It was after the wars and everything was covered with thick gray ash. I was on a quest to find the red iron flower. I walked down the old industrial path to the beach, raising puffs of ash with my every step.
Guarding the shore line were the silhouettes of hangars, cranes and abandoned tankers, framed by the blue neon glow of the horizon. Stained concrete slabs, twisted chain link fences and reams of parallel pipelines decorated the landscape in between. Cautiously, I kept walking.
On the way I encountered a dark oily open maw in the ground. Its walls, leading down into the earth, were covered by blackened caked grease. The sound of a thousand relay switches opening and shutting could be heard from the depths of this strange void. I pictured a vast thinking machine buried inside an abandoned bunker, kilometers down, calculating. Perhaps a remnant of the wars, I thought, and walked on briskly. Seeing light coming from inside one of the abandoned hangars, I walked inside.
The green metal floor of the hangar was littered with membranes that looked like shed snake skins, and there were organic veiny growths clasped around the vertical red steel beams that supported the roof. My gaze travelled up their length, and I noticed that the ceiling was covered by rolls of glistening red flesh, wet and wrinkled, that looked like smoked salmon. As I watched, they gracefully unfurled and hung down all around me like tall banners, their surfaces covered in webs of white stringy nerves.
Startled but determined, I pushed ahead and tore through these delicate wet tissues. Reaching an open doorway on the other side of the hangar, my body covered with torn slivers of this strange red flesh, I stared across a sea of thick yellow jelly that smelled of burning plastic and ammonia.
Its surface was sprinkled with the figures of people who were slowly sinking down into it. Thin wisps of black smoke rose up from each figure, and I realized that they were being burned alive by the alkaline jelly. I tried to picture the dark depths under that yellow surface, imagining the sea bottom, its expanse covered with the charred remains of all these people. Had they been looking for the red iron flower too? Absentmindedly I picked and chewed on one of the pieces of that strange red flesh that was hanging off my shoulder. It tasted exquisite, just like smoked salmon with a heavy coating of lemon, even though eventually I had to use my finger to pick out some of those strange stringy nerves that got tangled around my teeth - they left an intense bitter taste.
Yet this bitterness somehow left me feeling protected, separate from the people burning in the distance. I dived into the alkaline sea, feeling the jelly surface tear like a thick crust of boiled milk, and the soft warm liquid underneath enveloping me.
The chemical burned off all the clothing and hair from my body, but my skin and eyes seemed immune. I started to swim, looking up at the neon blue glow of the sky and the black clouds ahead. I feared that the sea bottom below my feet would be lined with rusted pipes and machinery, perhaps filtered inlets and drains that lead to the hangars on the shore from which that strange flesh would feed. So I swam quickly, looking straight ahead, trying not to think about what was beneath me too much.
I remember how quiet everything was. There was no splashing of water, no sound of the wind blowing. The yellow alkaline water would just part effortlessly and soundlessly for me. I can't remember how long I swam, but the shore was very distant when I had to slow my pace in order to catch my breath.
Then I felt it: Someone was looking up at me from the sea floor. I took some deep breaths and dove down, peering into the depths. Only then did I see the vast fields of red fleshy roots that extended from the shores, thousands upon thousands of red and yellow tendrils covering the entire sea bed - peppered with the charred remnants of human beings.
Right under me there was a hub of sorts, a star-shaped nexus where the tendrils turned white, flattened out, and bonded. I dove down towards it, not needing to breathe anymore, wanting to be near that bright white mass that shone in the darkness of the alkaline sea deep.
My heart pounded as I drew near. I could see, encased inside the white material like a mosquito in amber, the figure of a young girl. The closer I got, the more she changed before my eyes. She grew old, and her expression became grave. Her cheeks grew hollow and cavernous like rocks eaten away by sea-water, and her eyebrows grew cynical and mean.
Then the nexus opened up and drew me into a timeless darkness. I dreamt of fish-scales and springs, I glimpsed fancy clockwork contraptions with beady sapphire eyes that peered out through radioactive mists. A thick putrid resin slid all around me - blue gel currents and brain smells, the memories of nukes and biowarfare. Diving even further down into an infernal boiling darkness, on the floor of an ancient abyss, there lay the broken remains of a bright morning sky in all its torn glory.
Passing through the suddenly frozen upper atmosphere, I splintered into a thousand shards. Spinning, falling, sharp and glittering, they rained down and wedged themselves into soft brown soil, spread out across an acre. They didn't make a sound. There was no wind, nothing moved, not even the clouds.
Everything was still for a thousand years. Day would come and my pieces would glisten in the sunlight, and then the night would come and the earth would warm them. And all would be still. Except for one of my pieces. With time it eventually sunk into the warm soil. And then one day something bloomed from that same spot: the red iron flower, defiantly staring up at the broken sky.
Oh how I want to pick it up and hold it. It would cure me, I would be whole if only I could hold it in my hands. But I can't and the red iron flower just stands there. I try and forget about it but I can't, it's impossible to turn away. I put all my strength into pulling myself together but nothing so much as stirs in this frozen universe.
I lie around the red iron flower splintered and helpless, like a transparent crystal puzzle waiting to be put together - but there will never be anybody to put me back together.
Perhaps one day one of the burned people that the red flesh feasted upon may also fall into this world and collect my pieces. Perhaps then I might be able to gather myself together and be a real person again. And then I would walk across this field and pick up the red iron flower and hold it in my hands and be cured.
But for now all is still and quiet inside this broken world. I constantly stare at the red iron flower from each of my fragments and sometimes I hate it, sometimes I lust for it, sometimes I beg that I could not see it anymore. But all I can do is see - when I scream or cry there is no sound and there are no tears, just the idea of tears, the memory of sounds, floating in the calm quiet stillness.
And somewhere far above, outside, I know that with time this strange red flesh will slowly consume the remains of humanity, spreading under the alkaline sea and sprouting up inside all the structures that survived the wars. As its poison draws a never ending stream of humans into the alkaline sea, it will bury all that is left of the world above in its own ashes, and eventually the world out there will be as still as the world in here.
Or, then again, perhaps that already happened eons ago, I just don't know how long I have been here.