With a piercing screech of metal on metal and one giant whooshing exhale, a rickety steam locomotive came to rest alongside the weathered pine siding of the Hegeltown Station. The old engine’s whistle screamed a geyser of translucent steam that rippled upwards into the crisp, cloudless, Spring sky. A conductor, tucked away inside, pulled a cord that toggled a brass bell which signaled the passengers to make their way out onto the platform. The lonely outpost of Hegeltown was the end of the line, literally, as the rails stopped a mere hundred yards beyond the station.
A big crowd had gathered which was a good representation of the entire 862 undermen who resided in Hegeltown and outlying areas. Perhaps three hundred or so crowded the landing and anxiously awaited the emergence of the space heroes for whom they had heard so much about in church. Some of the undermen had come from the farthest corners of the sparsely populated Hegel Valley where the rim of high plain filled in with pines and climbed upwards into the jagged, icy, Ivy League Peaks. Many of those far out homesteaders had to rise early in the darkness and chill and ride their burros several miles into town by the light of the near full moon and the twinkling stars of Aquarius rising in the deep blue southeastern sky.
The Hegel Valley was itself one of the remotest outposts of Highlands District 53; which itself was a mere geographical inkblot in the north of the Atzlan Sector; which itself spanned the greater part of the southwestern quadrant of the North American Region; which itself comprised half of the habitable land area of greater Gaiastan. Gaiastan emerged from the Old World’s designed self-destruction. She was the culmination of the Anti-Renaissance and the final evolutionary leap in geopolitics.
Gaiastan! Long Live the Motherland!
Hegeltown, staked into the end of the railroad line, was a place where both sides of the track were the ‘wrong side of the track’. No better end of the line could be envisioned as the crumbling village was located in a landlocked island, walled in on all sides by the enigmatic Ivy League Peaks and a two thousand foot wall of crackling blue ice known as the Gunnison Glacier which ground ever on, ever southwards.
Indigo was slow to prepare to exit the train and kept the muslin curtains of his tiny chamber drawn. He dreaded another public appearance, even if it was a final one, and wanted only to find a quiet room at the inn where he could sleep for three days. His astronaut’s pension would not have gotten him very far in the great Overman cities of Rahmcago or Goropolis, but out here in the frontier, it might be just enough to fund a long, lazy sabbatical. It was an exhausting Triumph and a very long, very bumpy, nerve-racking train ride. He very much looked forward to the rest.
Indigo sighed as he thought about the long train ride now thankfully behind him. The train journeyed from the smoky, coal-fired industrial sectors of the Huxley Region, over the Great People’s River, across the vast, grassy buffalo commons that spanned a thousand miles of Dehumanized Zones.
The entire journey was made in that one rickety steam locomotive and the dark nights crossing the steppe in that rusting, rattling machine were the most unnerving for the transcontinental passengers. Their terror simmered at every abnormal sounding ping or clang that might indicate a pending engine breakdown.
A breakdown in a Dehumanized Zone would be a most unfortunate circumstance. Everyone knew that, for one, the Dehumanized Zones were populated by roving clans of unhuman cannibals that stalked the railways waiting to pounce upon and devour the sweet meat that rode aboard the trains; and two, the steppe was far too remote to expect a timely rescue by Motherland Security hovercraft in the event of said cannibal attack. The passengers, whenever afflicted by that terror, had to remind themselves to ‘think green’, which is to think pleasant thoughts in order to distract oneself from the terror.
“Think green and praise Gaia!” Was the passenger’s mantra.
The steppe was unhuman turf, to be crossed as quickly as possible. It was an enormous expanse of territory, over 500,000 square miles, far too big to patrol and subdue in any sustainable manner. The little locomotives that traversed the Zone were equipped with a security detachment, an archaic machine gun (it was far too dangerous to equip them with an energy blaster as it might fall into unhuman claws), and a few hundred rounds of ammo. The detachment, which was actually just one fellow manning the aforementioned machine gun, was given instructions to shoot any and all filthy, disease-infested, humates on sight. Unhumans were dangerous and crafty, it was said. They were often known to surround a broken down train in the darkness, taunt the top-gunner until he expended the last of his ammunition, then clamber aboard dragging their knuckles, gnashing their jagged teeth, and dribbling drool down their chins. The passengers would be quickly overpowered by the soulless unhumans who would savagely rape all genders then gnaw off their fingers. Then the passengers would be drug off into underground caves to be impaled alive to be eventually cooked alive and eaten. It supposedly happened all the time far out in the Zone, at least so said the mainstream media.
The most sinister aspect of it all, according to conventional wisdom, was that the unhumans, omnivores by nature, had plenty of beasts to hunt and berries to forage out on the steppe without having to bother with a menu of civilized human beings. Yet, they attacked and devoured them nonetheless. The most respected and highest-ranking Overmen sociologists reasoned, and it was universally accepted, that the reason the undermen did these savage deeds was due to their genetic predisposition towards radical wrongmindedness. One must be cured of wrongmindedness or it will poison the brain and turn one irreversibly to evil.
Overmen, by virtue of their superior eugenics, had enough faculty to control the mental creep of wrongmindedness. Undermen, however, did not. But undermen had the blessing of their Overmen benefactors who provided for them a sustainable civilized culture delivered to them by vaccine, religion, and codex enforcement. Undermen were the Overman’s burden. The elite’s scientistically designed pogrom diluted and suppressed the undermen’s inherent strains of evil thought down to civil and sustainable concentrations.
Unhumans, on the other hand, did not have this benefit. Nor, it was argued, could constant bombardment by correct-thinking symbolism have any impact on them. Unhuman brains were feeble and consumed with envy and hatred of the higher castes of man. They obviously resented the Overman’s superior eugenics and the unhuman dysfunction inevitably led them to barbarous cannibalism.
No, a locomotive breaking down way out in a Dehumanized Zone was not a desirable predicament to find one’s self in. Thankfully, the train carrying the spaceman heroes on the final leg of their triumph made it through unscathed… A Motherland Security hovercraft was kept on high alert, however, even if it was probably out of range.
Indigo waited in his cabin as the steam engine cooled and the bustle of shuffling of passengers diminished. The crowd that had come so far to witness the spectacle of the heroic spacemen grew restless. Indigo’s pulse started to race, compelling him to action. He could feel himself sweating as he finally mustered himself.
Indigo finally peeled back the muslin curtain of his chamber and examined the crowd. There were no dragging knuckles or drooling muzzles out on the landing. The townsfolk who rode in on their fine burros had decorated them with patriotic green, white and blood red ribbons. The females were dressed up in their finest pantsuits, hair closely cropped, fingernails sharpened into ceremonial claws. The men wore their most festive Mao tunics, each embroidered with Gaian folk symbology. They kept long, mulleted hairstyles, neatly curled and jelled and colored, and their eyes were accented with black liner. Children were each decked out in their khaki overalls and blue shirts, all of them the same, obedient little hobbits, gender neutral and utterly indistinguishable.
No, these were not quite Neanderthals, but they weren’t exactly beautiful, lean, tall Overmen, effortlessly and gracefully juggling flaming skulls either. The undermen’s asymmetrical faces were blotchy, contorted and lined by years in the sun. Their jowls were sunken from inadequate nutrition. Their postures were hunched and their spines were misaligned. They were short, ugly, trollish little humans. The sight of them started to creep Indigo out. He had seen them before on Triumph but he had never ventured into one of their crude hamlets to be utterly immersed in them.
“Gaia help me,” he thought. “Why did I come here? This place is a zoo. Worse yet, a stable. I can barely stand the sight of them.”
But, despite their broken down appearance, it was quite an energizing event for the undead Hegeltown folk. To them, two superheroes were somewhere inside that train. They had never had such important celebrities visit their village before. Rumor had it that one of them intended to stay for good as the Hegel Valley, was his ancestral home.
“I heard that his Great, Great, Great, Great Granddaddy was born and raised right out that away, before the glacier came,” the townsfolk gossiped with populist zeal. They didn’t know which of the two it was but it really didn’t make any difference to them. One celebrity was as good as any other. The gleeful townsfolk envisioned their hometown hero, somewhere in that train, a hero swelled with pride in his great accomplishment. No doubt he was peering out at them from the darkened windows, from behind the muslin curtains. This lifted up their undermen hearts.
They imagined their hero’s cabin, too, which might have been adorned with gold leaf, wood inlays and, quite possibly, a satellite radio which was itself a spectacular luxury. There were only three privately owned radios in all of the Hegel Valley, each possessed by a high-ranking District bureaucrat. For one to have access to a radio while travelling the Transgaianental railroad, in this post-post-modern age where such extravagances were shunned, was nearly unimaginable to the townsfolk. Walking on Mars was a heroic achievement. Having access to a satellite radio was something otherworldly.
The townsfolk envisioned their heroes lulled to sleep at night by all the wonderful, enlightened, sophisticated State radio programs while they traveled in velveteen and wooden luxury, rolling under the twinkling stars in perfect comfort through the Zones of cannibals. Perhaps their hero was even served neo-meat! “Amazing! Spectacular! How positively green!” The townsfolk just had to catch a glimpse of their new, Overman gods. They sighed longingly and held their hand over their breast as they contemplated it.
Mr. Indigo did, in fact, have access to a satellite radio but he did not take great interest in it. The one night he tuned in he listened to an episode of the serial play by Poet Supreme, Sanger Wilson Wells. The critically acclaimed serial, broadcast in twenty one three hour segments on the Gaian Broadcasting Corporation, was a period piece set in a manufacturing kibbutz in a place once known as Detroit (which was since covered by a mile of ice). The story centered round an enlightened, middle-aged, Ivy League PhD. who is unfortunately impotent due to a failing heart.
The beneficent yet failing Mr. McWhite had taken in an undermen ‘family’ (families were an anachronism in modern Gaiastan) consisting of an overworked and exploited single ‘mother’ and her precocious love child named Tyler. The series focused primarily upon the frustrations Mr. McWhite endured educating and nurturing the defiant little serf who comes to consume all of McWhite’s fleeting energy that had previously been applied to his essays on social justice. McWhite finds his life’s work foiled by step-fatherhood.
Along the way, the old man comes to the realization that mentoring the child is a somewhat socially valuable accomplishment in its own right. He finally wins the love of Tyler’s mother and the physical tensions build with the play culminating in the couple’s biblical union and McWhite’s triumph over his own intimate dysfunction. The final scene captures their climactic release which seizes McWhite’s heart and ends his life while the young little Tyler, who was in the next room mischievously fumbling through McWhite’s papers, finally manages to read his first complete sentence aloud. The climax and death, much more easily and graphically portrayed at a seated play or on holovision, became a huge hit on the radio format purely on the actors’ convincing crescendo of groans, McWhite’s death throes, his lover’s cries, and little Tylers’ declaration, “There is no god but the State.”
The play was a special favorite amongst the mid- ranking Overmen crowd as it stirred an upswell of frothing personal pride and feelings of superiority watching a proto-Overman improve the lives of a poor, eugenically disadvantaged, undermen ‘family’. Modern, mid-ranking Overmen were obsessed with pride and superiority that usually came at the expense of the some undermen’s dignity… especially if the aid they gave could be given with no real personal expenditure of effort. They called this process “voting“.
Indigo finally decided he was ready to face the crowd of trolls this one last time, and then he would slip into obscurity somewhere in the cold mountain town. He pushed himself up from the velveteen upholstery and approached the cabin’s mirror to make an examination of his face. He found that the face staring back did not look so heroic. He discovered he was in need of electrolysis as his beard stubble and eyebrows were coming back in. He pondered putting on the space suit to hide is failings but the nausea instantly appeared once he thought of it. He reasoned that since this was not an official Triumph stop, it would not be appropriate to flaunt State property.
He examined what he had chosen to wear. His own Mao tunic was made of the finest cotton that one thousand dianars could buy. It was custom fit and thus had no sags or pleats or asymmetries that affected the Mao tunics of the frumpy Hegeltown folk he was about to regale. He also chose to forego the eyeliner that was customary for men at public appearances. His once extravagantly curled, colored and oiled mullet had yet to grow back sufficiently since splashdown which caused him further disappointment in himself. If there were to be paparazzi they would capture him with insufficient hair, a scandal preserved in holovision plasma for all eternity. But nothing now could be done about that. Indigo hoped only to escape open ridicule.
It was expected to be a quick appearance, affording the undermen throng with only a fleeting glimpse of the celebrities. Indigo cinched his pleather waist belt, winked at his disappointing reflection, flicked off the LED lantern and left his chamber.
Indigo’s co-celebrity, Staley, was supposed to be waiting outside the door but predictably he was not. Indigo took six steps down the faux wood aisle of the sleeper car and rapped his knuckles on the lacquered bamboo door. There was no answer. “Staley, I’m coming in!” He slid the creaky pocket door open revealing what he had suspected: Staley, half-ready, frantically stashing his drug paraphernalia.
Indigo both admired and pitied him. His flaxen-haired comrade was once an unflappable Overman social climber. He was handsomer than Indigo and he always made a good model for holovision plasma with his strong chin and smoldering eyes. Staley was a natural at celebrity and the females adored him, too, which played no small part in his committee selection as a Mars astronaut. He had all the physical traits one would expect of a hero and, despite his increasingly drug-eroded state, wherever the two of them ventured on the Triumph, Staley would receive unmarked parcels containing the naughty undergarments of adoring fans. Staley originally got quite an ego-boost from these self-demeaning acts, and he was more than willing to exploit his allure by bedding many dozens of adoring females on the first part of their Triumph, but that habit gave way as Staley injected himself ever and ever deeper into the needle.
Indigo gathered Staley up from his cot, straightened his tunic out, and the two whistle-stop heroes made their way to the caboose of the train to make their final celebrity appearance. Each was adorned in their purple Mao tunics and patent pleather belts and extravagantly oiled but insufficient mullets.
One instant before they opened the last door of the last car to receive the shouts of praise from the adoring underman crowd, they looked briefly into each other’s eyes. It was an awkward moment, lasting far longer than a pocket watch might indicate. But at that instant, they mutually experienced all the grime and terror and loneliness and claustrophobia and death while they were imprisoned together for eighteen months in that space can called the Astarte. They were brothers, now, as close as any two who had shared a womb. Long term confinement and the looming, psychological weight of eminent doom will do that to even the most incongruous pair. Indigo wanted to say something poignant to memorialize the moment but, before he could speak, Staley switched on his energy with a smile, threw open the door, and stepped out into a roar of applause.
Indigo noticed that Staley had lost a tooth but never mind that.
The two celebrities stood there on that caboose and waived to the paparazzi and their flashing holovision plasma sensing arrays. The pant-suited maidens heaved their breasts and smiled seductively alongside their oblivious, domestic partners who tended to their androgynous, foster children temporarily assigned to their care. The steam engine at the other end of the train puffed a slow succession of puffs as its furnace boiled up again. The festively adorned burros brayed under their green and red and white ribbons and cotton ball clouds floated by overhead and dropped behind the ominous Ivy League Peaks.
Shouts and calls burst from the throng. “Behold our glorious heroes!” “Champions of our generation!” “Long live Gaia!” “Long live our beloved Motherland!”
The two spaceman heroes waived to the crowd and stepped off the caboose and mingled and shook hands and kissed the crèche babies dressed in khaki swaddling clothes.
“What great men you are!” People in the crowd called out to them. “Will you take up ecofarming somewhere in the valley, now?” “Thank you so much for your sacrifice.” “Will you run for office? We heard Ceremonial Vizier is up for election this year. You’d certainly have my vote.”
Indigo and Staley worked the crowd as they had so many times before giving DNA autographs on cotton swabs and pretending to care about what the rabble had to say. Staley, mentally eroded as he was, still got many offers from the females (and some men, too) that were written on tiny notes and clandestinely stuffed into his Mao tunic pockets.
The meet and greet lasted ten times longer than Indigo had hoped and when they were done and could take absolutely no more of it, the spacemen were ushered into a stagecoach pulled by proper horses and whisked away to the inn where they would spend the evening hobnobbing with the party bosses and drinking the finest Cascadian wine and stuffing their faces with neo-meat tenderloins and real potatoes and whole carrots and truffles shipped in from Ozarkia.
“Welcome back. How long have you been home, now?” A fat party boss asked as he wiped the driblets of Arcadian wine from his double chin.
“We’ve been back for three months,” Indigo answered.
“So tell me,” the boss continued to pry, “What was it like?”
“What do you mean?” Indigo asked, hoping the boss might actually have some empathy for the only two survivors of their mission. He hoped that perhaps he would ask a question indicating such concern.
“You know, you know…” the fat boss continued after another gulp of wine. “…What was it like? What was it like walking on Mars?”
 Dehumanized Zones: Massive sections of territory set aside as nature preserves and where human settlement is prohibited (due primarily to the prohibitve cost of administration and law enforcement). Populated by roving nomads classified as “unhumans” or “humates”.
 Voting: In post-democratic political systems, voting is exclusively an exercise in determining the allocation of government largesse.