Indigo’s sleep was restless due to the gusts of wind that howled through the high Hegel Valley. It was bitter cold that night, a brisk lick of lingering winter. There were no more summers in the Hegel valley. Winter snows melted into cool, bright springs. The mild sun shone down, drawing up the pastel blue columbine flowers that filled in the pastures, but soon, spring would be pushed aside by the low, swirling, gray clouds of autumn. The first snows usually came before the equinox.
The wind that was keeping Indigo awake carried the eerie bugle of a bull elk. It was a warning to the lesser bulls that might be inclined to move in on his harem of cows and their calves. The elk were moving through the night between the high passes that saddled the encircling mountains where the air was cooler and the grass was luscious.
The herd had made these rounds for a hundred thousand years. Their greater route consisted of giant loops from meadow to meadow and great treks from valley to mountaintop and back down again. They lived by the change of the season for eons and it mattered little to the hardy beasts if the summers were long or short or never came at all. They are built for cold with thick, muscular bodies, and huge, piston-like hearts that pump rich, burgundy blood through their cable work of arteries.
If elk were sentient, then they would probably have little to say in regard of men. The human herd waxed for three centuries, conquering the wild lands by carving roads, damming the water and laying their own cable work. Then they waned for the next three centuries, leaving behind their eroded, oxidizing remnants.
If the elk of that windy night could extrapolate— which they can’t because the entirety of their brain could fit within a grown man’s palm— they might take solace in knowing that men might be gone altogether from their ranges in a mere generation or two. A sentient elk with religion might attribute it to the victory of Gaia over the hubris of the materialistic ape. Divine intervention was not why men were disappearing, but an elk might think that way if he had slightly more gray matter.
Indigo pondered these goofy thoughts as he listened to the wind and the whimsical whistle of that bull which trailed off into a low grunt more befitting such a massive and majestic creature.
He went downstairs and out onto the wooden planks of the back porch of the inn and into a small fenced area where a garden was kept. A contraband of tomatoes and beans were growing there. Private agriculture was illegal, having been deemed a ‘security risk’ by the republic. Most undermen people ignored that law (one of the few that they had the courage to disobey) and grew those items that brightened up the pallets dulled by a perpetual diet of soy cubes and broth. It was dark, so Indigo could not tell if any of the tomatoes were ripening.
Indigo looked up at the heavens. It was windy but it was clear and moonless, chilly, but the freshness of the night made the outing worth it. As his eyes adjusted, the stars flickered to life on the heavenly, opal canvass. So many stars there were. So far away they were. So far away they were even when he was a hundred million kilometers from earth. Someday, mankind would reach them, at least that was what the bureaucrats promised. Indigo had his doubts but his doubts made him ill so he tried not to have them.
He picked Mars out of the sky, an orange beacon transiting Aquarius on that particular evening. So far away it was from him now, too. He had seen it up so close, as any proper planet should be viewed. He had touched its surface…
From the Astarte, Mars was awe-inspiring, like one’s first view of the Gaia Canyon. So close he was to Mars at that moment that it filled the portal of the titanium space can each time it rained into view. So clear it was that he could make out the caldera of Olympus Mons.
Hurtzweil was a technician and the cook of the Astarte. He was a shaggy fellow, covered in Slavic man-fur and a beard that muffled his voice a bit when he talked. He was gregarious in appearance but acerbic in demeanor— a fuzzy teddy bear filled with bile. Mostly a loner, he became more so as the months from launch drug on. And when things began to go wrong, Hurtzweil suffered the misfortune of being the first to die.
Hurtzweil lost his marbles. He went from short-tempered to withdrawn and finally to utterly catatonic. Athena tried frequently to comfort him. She fed him when he stopped feeding himself. She sung him songs of hope… happy songs. Athena’s nimble voice was like the dance of a shimmering hummingbird. The others watched and listened, knowing that she could not breach Hurtzweil’s wall of insanity. He never even so much as smiled at her.
One day, when everyone else was occupied with dials and indicator lights, Hurtzweil, dressed only in his underpants, decided to go for a space walk. And that was the end of Hurtzweil…
Back on Earth, in the garden, Indigo heard a rustling noise that sounded like a foraging animal or something. At least it was the sound he imagined a foraging animal would make for he had never actually heard one. He walked towards the noise, through the garden, to the fence that bordered a dirt alley. The rustling and growling came from the yard across. Indigo wanted a closer look.
“What if it’s a bear?” He asked himself. This only piqued his interest and he quietly slipped through the gate into the alleyway and crept up to the neighbor’s fence which concealed the source of the noise.
Between rustles and grunts came squeals of nailed wood being pried loose.
A plank snapped and something sighed and pawed at whatever had captured its interest, scraping the wood with its claws.
Indigo put his eye to a knot in the fence. Nothing.
Scratching and pawing.
Indigo silently shuffled down along the fence and peered through a gap in the planks. More nothing.
Low groaning sounds.
He squatted down and peaked through another knot hole. He saw it, some sort of beast. He could make out its hide moving, bobbing, pulling and pushing in the dark yard. Then Indigo was startled by a woman’s voice.
“I see you!” It shouted.
Both Indigo and the beast froze.
“I see you, devil! Stay right there!”
Indigo could not see the beast in full, which was backlit by a lantern held by a small woman who appeared on a landing. She held a glistening meat cleaver in her other hand. The beast hissed.
The small woman threw her hatchet at the beast and the thud of the blunt edge impact shocked it into flight, up and over the fence, all in one heave, almost landing directly on Indigo’s head as it came down on his side. Indigo and the beast stood eye-to-eye for a moment and Indigo realized that the beast was no animal.
“Hold it right there!” The woman screamed as she scrambled to pick up her cleaver.
But the beast, staring into Indigo’s eyes, would not wait long enough for the woman to smash her hatchet down on his skull. It took off on two legs, down the alleyway that ended abruptly at a strand of evergreens not fifty meters away in the darkness. The beast darted into those woods and the piney branches sprung back and sealed up the void behind him as if he had never been there.
“Next time I’ll get more than my meat cleaver. Damn you humate devil!”
Indigo pulled his head up over the fence to get a look at the woman.
“Who in the hell are you?” She asked when she saw him.
“Don’t kill me. My name is Indigo.”
“Indigo? The spaceman?”
“Yes. Yes I am.”
“Where’s your space suit then, spaceman?”
“I don’t wear it at night.”
“Oh yeah? Why not? You wore it in space and it’s always night up there.”
Indigo decided to change the subject.
“What was that thing?”
“Ha!” She answered. “That was an animal, a filthy ape! A dirty, humate devil.”
“What was it doing here?”
“It was stealing my vegetables. He’s damn lucky this didn’t get him.” She exclaimed as she waved her meat cleaver.
You want to kill him for stealing your vegetables?”
“I got my rights, spaceman. I got my right to defend my allocated living space from devils.”
“Devils?” Indigo asked.
“Humates is devils. No doubt about it. I know him. He is Joe Hannan and he’s the devil for sure.”
“The devil is named Joe Hannan and wears a bear skin?”
“Yes. He’s the devil.”
“And the devil lives in Hegeltown? I would have never guessed.”
“The devil lives in lots a places, spaceman. Lookie, you come over here. Yeah, come on around there and come through that gate.”
“You’re not gonna plant that cleaver in my head, are you?”
“Are you the devil, too?”
“Then you got nothin’ to worry about. Come on over here.”
“Come inside. Let me show you something, spaceman, if that is who you say you is. Come on in. But don’t try getting fresh because I’ll chop your member off. Believe me, I’ve done it before.”
Indigo made his way through the creaky gate and up the creaky steps and into the creaky old woman’s allocated living space (otherwise known as a house), guided by her lantern light.
“Follow me. That’s it. Take my hand. Here, over here. Sit down right here. Good.”
The woman’s hand was cold and waxy. She let go and made her way into a dark corner of the room where she lit another lantern. What came into view took Indigo by even bigger surprise than the encounter with the devil named Joe Hannan. What he found was himself seated in a parlor with dark-stained wooden floors and overstuffed with several pieces of velveteen, high back furniture. But there was more… much more.
The old woman stoked her hearth back to life. There were two lamps with canvas shades and the walls were darkly paneled to match the floor. The old woman, dressed in a heavy, corduroy nightgown, shuffled up to the lamp closest to Indigo. She lit it which brightened an assortment of artworks adorning the paneled walls. Above the fireplace, the head of a beast stared down at Indigo with menacing, agate eyes. But the beast’s mummified head was no deer or elk. It was the head of a humate with its two hands and two forearms mounted to a ledger board. Indigo was not quite sure what to make of it all other than that it was highly disturbing.
“What do you make of it?” the old woman asked, anyway. “My late partner and I harvested that one up on Packard Pass.”
He wanted to blurt out “it’s disturbing” but he held back as the cleaver was still within her arm’s length. He didn’t want to upset her and end up mounted to her wall as well.
“See this one? I caught this little devil in my garden ten years ago. Little humate bastard almost got away. I had to shoot him with my crossbow. Would you care for some soy milk?”
Before Indigo could answer she passed out of the macabre parlor and into the kitchen where he could hear her fiddling about with her pots and wood stove.
“Turn up that lamp next to you, spaceman. You need more light to appreciate it all. There’s thirty years of trophies in here.”
“That’s a very interesting lamp,” Indigo observed, trying to shift away from the topic of stuffed humates. “I’ve never seen this kind of material on a lamp before. What is it? Some sort of synthetic canvas?”
“It ain’t synthetic.”
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