nights at bay was the only reason Cho took the logging gigs. In reality, he despised everything else about the work. While not particularly difficult (he mainly operated a bulldozer, which once you got the hang of didn’t offer too many curveballs on a daily basis), going on the expeditions meant being away from Ting and Leela for much longer than he liked. He missed them of course, but also feared for their safety in his absence. A home intruder could always strike, aiming to burgle or kidnap or worse. That wasn’t just Cho’s paranoia talking, either. People showed their true, ugly colors in desperate times, and Sandakan’s ever-shriveling economy surely qualified as “desperate”. He and Ting thus agreed to keep his work trips secret, and also to plant visible signs of his presence to dissuade intruders when he left—signs like a pair of old, muddy work boots hanging in their window each night. If all else failed, Ting kept Cho’s old baseball bat by the nightstand just in case. It wasn’t fun to wonder about the wellbeing of his wife and child, but Cho couldn’t bring himself to turn down the work. Each time he tempted the idea, the most frightening prospect of all swelled in his mind: Ting and Leela as thin, pale specters collapsed on their living room sofa, just waiting for the end with their sunken cheeks and hollow eyes. The image held such sway over him that he was willing to do anything to keep it from happening, and well…being stuck behind the wheel of a dozer counted as anything. Alongside that, a secondary issue burned in Cho’s mind. Something about knocking down the ancient jungles of his homeland just didn’t sit right with him. He’d learned a lot about the planet’s disappearing rainforests at his American university, and contributing to that process in such a direct way brought him a degree of personal shame. He was the man everyone demonized in campaign ads, or political movements aimed at ending logging operations (ads which he himself would ironically support under different circumstances). Past that, watching trees fall over was a bizarre, somber spectacle to witness, much less orchestrate. He squirmed every time he turned one over, every time a tree’s outstretched, living tendrils clung to the ground for dear life. They always snapped loose, of course, with fantastic explosions of dirt and flurries of half-muffled pops which sounded like cartilage cracking under skin. What made it worse was knowing countless creatures had made that tree their home. Every trunk Cho tipped over pushed these denizens one step closer to perpetual homelessness, or at least, banished them further back into the dark, overcrowded recesses of the jungle to compete for an ever-diminishing pool of resources. Cho saw these animals from time to time, lurking in the trees while he worked. Jaguars. Orangutans. Parrots. They usually kept to themselves, but their constant, fearful gazes suggested they knew their home was shrinking. They always seemed ready to pounce at the hulking metal beast tipping over their trees, if only it were a few sizes smaller. Cho had actually heard of operators getting attacked in the past (one last month, if he recalled), and the stories must’ve been true because the company had lately stepped up their security for his expedition. A pair of armed guards attended every logging trip now—really just former poachers equipped with company uniforms and rifles. Cho peeked outside his bulldozer and saw them out there now, kicked back in their all-terrain buggy as they smoked cigarettes and waited for the morning orders. Their hunting rifles poked out of the vehicle’s camo netting like menacing barbs. Bzzz-bzz. Another burst of static from Cho’s radio. This time, a familiar voice broke through the noise. “Morning, boys. Sorry to keep you waiting,” said Ammar, one of the office workers at base camp. “No special orders today. You are all set for clearing sector G9, but as always, I’ll check-in on the hour. See you at dinner.” The message cut out, leaving the cabin as silent again save the patter of rain against its exterior. Cho threw his blue company cap onto his head and sighed. Time to put food on the table. He’d only just started the engine, however, when a massive orange figure slammed into his windshield. The entire cabin shook. Cho looked up and saw why: an enormous, agitated orangutan sat on top of his dozer’s hood, screeching and pawing at the glass. For a moment Cho only stared, enraptured by the frightening tenacity of the beast. He’d encountered orangutans before, always sauntering around and sulking in the shadows while he and his crew bulldozed, but never this close. Never this riled up. Cho shouted for the guards and waved his hands, forgetting in his panic he could simply hail them on the radio. As he looked their way, he was just in time to see an entire column of orangutans emerge from the jungle just behind the buggy. There was nothing Cho could do. The creatures paced across the open expanse to the guards, and of all the things to pop into his mind then, their formation made him think of war movies where entire regiments of men made a steady, unified push toward an enemy position. He did not have time to properly warn the guards, who by then had only noticed the orangutan on his bulldozer. They hustled from their buggy and aimed at the creature with their rifles, completely unaware of the larger threat. Cho tried to wave them off, but it was too late: the orangutans descended on them like lightning. He watched in horror as one of the men disappeared under a pile of flailing fists. The second guard had only enough time to spin around and fire a single shot—a complete miss—before another charging orangutan side-swiped him into the weeds. The other bulldozers started to pull out. Cho couldn’t move yet. He nearly went for his radio, but didn’t know who to call or what to say to them. The line seemed too busy anyhow, with multiple messages cutting in on each other in an unintelligible frenzy. Cho looked back outside, but the orangutan on his windshield had already jumped down. As for the guards, the orangutans dragged their limp bodies away. The men had to be dead, but even if they weren’t, Cho admitted he wasn’t brave or foolish enough to attempt a rescue. Instead of something like that, his animal instincts suggested another course of action: get-somewhere-safe-get-somewhere-safe-get-somewhere-safe. So Cho threw his rig into high gear and made a beeline for base camp.
As Cho’s bulldozer zigzagged down the steep, barren hillside, he peered out his window. Through the deluge he caught a glimpse of his destination, which rested at the base of the hill and just on the other side of a small river: a fenced-off area with paved ground, scores of trailers, supply tents, and a helipad. Base camp. He also saw the orangutans amassed on his side of the river, although they didn’t stay there long. Almost as soon as he identified them, the animals hurried toward base camp, shuttling across a bridge which spanned the waterway or even hopping across timber logs that floated downriver. Cho tried to radio in to base, but a stream of garbled transmissions blocked him out. That’s when he realized the situation was worse than he’d thought: he couldn’t use the radio because everyone was trying to use it. His dozer team, plus the other crews out there. Even base camp by now. The magnitude of the situation dawned on Cho for the first time. He pushed a breakneck speed down the hill, perhaps reaching the bottom in record time, and only increased his pace once on flat ground. The mechanical behemoth under him really roared to life then, blazing across the bridge as if suddenly prodded by a hot iron. What Cho saw as he passed through the front gate of camp, however, almost made him turn around. It had become an utter warzone. Orange blurs raced around in every direction, making it impossible to know where to look. Humans and orangutans littered the ground—some still squirming, others completely still. Sporadic gunshots punctuated the chaos, as did the steady torrent of rainfall and staggered thunderclaps. Screams from both species just barely penetrated the confines of Cho’s dozer, but in the fracas he could not tell the difference between them. He could only lay on the horn in hopes it would scare the creatures away, or otherwise make the conflict stall. It did neither. Everywhere Cho looked, grown men ran or crawled away from the orangutans. Any bastions of resistance that formed seemed to crumble in the same second. This was no battle, with two equal sides trading hits: it was a full on blitzkrieg. Not even a minute in and base camp’s defenders were already being forced to retreat. The orangutans exercised free, ruthless reign over every inch gained. Cho watched clusters of them scale trailers, destroy radio antennae, tear tent pegs from the mud, and even topple towering piles of supply crates. What scared him most about the scale of this destruction was the precision with which the orangutans inflicted it. They exhibited not aimless rage, but selective targeting, wiping out not just the base’s inhabitants but also its most valuable infrastructure. By the time he’d realized this, only a single, significant sign of human resistance remained: a hastily constructed barricade near the center of the base, comprised of several vehicles parked end-to-end in a defensive line. A number of workers and guards took cover here, as those with guns did their best to stall the advance of the incoming horde. The orangutans seemed to collectively realize the threat this wall posed, and in a moment of startling unanimity, postponed their acts of destruction to gather into one mass and charge the barricade. Some of the frontrunners dropped into the mud, presumably struck by bullets, but this hardly put a dent in their numbers. The orangutans closed the distance in seconds and overtook the barricade, scaling it much the same way an ocean wave would overwhelm a sandcastle wall. The creatures flooded into the ranks of the already-retreating defenders, who fell back to a lone, idling pickup truck in the back of the base. The pickup’s driver slapped against his door, perhaps urging his comrades to hurry, but his well-meaning evacuation would be hard-pressed to succeed: the swarm drew closer by the second. The driver seemed aware of this, and after waiting for as long as possible eventually stepped on it, leaving almost half the men behind in his haste. Even then, some of those who did make it inside were plucked right back out by the orangutans as the truck’s tires worked for purchase in the mud. They finally got it, and the car took off like a bullet. It slammed through the chain-link fence and veered off onto an old cargo trail, harboring only three survivors in the back. Four, counting the driver. Cho had only finished his counting when a lumbering shape appeared in his periphery. He spun left and saw another orangutan—perhaps the largest he’d ever seen—latched onto his door. The creature bashed a fist against the window, and Cho could think of nothing to do but honk and honk his horn like a damned fool. The noise did nothing to dissuade the orangutan, which beat mercilessly against the window until cracks began to form on it. Get out, Cho’s instincts warned. Get out! He unbuckled his seatbelt and sprawled for the opposite door, but a loud crash behind him suggested he was too late. Two impossibly powerful hands clamped on his shirt collar and yanked him clean in the opposite direction. He managed to grab ahold of the steering wheel, but it was a fleeting moment of security: the creature possessed terrifying strength. Cho’s fingers left the leather as soon as they’d clamped down, and his back—thank God he wore his utility jacket—grated against the pebbly shards of glass which lingered on the windowsill. The orangutan flung Cho from the vehicle like a trash bag. He pinwheeled through the air for what seemed an eternity, his precious company hat fluttering away in a blue blur. He landed soon enough: hard, and headfirst. Although layers of mud and his own flailing arms provided some cushion, enough of Cho’s body weight crunched down on his neck to send a bitter, blinding shock of pain down his spine. His vision went hazy, though he only noticed this once he finally rolled to a stop. He wondered if he might be paralyzed, but a quick wiggle of his fingers and toes put that concern to rest. Up ahead, his runaway bulldozer beelined toward one of the office trailers. The orangutan jumped off the vehicle right as it slammed into the poor building, which buckled on contact and fell over like somebody’s bad joke. It slid to a halt in the mud as the dozer’s momentum died, and Cho waited for a classic, Hollywood-like explosion. One never came. Instead, the hoots and grunts of orangutans reminded him he had other things to worry about. Cho’s instinct was to run away, but he knew that would only make him a target. Just pretend to be dead, he told himself. And so he did. Cho lay as still as he could manage, taking care not to let the large, vocal orangutans—some of which passed right by—scare him into making any sudden moves. He closed his eyes and disguised his breathing as best he could. Anything to mask his presence. Oddly enough, it was only then Cho noticed the cold drops of rain on his skin. For hours he pretended it was Ting, kissing his face in a string of wet, loving pecks while she told him that everything will be alright, baby. Everything will be alright…
The rain stopped sometime later in the afternoon. When all Cho heard was the thrum of jungle insects, he risked a peek around him and saw the orangutans had vanished. Their absence, along with the arrival of a dense pall of fog, lent the demolished base an eerie, somber quality. A throb of pain awoke in his neck as he rose, a haunting echo from his harsh landing. He ignored it and shambled toward the center of the base, perhaps searching for survivors…or perhaps, he felt drawn to the center of the grisly scene. Each step brought more dead men and orangutans into view. They all intermingled in the mud like discarded playthings. He pictured what Leela might say if she were here. Why are they all asleep, she would certainly ask in that low, curious voice children used when they suspected the mood was grave, but didn’t understand why. He imagined her standing beside him, chewing on her thumb while staring blankly, unknowingly at the scene before them. Waiting for his answer. Cho could not formulate one. He spiraled down into the heart of the matter: why were these creatures lying dead at his feet? Whose fault was it? He struggled to work through the blame game, though there was another roadblock to overcome before he could even begin that: simply wrapping his head around what had happened. The vacant shock he experienced now would not allow clarity to come. “Hey,” a man shouted somewhere behind him. The call echoed out into the jungle, where the fog and the trees swallowed it whole. Cho recognized the voice. He turned and saw Ammar, the man who always delivered their morning orders over the radio. He exited from one of the trailers with a cadre of other workers behind him. Hey, Cho tried to say back, but he only said it in his head. His voice hadn’t found its way out of his mind yet. “You made it,” Ammar called, and eased his way closer to Cho as the rest of the group fanned out. “Anybody else?” Some, yeah. In a pickup truck. Maybe went to get help. Ammar cast a wide glance around them. He seemed too preoccupied with the surrounding carnage to notice Cho’s silence. Another man leaned out from the office trailer. “HQ just radioed in,” he said. “They’re sending EVAC…and a lot of reinforcements.” “Good,” Ammar said. “Yeah, we gotta rally back. Hit them with everything we’ve got.” This declaration pulled Cho out of his trance. Revenge might’ve been on his radar as well, but he was primarily curious about what caused such an attack to begin with. He’d never seen animals behave in such a well-coordinated way, not even those of higher intelligence like orangutans. Weren’t they supposed to be largely solitary creatures, anyhow? Their attack defied everything he thought them capable of. Maybe they’re smarter than you give them credit for, he thought. Or maybe something is twisting their arm, causing them to act in ways that aren’t natural. “We’ll get them back,” Ammar muttered. “Oh yeah, they’ll get what’s coming to them alright. Stupid fucking animals.” He looked down, and his gaze stuck to an orangutan corpse that happened to be near them. In a steady, uneasy sort of way, Ammar stepped toward it. Cho followed at a distance. He was close enough to tell the animal was dead, or at least it certainly looked that way: bruised, muddy, and huddled into a strangely defensive ball. Looking at it brought Cho a mixed bag of emotions. He didn’t know whether to hate or pity the thing at his feet—at least, not until he saw its bloodied, swollen face. The features were so like that of a human’s Cho could not help but avert his eyes. At the same time he did this, Ammar stomped on the creature. Cho barely had time to figure out what happened before Ammar did it again: he dropped his boot on the creature’s hide with an ugly, ferocious grunt. Cho’s words left him. He could only stare in disbelief at Ammar, because the man looked so absorbed in his actions that he gave no indication he saw or even cared what Cho thought of them. As if to prove it, he struck the orangutan a third time. That’s when Cho finally said something. “Hey,” he shouted, and shoved Ammar away from the corpse. “What the hell is wrong with you?” Ammar stumbled, but recovered and trained a death glare on Cho. “What’s wrong with me? Me?” He retaliated with a shove of his own. Cho backpedaled some, barely managing to keep upright. “Yes, withyou. It’s already dead, pal. I don’t know what you’re trying to prove by kicking it like that.” Ammar scoffed. “I don’t believe this. Those things rolled in here and killed almost everyone in the base, and here you are sticking up for one. Hah!” Cho was well aware of the contradiction, and yet his newfound conviction rang even stronger. It probably looked strange to be protecting a corpse—the corpse of an enemy, no less—but he figured this made more sense than beating the shit out of one, so he held his ground. “Move,” Ammar ordered. Cho did not. In response, Ammar pushed him so hard that he toppled into the mud. He scrambled back to his feet, and it took everything he had not to charge at Ammar right then, to sweep the man off his feet with a bear tackle. Instead, the two only stared at one another and heaved like two rival creatures of the forest. The other men had gathered to watch by now, perhaps on the verge of intervening. “You’ll be lucky to have your job come tomorrow morning,” Ammar said. “Ungrateful piece of shit. Might as well be one of them.” He pointed off into the forest, as if to indicate Cho should go live with the orangutans, then stormed toward the trailer. The others dispersed then, leaving Cho alone again. Naturally, he worried if Ammar’s threat on his employment meant something. Ting and Leela’s narrow, malnourished faces appeared in his head again, and he wondered now if he’d gone and made his biggest fears a reality. His rational side begged him to be reasonable, though: Ammar might’ve been a full-timer with the company, but only in an entry-level position. The man couldn’t fire temporary workers himself, though it was possible he held enough sway to convince someone who could do that. Either way, it was unlikely their petty squabble ranked on the company’s list of priorities given recent events. Cho shifted his focus back to the orangutan’s poor, pitiful body, folded in on itself as if it’d froze to death. True, this orangutan and its ilk had attacked base camp…but who had really attacked first? Could he really fault the creatures for their actions, when every day their homes were being turned into toothpicks, baseball bats, and lemonade stands? Maybe their mysterious aggression wasn’t so mysterious after all. Maybe the picture was bigger than it seemed. Cho surveyed the base while such thoughts swarmed in his head. He spotted a blue lump some meters off: his company hat. He shuffled over to collect it, and after plopping it back onto his head allowed himself one last look at the orangutan, perhaps so the image would stick. After a tired sigh, he decided to join the others in the trailer. But the orangutan moved before he could go. Cho did a double take. The body appeared still now…but he knew he’d seen a flicker of motion. He narrowed his gaze and stepped toward the creature right as it moved again: a light squirm around the midsection. It was still alive, then. Cho checked his surroundings, leery one of the others might be watching, but when he saw they had all returned to the trailer he knelt beside the orangutan and wondered what to do next. He laid a reluctant hand on its side to check for breathing…but felt nothing. And yet as he sat there, the creature squirmed a third time. Something wasn’t right. Cho turned the orangutan on its back to look at its eyes, thinking perhaps they might reveal whether the creature was really alive. The maneuver gave Cho his answer. The orangutan—or rather, the mother orangutan—lay huddled around a small, wriggling infant. Everything suddenly made sense. The orangutan had expired not by defending itself, but its own child. This development left Cho dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to do, but at the very least he ruled out calling for help. Perhaps among better company he would’ve already done so, but he feared what the others might do to this vulnerable creature. It left only one option. Cho cursed himself, and after cradling the baby orangutan in his arms, carried it into his personal quarters as if it were Leela herself.
Cho crammed food, bottled water, extra socks, a flashlight, batteries, bug-spray, and anything else he could think of into his utility bag. It wasn’t meant to be used for hiking, but it would have to do. There came a small, high-pitched trill from his footlocker. Cho ceased his packing, and after a quick peek through the trailer’s window to ensure he was alone, he cracked the already-ajar lid of the locker fully open. The baby orangutan rested inside. It fidgeted, and turned its big, brown eyes to him. Hope you like your five-star arrangements, Cho thought. He’d crammed a towel at the bottom of the locker for bedding, and for air flow kept the lid propped open with a spare boot. Five-star arrangements, indeed. Cho eased the lid back into position and resumed his work. He’d formulated a plan to deal with the orangutan, but was still deciding if he should go through with it or not. It would be dangerous, that he could not deny. Enough animals roamed the jungle to make someone nervous about adventuring alone: panthers, snakes, and of course the orangutans now. Cho would need something to protect himself with, but that would be an easy fix: there were plenty of unused rifles lying around outside now… Other obstacles lingered, of course. Cho worried what might happen to him if he managed to make it back to base camp. Sneaking outside the perimeter broke almost every company rule, which basically meant that if his scuffle with Ammar hadn’t been enough to get him fired, his latest hair-brained idea certainly would be. Deal with those consequences later, Cho told himself. Somebody had to take the orangutan home. It would die otherwise. * * * Getting outside the perimeter proved easier than Cho imagined. Base camp was empty when he peeked outside, as everyone had presumably congregated in the main office to listen for more instructions from HQ. Cho didn’t care what they had to say. He had everything he needed to finish his mission, including sustenance, extra clothes, a rain jacket, a well-charged GPS unit to help him find his way back, and among a myriad of other supplies, a fully loaded rifle just in case. With all this gear in tow, he snuck straight through the front gate without incident, the onset of dusk making his exit all the easier. Next he hiked up the barren, ugly hillside. He admitted it would’ve been an easier climb if he were in his bulldozer instead, but the orangutans would surely perceive him as a threat if he barreled their way in that smoking tree-destroyer. The extra twenty or so pounds on his back nearly made him reconsider—not to mention the baby orangutan swaddled in a pouch on his front side—but he silenced the thought straightaway. The hassle would be worth it if it ensured the orangutans didn’t get any more upset than they already were. It took nearly half an hour, but in time Cho reached the top of the hill. By then the sun hid halfway behind the horizon. He readied his flashlight and peered down at base camp. It occurred to him he’d never been this far away from it, at least not while outside any sort of company vehicle. His mind swelled with thoughts of big, hungry predators, but in truth they were not his biggest concern now: he needed to figure out where to go. A vague sense of obligation to the baby got him this far, but Cho admitted to himself he had no clue how to proceed next. What did you expect, he thought, that the orangutans would be at the top of the hill waiting for you, and after a big parade they’d shake your hand, you’d hand off the baby, and everyone would go on their merry way? He kicked the dirt below and thought of what to do next. You’ll know when it comes to you, he finally decided, and sighed. He repeated the phrase in his head like a mantra. You’ll know when it comes to you. You’ll know when it comes to you. Cho glanced at base camp again, but this time, a series of bright flickers in the distance caught his attention. Pairs of white headlights, probably belonging to all-terrain buggies, crept from the cargo trail one by one and rallied into the center of the base. They resembled the shiny eyes of observant forest creatures lurking in the night…or perhaps a pack of predators prowling for something to devour. HQ wasn’t kidding about those reinforcements. There had to be ten or fifteen buggies down there, each of which with a handful of men inside. Cho now witnessed the mobilization of a small army, one that in all likelihood was headed his way. There was no time to lose. Cho turned his back on base camp, and like an intrepid creature of the jungle himself, slipped into the darkening labyrinth of trees without a sound.
Dusk gave way to night. Cho searched for a place to hide. Several feet away rested a sizeable clump of bushes, so he squeezed between them as quietly as possible. A pair of flashlight beams sliced through the air around him as he got situated. He held his breath. “Over here?” one of the men asked. “Yeah, right there,” another replied. He waggled his light some to indicate Cho’s general position. Shit. He prepared to run, or talk things over or maybe scare them away with a warning shot. None of those options sounded particularly promising: his best bet was to sit, wait, and just hope they moved on. The silence ate him up. “If it’s not an orangutan, then I don’t give a damn,” the second man said. “I don’t know. It could’ve been one.” “Well was it, or wasn’t it?” The first man grunted, in a way that suggested he could not satisfy the query. “Let’s get back with the others, then.” The men trudged off, and Cho let himself breathe. He summoned his GPS to peek at its fluorescent screen, and saw he’d travelled three miles from base camp: not an impossible trek back, but still a harrowing hike. Even then, the distance didn’t bother him so much as his dwindling battery, which was already half empty. This put him in a serious bind, as he hadn’t managed to see a single orangutan yet. What was he to do with the infant if a low battery forced him back to camp early? Cho tried not to think about it. The hunting party dimmed his hopes further. The brigade of armed men, numbering thirty to forty strong, had closed the gap on him in a matter of minutes. Though he’d managed to keep his distance so far, they had unwittingly surrounded his hiding spot, making an escape impossible. He peered through the bushes and sized up the closest group of men. Po-dunk poachers comprised part of their ranks, but most of the men looked to be professional soldiers, each armed with some variation of camouflage fatigues, combat padding, helmets, and bulky assault rifles. Their weapon had lasers attached to the barrels: these red beams zipped through the jungle air like hot threads, painting targets of interest with pinpoint accuracy as the men scanned for movement. Cho put the pieces together quite quickly. These men weren’t here in this great of number, with this much firepower simply to protect their company’s humble employees. They were here to wipe out what threatened their business: the orangutans themselves. So far, however, the men hadn’t tracked them down yet. They’d stopped to regroup on Cho’s position, and in the process worsened his predicament in every way. He couldn’t risk leaving to find the orangutans now, not when the possibility lingered these men might shoot him on sight. They’d already come this far to silence the orangutans…it wasn’t impossible to think they’d do the same to Cho once they discovered the little stowaway bound to his chest. Even if he did manage to slip away from them, the orangutans weren’t likely to welcome him in either. Too many armed humans treaded these grounds now, and the orangutans would surely lump him in with the majority. Fear gnawed at Cho’s constitution. Predators surrounded him. His innate animal wisdom summoned a solution: stay quiet! Stay hidden! it screamed. Survival now meant acknowledging his place in the pecking order and acting accordingly. It meant focusing all his energies on avoiding detection. So that’s exactly what Cho did. He rooted himself among the weeds and listened, catching more than he ever thought possible in his adrenalized fever. Despite his own quickened heartrate, he made out individual insects calling to one another, heard soldiers’ boot soles squeak against wet tree roots as they patrolled past. “Over here,” came a voice over the hunters’ radio system. “We got something.” The men came alive, buzzed around like angry bees preparing for a scrap. Something up ahead seemed to have their attention now, a brownish-orange lump on the ground which several of the red lasers converged on. Was it an orangutan? Cho steeled himself for the worst. Even the insects seemed to be silent, as if they were all waiting to see what happened next. “Looks like a dead one. They must be close,” said Radio Man. Another soldier suddenly held up a fist. “Hold up. Somethin’s movin’.” He’d barely uttered this when the ambush began. Cho couldn’t track the order of events once they started, as it simply was too dark, but things went something like this: orangutans emerged from every direction, and another violent battle ensued. Muzzle flashes lit up the jungle. Blurs of brown descended from the trees, yanked men into the air, swept them aside and tossed them into trunks. Cho heard staccato automatic weapons’ fire, bones crack, and screams rip from throats. The tang of gunpowder and sweat filled the air. The orangutans had launched an impressive ambush, and it didn’t take long to see it was working. Flashlight beams and lasers disappeared by the second, signaling the hunters’ numbers were dropping fast. “Get the fuck outta here! Move, move!” Those who survived the initial onslaught attempted to fall back, but the buggy drivers could not retreat right away. Their tires only spun mud as the orangutans closed in, crawled all over the vehicles and emptied them of their drivers. The rest of the men, now reduced to a handful, sprinted toward base camp. Some fired spurts from their automatic weapons back at the orangutans as they ran. Cho ducked to avoid the crossfire, but by now that was the least of his concerns. In all the chaos, he’d failed to notice the infant orangutan’s increasing unrest at the sound of so many earsplitting gunshots. The baby wailed and squealed to high heavens. Uh oh. Cho reached down and shushed the baby, even tried to rock it in his arms. Nothing helped. “Please be quiet,” he whispered. Maybe it’s time to run after all… Rustling overhead stole his attention first. Though it took Cho a moment to discern what stared at him from the foliage above, he nearly jumped out of his skin once his eyes made sense of the darkness. A score of fuzzy orangutan heads peered down at him, each wide-eyed and captivated by his presence in the bush. They erupted into a storm of hoots and kissing sounds, which made Cho panic and back out of his hiding spot. This exposed him to the rest of the orangutans, who heard the commotion and began to encircle him. They slowly closed in. There was no hope of running, now. No hope of fighting. Yet there still was hope. This was Cho’s chance to do what he came for. You’ll know when it comes to you. He got on his knees. The baby orangutan squealed once, and Cho held it up like an offering while keeping his eyes low. Two large, hairy feet planted themselves in front of him. More and more orangutans crowded around, so many that counting became pointless. Cho thought he should put the baby on the ground, so he did. He scooted back and lay face down on the dirt, trying to convey as much humility as possible. Meanwhile, curious hoots and grumbles rippled through the body of onlookers. All at once they went silent. Cho almost looked up to see why, but first a rough, powerful hand yanked him backwards by the shirt collar and hauled him away from the baby. His will to be submissive disappeared: he grappled and tugged on the orangutan’s arm, even beat it with his fists, but the creature’s grip did not falter in the slightest. When the other orangutans were far behind, Cho’s captor released him. He settled face down in the dirt, but lay still as the orangutan circled him a time or two. Finally, the creature backed away some. Cho rose to all fours and looked around. His deliverer had brought him to a place with a large opening in the canopy, where moonlight floated down and illuminated the area. Cho now saw the orangutan’s proud facial flanges. Male. He was also quite hairy, and possessed a worn face utterly inundated with wrinkles. As Cho studied him, the orangutan scratched his own chin and stared back at Cho from just a few feet away. The orangutan’s dedicated stare absorbed Cho’s attention most. Those placated, brown eyes moved in such a calm, yet intentional way. There was no other way to describe it: they looked human. In that moment something passed between them. Cho could not say what it was, but at the very least it dawned on him that the orangutan didn’t intend to hurt him. More than that, he appeared to understand what Cho had come here to do. Now, though, he seemed to be waiting. He probably wants you to leave. Cho pointed in the direction of base camp. “You want me to go?” In response, the orangutan only emitted a powerful, somber call that echoed through the jungle. Then he meandered back toward his kin. Cho stood and watched until the orangutan vanished from his sight, then began his hike to base camp. He’d expected a wave of triumph to overcome him by now, but instead found only an untraceable disappointment welling within him. It made no sense: had he not successfully returned the baby? He stopped once or twice to ponder this enigma. When no answers came, he only fiddled with his company hat and pressed on, chewing on his mysterious lack of fulfillment as he went. * * * Night still reigned as Cho arrived at base camp. He ambled through the front gate at roughly two o’clock in the morning, and encountered the mother orangutan’s body in the same spot as before. Looking at it now, everything made sense—why he had no sense of accomplishment, why this whole thing felt unfinished. He didn’t deserve any reward for delivering the infant home…not when he was the one who’d made it an orphan to begin with. Cho pulled his company hat from his head. After a woeful examination, he dropped it by the body and went to pack his things. Ting and Leela would have to get their food another way.