They were ascending, again.
Indigo returned to D’naia in their cattle car. The other humates there remained silent and still, unable to sleep but too exhausted and cold to stir. All of them that is, except for the taxidermist who dozed in blissful serenity beneath her lantern, her Gaians Bible tucked beneath her head, lips quietly muttering psalms from the book of Lovejoy.
“What happened?” asked D’naia
“They took me to see the Sunstein Agent.”
“Did they hurt you?”
“So what happened, then?”
Indigo held back. He didn’t want to tell D’naia that their freedom was bought for the price of a man in a silver suit… and the price of their immortality, too. He didn’t want to know what D’naia’s response would be. To Indigo, D’naia was pure and virtuous. She was a woman of highest cynical integrity. If Indigo was to tell her of the Faustian bargain he had made, he feared she might actually condone it. That revelation would ruin his perception of her and he feared that would poison his love for her.
“We talked about our future,” he answered.
“I didn’t know we had one.”
“Apparently, now we do. That is, if we behave correctly.” Indigo knew D’naia was keen. He knew that she knew that he was holding something back. He awaited her to pounce.
“Does that mean we will live?”
“Yes,” Indigo answered, directly. But he wanted to add, “for a little while” instead.
“What do I have to do?” D’naia asked.
“Nothing. Nothing except be an obedient undermen.”
“And what about you? What do you have to do?”
“Do you want to ask me if you should do it?”
“No. I need to own this, myself. All I want is for you and our child to live. That’s my only priority.”
D’naia searched Indigo’s eyes in the darkness for some hint of his tribulation. She knew that whatever it was it was something awful. “I won’t ask you about it, then. I know you’ll do what is right.”
The train continued to ascend for another five minutes before it happened. An ear shattering ping followed by a jolt sent everyone tumbling towards the front of the cattle car. Then a sustained, violent buffeting threw the prisoners about the box. Each lunged for the fixed bars and boards and posts and arms and legs and anything else to cling to.
The pummeling worsened, as if the wheels of the train were running on the ties rather than the track. They finally slowed but they could feel their car begin to list to one side. In the darkness, it was not known if they would merely tip over or tumble entirely off the edge of a canyon wall to be smashed on rocks far below. Everyone screamed for their lives as if screaming might right the compartment and save them. And just as the teetering boxcar was about to fall over, it was as if the invisible hand of God intervened. The cattle car righted itself just as they ground to a full stop.
The screaming gave way to hyperventilating and sighs of relief as the prisoners untangled themselves and caught their breath. The oil lantern above the taxidermist had broken and started a small fire but Indigo managed to stamp it out. It was utterly dark, then, with the only visible thing being the deepest blue of the starlit sky leaking in between the wood planks of the roof.
“What happened?” asked one of them, his voice unassignable in the darkness.
“I think the train has derailed,” Indigo answered to the shadows.
The taxidermist groaned somewhere nearby.
“Are you hurt?” Indigo asked.
She answered only with more groaning.
“Where are you? I can’t find you,” Indigo asked.
“Keep away from me you doppelganger,” she barked.
“I’m just trying to help you,” Indigo begged to the darkness.
“You don’t want to help me. You want to possess me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Listen! Listen!” She called out. “They are coming! The savages are coming!”
Someone started to weep in another corner of the darkness.
The taxidermist kept at it. “They’ve done this to us. They’ve derailed us. The savages! The cannibals! And now they’re coming for us. They’re coming! Gaia please help us!”
The others began to whisper and whimper in the darkness.
“The savages! The savages are coming to rip us out and devour us. Cannibals!”
“Shut up, old woman” barked another voice.
“We’re all going to die! They’re going to eat us alive! String us up by our ankles and pull out our entrails and carve off our flesh while we scream! Savages!”
Someone covered the taxidermist’s mouth.
A breeze of cold night air blew through the cattle car. The humates listened for the footfalls of the approaching cannibals outside but there was just the wind, the winter wind, swirling through the trees. And then, as if carried in by the wind, there came the high, eerie howls of wolves that trailed off into a flurry of yips and echoes. The taxidermist let loose a muzzled wail in the darkness. To her, the wolves were an omen. She wailed her deadened wails again and again, the screams stifled by the palm of another hoping desperately that silence might spare them the agony of having their genitals ripped off by savages.
They were out there. They were coming. The wind, the freezing wind, ripped through the cattle car again, chilling their bones. The terrified prisoners prayed for their lives. They called out for the Overman— the ones who would erase their brains— to protect them from the cannibals.
“Help us! Save us!”
A chorus of high pitched yelping and howling and huffing built into a symphony of chaos. The dogs of doom were closing in.
“Why won’t you help us?” Someone screamed.
…came the sound of machine gun fire.
The wolves ceased their howling.
The cool wind whistled again through the slats of the cattle car.
Indigo held D’naia. She was shivering. Her neck was swollen. His blind eyes darted about in the darkness.
They heard Footfalls darting through the ballast just outside the boxcar.
The taxidermist ripped off the hand that had muzzled her and let out a wail, “They’re right outside! The cannibals! Gaia help us all!”
“Shut her up,” ordered Indigo into the darkness.
More footfalls in the gravel.
Silence. The wind. The footfalls moved away. The taxidermist growled under her new muzzle. They heard more running in the distance.
BANG BANG BANG
An iron CLANG.
BANG BANG BANG BANG
A squeal of rusty iron…
Their car began to vibrate, then move. Yes, it was rolling again. It was still on the rails. Outside they heard panicked voices. Men were scrambling about trying to stop the cattle car, but the cattle car was gaining speed. Men were running through the ballast to keep up. A thump! Someone jumped on but he had no way to unlock the door. The car accelerated. Faster, faster, backwards it rolled down the slope. The occupants watched the silhouette of the guard against the starry backdrop through the cracks in the slat walls.
“Was he armed?” Indigo asked himself.
“Help us! Help us! Save us from the cannibals!” cried the undermen in the locked car. It was of no use. The faceless guard lost his nerve and jumped off, landing with a fading scream of pain, his knee ligaments scrambled upon landing.
Faster, faster and faster they rolled, backwards down the grade. It wasn’t known what was outside. A cliff? A forest? A field? How fast could the car go before it slipped the rail and tumbled off that invisible cliff that no one was exactly sure was there? The taxidermist started to pray to Gaia again.
Faster, faster, faster still. The decent was steepening. Down they plunged into some unknown abyss. Indigo found D’naia and held her close. She shivered silently in his arms.
Faster, faster, faster, faster. The cattle car rolled and its steel frame groaned and shrieked. The wood slats creaked and snapped under the torque. Indigo was certain they would take the first bend too fast and the wooden box would tumble off into the woods and down an embankment and explode into a million shards of brittle pine and steel rivets and femur bones and severed limbs.
The taxidermist threw off her muzzle again and screamed. Its pitch was blood-curdling, guttural, not the voice of an old woman but the voice of a demon. It trailed of as she ran out of air. Then she sucked in a huge breath and screamed again but this time it was cut short by the snapping of pine slats.
Indigo thought of God.
The thought— the idea of a supernatural being, omniscient and omnipotent— if that’s possible— surprised him. “Are you ready to die?” he asked himself.
He thought that very same thing while he was aboard the failing Astarte, but that was different. That was a slow dread of the mortal end brought on by dehydration, radiation poisoning and claustrophobic insanity. This was death coming at him at a hundred kilometers per hour with a screaming lunatic taxidermist adding to the hysteria.
“We’re dead! Dead! Our heaven is gone!” She screamed, after wriggling loose of her muzzle once again. “Oh Gaia, why have you forsaken me? I curse you, evil Mother!”
Indigo, with nothing left to lose, began to mumble a prayer himself…
“Dear God, if there be something beyond this mortal coil, please consider that in my final moment I reached out to you in humility…”
Although Indigo did not pray to be spared, he sensed the cattle car immediately begin to slow. The squealing of the steel dissipated and the snapping of the boards ceased. The cattle car calmed, decelerating, finally easing to a squeaking stop.
Indigo got himself up and put his eyes to a gap in the slat wall. There was nothing to see except blackness. He tried the handle on the sliding door but it remained locked.
“What are you doing?” asked the taxidermist.
“I’m trying to get us out of here,” Indigo answered.
“Stop that! You’ll let the wolves in. Stop!”
“I’ll take my chances out there with them.”
“You’re endangering us all. Just wait. Motherland Security will come and rescue us.”
Indigo pried at a loose board hoping to break it free.
“They’ll be here any minute with their hovercraft.”
“I doubt it,” Indigo replied, after giving up on the board.
“They will. They’ll swoop down like angels and save us before the cannibals get here.”
“So they can murder us themselves?” asked D’naia.
“They are our angels.”
“You give them too much credit,” Indigo answered. “It’ll be hours before they get here, if at all.”
“You speak the devil’s lies.”
“I know what they will do. There won’t be any hovercraft.”
“He’s right,” answered D’naia.
“No one’s talking to you, whore,” barked the taxidermist.
“You shut your mouth,” Indigo answered, “or I’ll make sure to tie you up to a tree out there and leave you to the wolves after I get us out.”
Indigo walked the interior of the dark cattle car, probing the walls in the darkness with his hands and kicking the lower boards with his bare feet. Despite all the creaking and snapping of planks, the walls remained impregnable. He looked up and noticed that a crack in the roof had opened up but he had no way up to reach it. He finally gave up and found his way back to D’naia.
“What was that?” asked the taxidermist.
They all listened intently. Something was again outside the car.
“They’re back!” the taxidermist shouted. “They’ve come for us! Devils!”
“Shut her up,” whispered Indigo.
Something climbed onto the back of the cattle car and took hold of the handle to the end door but the lock held fast. The taxidermist started to hyperventilate. Rebuffed, whatever it was climbed onto the top of the boxcar. Indigo listened to the footsteps as they shuffled lengthwise down the spine of the roof. It stopped at the crack in the ceiling. Two hands reached in through the hole and tore the boards loose creating a portal up through which Indigo could see the stars. Whatever was on that roof was coming in. The undermen in the cattle car backed away into the farthest corners of the cattle car, not plotting any resistance but rather hoping only to be murdered last. Indigo and D’naia held each other again. She had stopped shivering.
A silhouette appeared above, blotting out the starlight. It dropped into the boxcar from the ceiling and landed with a thud in the middle of the floor.
The taxidermist screamed another guttural scream. Indigo clung to D’naia. He could not make out what it was in the faint starlight. He listened and stared with blind eyes.
A white light filled up the person of the intruder. It was a man in a spacesuit which glowed of its own white phosphorescence— a handy feature to have when you are floating about in space, expecting someone to keep an eye on you. Indigo knew that it was Staley which was confirmed when he removed his helmet.
“It’s you,” Indigo remarked.
“You were told that I would come for you.”
“We had given up.”
“You have so little faith.” He turned to the others in the car. “Come with me if you seek life.”
Someone on the outside pried off the lock on the sliding door and rolled it open. Outside were a dozen humates, dressed in canvas and hides and carrying crude weapons. The prisoners each left the cattle car except for one, the taxidermist, who wished to remain behind and wait for her angels to pluck her from the wild lands and haul her off to salvation. Staley obliged her and assured her that no ‘cannibals’ would visit her that evening. He closed the door so that the wolves could not get in.
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