Walking along a dusty road. Trouser legs flap in the wind. Beaten up trainers ready to retire. Face pocked with red submission to the relentless beam of the sticky sun. Glasses sweating. Hat a tight container of fire and hair. Mouth parched, dry and open as a plain. Shirt drenched from the back downwards and along the wiry spine. Torso stretched. Knees screaming. Lips an unnatural combination of pale tan and dusty white. Nose a desperate life force, searching the unforgiving surroundings for a morsel of clean air.
The trail is overwrought with dirt and dust and sand but no life. The ground is a continuous dry well, a disappointment of lost riches. Its once magnificent and celebrated landscape has been cursed into an indifferent barren wasteland of nothing's choosing. Meagre stones, untouched for an age, lie still in the orange dirt, aching from a previous life. The odd discarded piece of litter, from the times when this place was bustling, is the only point of interest to spy. The dust on the ground wearily builds, then decays, as the path keeps endlessly winding towards the stern sun. The pain that has been felt by this place is unfathomable.
With no warning, I stumble across the mark. There it sits, decades forgotten but as the real as the hair on my heavy, wet head. Though it has a generous amount of orange wisp atop, the mark is unmistakable. Two fat black lines converging to make an off-centre 'x'. At least once it must have been black. Now even grey would be a generous description. It looked bleak, ancient, smudged. Destitute. Off-brand. What I am sure was once an imposing, vengeful symbol of brutality and cruel order, was now an aged relic; a bleak, tiny reminder of another world, another time, another dictator. This stale stamp in the ground was, in living memory, the symbolic manifestation of the callous and devastating adventures of man. Given what this abominable mark was ultimately responsible for, the reckless hate and repression it represented, it only seemed fitting to me it should now occupy a barely breathing cesspit of civilisation.
Only the morbidly curious and the obsessively fascinated would bother to find this wretched beast. And yet even today, when the extent of the crimes and depravity of the regime is public record and mandatory reading for our youngest, there are those that will defend the alleged honour and sacrifice of such a symbol until they, too, are as abandoned and forgotten as this wretched x in the dirt.
I stood on the x with all the effort of a blink of the eye. When I stood on the x, I stood on the shoulders of giants, of tyrants, of rabid ideologues with no death count limitations, no fear of the slumped carcass of man. I felt the power of a rush of good intentions and bad consequences to the head. Blood and triumph and villainy. I felt the heady imagination of a figure playing God, with the force of thousands of people at my disposal: manpower, brains, cannon fodder. I stood atop a platform of top-down chaos and organised catastrophe; I stood with brutal men that believed they held the profound ingenuity to change a mass of lives, even make people footnotes in some terrible human-management disaster for a future history lesson. It was unyielding.
But for all its past glory and abomination, it was now just a faded x, overtaken by the harsh progression of nature, the absence of man, now doomed as merely a slice of obscurity, a cut from a far-away constellation in the modern-day human psyche.
I stepped off the mark.
With one last look at the sullen tattoo on the ground, I kept walking. Back to the oppressive heat, the brief excursion into the past's eye made me temporarily escape this open-air coffin. According to the short man at the grove, after the x is revealed, the best bet is to keep going forward. I considered turning right back around when I observed the never-ending nothingness ahead, but I think the existentially of that return journey would render my soul stunted. No, progress was the only vehicle for this journey. The short man was quite specific about the journey after the x being two-thirds the time of the journey to reach it. That should be a good thing, but remembering the hellish, torturous torment of even getting to that point, it made me grimace and growl. My insides were erupting.
Still, I kept on. To Mars! And to never see that x or any of its political reincarnations beating down on the people again. And to never forget the sacrifice of those who died, nameless and penniless. Those who made a stand but whom we will never know. They are the most unfulfilled, yet beautiful ghosts. For them, I pushed through the thick air to reach a better place.