by Max Barry

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by The Borderlands of Wuchu. . 61 reads.



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09:31:13 CST Wednesday, 27 September 2102

Through a series of increasingly improbable events, we found ourselves in a cave in the Far East, trapped. The waves and tides outside had decided to keep us in.

"Goddammit!," said Jakob, who was crouched by Jazmin, Yaniv, and Attila by the collapsed opening of the cave over their phones, to see if they get a signal in there. "We're going to die. We're so going to die."

Mikah had found a bag of cashews in her pocket for some reason, and she was sharing it with me. "I don't know about you guys," she said. "But I'm glad. I'm really glad. I'm glad that we're going to die here. I want to die. In fact, I'm not even going to wait to die. I'm going to kill myself."

I pushed a cashew in her mouth. "Relax, darling."

She chewed with her mouth open and made exaggerated munching sounds.

"I told you we shouldn't go on our own," said Jakob. "I told you guys! Oh my god."

"Let's be honest," I said. "You dying won't be much of an issue in the greater scheme of things. Y’know?"

Attila walked towards Mikah and me. "I’ve been reading Thoreau,” he said. “And I’ve decided that I don't like transcendentawism." He spoke with a heavy Hungarian accent, and barely got through the word without effort.

"Was that word so difficult for you that you're sweating?" I asked him. "Because you're sweating a lot."

"I'm sweating because I'm trapped in a cave, and we're going to die."

"My sweat is sticky," commented Mikah. "It smells like death... and taxes."

Jakob was crying.

"Jakob," Yaniv, who was just sitting in another corner, with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, spoke in a calm tone. "Stop crying. It's going to be okay." I've always thought that his Ukrainian accent was, in a way, adorable, even if it did make it difficult to take him seriously.

"This is your fault!" Jakob said, pointing at Pentti, who was now reclining on his side, while sharing the cashews with us.

Pentti rolled his eyes.

"I told you not to leave the city, especially in this weather."

"Did we die, though?" said Pentti, before popping another nut in his mouth.

"We're about to!" screamed Jakob.

Pentti clapped to emphasize every word: "But. Did. We. Die."

I raised a finger. "The answer to that is: no. We did not die."

Pentti snapped his fingers, pointing to me.

"You're acting wike chiwdren," said Attila. Hungarians can't pronounce the letter L, or something. Maybe his tongue was just too short. Or his mouth was too long?

"Chillllldren," Mikah said to Attila, putting extra emphasis on the L sound.

"Chiwdren," responded Attila.

"LLLLLLLL," I corrected him.

"LLLLLLLL," said Pentti.

"LLLLLLLL," added Jazmin.

And then we were all doing it, making the L sound, except for, of course, Attila, and Jakob, who was still crying and walking around the edges of the cave to try and get a signal.

We were just looking at each other with our tongues out and touching our two front teeth, making the loudest shriek as possible, while Jakob wept and walked around. The rain was still pouring out, and we could hear the waves crashing against the mountain and the shore. In that moment, I felt what Hegel called The Absolute. I honestly had a transcendentaw experience. I was damn straight astral projecting, floating above myself, and looking down at my body, making that horrendous sound with my friends, and I felt at peace.

And then I remembered.

"Where's Yaniv?" I said.

The L sounds died down.

"He went further down into the cave when you weren't looking," said Mikah. "I don't know. I thought he was just checking things out, but he never came back."

Pentti shone the flashlight of his mobile phone towards the darkness behind us. The cave was significantly more immense than one might suspect from the opening.

"Yaniv!" he screamed into the great nothingness. The echo was barely audible, obscured by the rain. When he heard no response, he turned back towards us, saying, "Yeah, he’s dead."

"Happens," I said.

"I'm jealous," said Mikah.

"Who ate all the cashews? The hell," said Pentti, who was still chewing a handful of them. "Kotera, you ate all of them."

I looked at him with irate eyes. “Hoe?”

"Should we look for him?" asked Attila, who was now over-enunciating his Ls so that we'd shut up.

"Here are my thoughts," I said. "We're going to go hungry at some point. If we just wait a while, he's bound to die out there. Then, we can retrieve his dead body, and eat it."

"Nice thoughts," said Jazmin.

"Cheers," I thanked her. "They're homemade."

Much discussion about what ought to be done ensued. I wasn't listening, because I was honestly enjoying myself, in some perverse way. We were in a cozy cave, hearing the patterning sounds of the rain and the waves of the sea, in the company of friends. What more could you ask for, apart from, perhaps, the necessities of survival and a way out?

In any case, even for those of us who are not trapped in caves, aren't these the only two things that we always ever look for? The necessities of survival and a way out?

"Kotera!" screamed Pentti, snapping his fingers in front of my face.

I looked, and everyone had gathered to the edge of the vestibule where we had been crowding together. "What's sizzlin’?"

"First off, never say that again," said Pentti. "Second, we're going to look for Yaniv. Something might have happened to him already."

"Did he finally get a sense of humor?"

"Something possible," said Pentti. "So get up and come with us. We're going to search for him."

"’Something possible’," repeated Mikah. "I like that."

She had turned the bag of nuts inside-out and was sucking on it.

46 Following        31 Followers

11:12:51 CST Wednesday, 27 September 2102

On the plane, because of a clerical error, I was seated in coach, while everyone else was in business class. For some reason, Kotera had spelled my name "Stupid Ugly A**hole," through some inexplicable twitch of the fingers that, I suppose, everyone experiences once in a while, especially vegetarians, such as Kotera, because of their diets, which are most foul, strange, and unnatural.

The airline kindly put me on the flight, despite having to rebook me; they had no more seats in business class, however. I was wedged between two people I didn't know. Both seemed to be traveling alone.

The one to my left was an older man, satisfyingly rotund, with a long, white beard. He looked like Socrates, if Socrates moonlighted as Santa Claus. To my right was a younger man, seemingly from some Mongoloid origin. He might as well have been Genghis Khan. Maybe Tamerlane.

"They don't make these seats like they used to," said Santa, as he sat down from having placed his luggage in the overhead. "Boy, lots of things have changed since I was young. How old are you, if you don't mind my asking?"

Tamerlane was on his tablet, probably getting everything settled in preparation for take off, when he would have to turn it off.

"I'm 36 years old," I said. "Maybe old enough to ruminate about the good old days myself."

He nodded, and then placed his hands on his belly after interlocking them, the way a grandpa would, on his favourite chair by the fire, while he waited for his wife to lay his dinner on his lap, so he could eat it while watching the telly.

"I'm almost ninety," he said. "On my way out. I'm diabetic. My wife died ten years ago, so I'm lonely. I used to live in a care facility, paid for by my children, but I said ‘to Hell with that!’ I took out the few remaining cash I had, and I decided to tour the world while I still can. And that's why I'm on my way to the East."

"Cool," I replied.

"Also, I've always wanted to see those ‘traps’," he added, without looking at me, and nodding his head while staring at the distance.

"There it is," I said. "There's the real reason anyone goes to Asia."

"You, too?"

"Nah," I said. "I'm part of this philosophical terrorist group, called Wuchu. I'm the one who knows the practical stuff. And we're going to Indochina, to corrupt the youth, Socrates style."

"Sounds fun," he said. "I suppose that's what the kids are into these days. And Tweaker. And Racebook. And Crumbler."

"The Why-kee-pie-deya,” I said.

"Mhmm," Santa said, nodding. "Exactly. You know what we did in my day, to have fun? We'd go to the forest and dig a ditch. Just dig and build a ditch. And I’ll tell you what: we had the time of our lives. And now it's -- what is it? -- my arm-screen-tablet doesn't have jiggawatts! I can't download the prawn! Boo hoo. Can I give you some advice?"

"I only ever follow advice from men like you, so yes."

"The next time you're bored, skip the Microsoft Excel. Dig a ditch."

I just happened to scan the aisles, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Mikah’s face peeking out from the curtains separating coach from business class, before almost immediately disappearing behind it again. After a few seconds, Kotera did the same. Then, faintly, I heard giggling.

"I'm sorry to bother you," said Tamerlane. "I couldn't help but overhear. You were talking about b*tches?"

"Ditches," emphasized Santa. "I was merely giving him advice, as old men do to younger men, and telling him to dig a ditch. Digging a ditch builds character. It settles the humours. It makes you a man."

"Excuse me, sir," said the stewardess beside me, who pushed a cart with her. "Would you like deez nuts?"

I look up, and it's Mikah, strangely in the same uniform as the other flight attendants.

Before I could say anything, Tamerlane spoke up, "I'd like some nuts, please."

As Mikah reached over to give him a packet of nuts, she leaned towards my ear and whispered, "We've poisoned the food."

I stared at her, mouth agape.

"And you sir?" she asked Santa.

"No, thank you," he said. "I'm trying to cut down on my uric acid."

I excused myself, and walked through the curtain. There was an area there, a kind of in-flight kitchen, where the attendants prepare the meals. There was a streak of blood on the floor that led to the staff bathroom. I opened it, and inside were three people in their underwear, their foreheads bleeding.

Someone took the time to draw the Tree of Life on the mirror in blood.

"Not again," I said to myself.

I peeked through the curtain towards business class, and Kotera was also in uniform, although it was too big for him.

He was going from row to row saying, "Poison? Poison for you, madam? How about you, sir? Might I interest you in some poison?"

I saw that Jakob and Jazmin were seated on the row nearest the curtains, in the middle aisle, both of them sharing a pair of earphones, talking about music like they tend to do.

Jakob sniffed around. "Does it suddenly stink of self-righteousness to you?"

Jazmin made a face. "I'm going to vomit."

I took a nearby safety booklet, curled it into a stick, and then beat them both over the head with it. They giggled like children.

"We are going to prison again," I said in a whispered shout. "I told you never to commit these unplanned acts of terror again. The ICC judgeship term is coming up soon, so there won't be anyone to bribe."

"Listen to this," said Jakob.

Jazmin bopped her head while playing invisible drums. "That's sick. Sick like incest, not sick like the flu."

I hit them both on the head again.

Jakob made a face at me and wrested the booklet from my hand. "If you really want to be angry about something, be angry that Yaniv is flying the plane."

I said, "Ex-f*ckin-scuse me?"

"Yeah," said Jazmin, who was still beating her lap, presumably to the tune of some melody I wasn't hearing. "Relax. This is Ibiza all over again."

"That's what I'm afraid of..."

A voice then filled the cabin. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking." The Ukrainian accent and boyish tone were unmistakable. "Instead of boring you with things you already know and things you don't need to know, please enjoy this fun fact: Saturn has 82 moons with confirmed orbits, only 53 of which have names."

Before I could express how much I wanted to kill myself, a passenger leaned over to the aisle and began to projectile vomit. Then, another. And another.

A woman stood up screaming, with her hands to her head, while her husband puked his guts out on the aisle.

"The poison!" she said. "It's real!"

"What the hell did you think it was, you cretins?" I heard myself say.

The woman looked like she was going to cry.

"You should stop bullying people, Pentti," said Jazmin. "She looks very distressed."

Screams and shouts began to erupt all over the cabin. A man stood up from his seat and started to make his way to the crew area, but he vomited all the way there, and then just collapsed on the floor, his face landing on a puddle of his own puke.

Jazmin laughed at him.

Yaniv’s voice filled the cabin again. "Mel Blanc performed in 709 films, not including over 100 TV movies and video productions. He also had 81 uncredited voice parts in films."

I went back to coach. It was mayhem. Bodies were piled onto each other, covered in puke. Some people were still puking, all over themselves, all over others. They were puking while screaming. Some were projectile vomiting. It smelled like hell, too. I felt like vomiting myself just from the stench.

Kotera emerged from the staff bathroom, zipping up his pants.

"Sup," he said to me in a casual tone.

"Yet again I seem to be the last to be informed about these plans," I said.

"No offence, but you're just so boring." He walked to the cupboard, grabbed a tea bag, and turned the stove on, to heat the kettle. "And you would have - oh, I don't know - tried to stop us, or something."

"What exactly is your endgame here?"

"Well, I've been talking to the Dearest Chairman."

"I told you to stop talking to that man."

"He's cool," said Kotera, leaning against the counter. "Just misunderstood. You know who else was misunderstood? Socrates. Jesus. Karl Marx. Snooki."

He made a face at me.

"Anyway, the Good Chairman is going to take these people hostage, so that he can use them as leverage," he said. "Advance the cause, and all that."

"You're helping a murderous dictator further his international agenda of terror?"

He repeated what I said, but in the whining voice of a child, while making a silly face.

He rolled his eyes. "I don't think you know as much about the Eastern Polity as you think."

"And how are we going to get to Indochina?"

"We're going after, duh," he said. "We'll probably have more credits, too, so win-win. You can get a nice Thai femboy or whatever you're into. I'm personally going to find myself a Vietnam-era tank."

"You have enough tanks."

Kotera turned to me. His face had a blank expression, as if his soul had just left his body. His eyes were empty, bottomless wells, from which one could hear, only faintly, the wailing of the damned.

Almost in a whisper, he said, "You can never have enough tanks."

At home, he had just commissioned another hanger to be built, adjacent to the one we already had, so that he can have more tanks. I should have known this was coming. I should have known there was some play to obtain the vehicles that would be used to fill up that hangar.
I should have known he was consorting with murderous dictators again. Especially ever since the last of the Kims had been executed, and he hasn't even gotten over Gaddafi yet.

Sometimes, during conversation, he still wistfully looks into the distance and, as his smile fades, intones, "Muammar would have loved this..."

Just as sudden as it began, we were then in silence, save for the hum of the engines and the kettle, the hot water in which was beginning to boil. Kotera poured the water in a cup and began dipping the tea bag into it. The water turned a light shade of green.

"It'll be fine," he said. "Like always. And if not then you can just... Y’know."

"I know?" I said. "What do I know?"

"Like that time, with the thing."

"We don't talk about the time with the thing."

He shrugged. "I'm just saying, like the time with the thing you can do what you did."

"You know I don't like talking about the time with the thing when I did what I did so what happened could happen at the time that it did."


Yaniv was on the intercom again. "Ladies and gentlemen, if you're interested in mechanics, it's time to look to your right. We see several Flanker-Cs in battle formation around our aircraft, ready to intercept."

"Whoops," Kotera said, before taking a sip of his tea.

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The Borderlands of Wuchu