Once upon a time there was a beautiful scientist. She was blessed with great wisdom and intelligence and commanded much awe and respect from her peers. She studied the infinitude of the earth’s heavens and the world’s fabric, and saw how everything fitted together.
One day, she saw in the skies a terrible truth: that great meteors hurtling through space would collide with the earth, and all life would suffer and die. So she called together the twelve greatest of her fellows, and all attended her willingly, accepting her knowledge to be even greater than theirs.
“We must band together, we doctors and professors, to determine how best we can save our earth when these asteroids strike us.”
“It cannot be done, Dr Briar!” they cried (for that was her name). “There are too many, and they are too great to be destroyed.”
“You are right, my friends,” she replied. “We cannot hope to stop them. But we must prepare ourselves and ready all our knowledge so that we can repair the earth after they have struck.”
“How will we survive the strike?” they asked, failing to see her logic. “The earth will be shrouded in dust, torn apart by tsunamis and quakes–all will surely die.”
“Most, I fear, but not all,” she assured them. “And not us. We yet have time before the impacts, tremors, and dust, and we must pool our resources and ideas. Then, before the first meteorite hits, we shall seal ourselves in stasis for a hundred years. When we awake, we shall be able to restore the earth and provide hope to any who manage to survive.”
They nodded amongst themselves, agreeing Dr Briar was wise and her ideas sensible.
So they worked day and night, hypothesising and testing, recording their plans and discovering solutions to the apocalypse to which they would awaken. They would begin their long sleep before the first meteorite struck. It was nearly time when Dr Briar suffered a mishap in her laboratory.
There was a thirteenth eminent scientist whom Rose Briar had neglected to invite. She had been far away, engaged in vital studies and unlikely to welcome disruption. Or so Dr Briar assumed. But when she heard of her exclusion, the professor was enraged. How dare she be left out? Her skills were as refined as theirs! Her knowledge was as wide! Her anger brewed and built until only revenge would sate it. She seized on a plan and worked long into the night, distilling compounds and mixing chemicals to concoct a deadly toxin for her rival.
When all was ready, she travelled to the towering building of science where the others were hard at work. She disguised herself as an assistant and located Dr Briar’s laboratory. When she was certain neither Dr Briar nor any of her fellows were close by, she crept inside. There she discovered the vials of nourishing supplements Dr Briar was injecting daily in preparation for her sleep. The wicked professor placed amongst them her own vial filled with the poison. She may have been excluded from the world-saving mission, but when Dr Briar mysteriously fell ill and died, she was certain the others would beseech her to fill the doctor’s vital role. Her evil plan in place, she fled the tower.
Rose Briar was making final preparations in the laboratory when she came upon the vial. Just as the wicked professor had hoped, she believed it one of her wholesome supplements. She drew the liquid into a syringe, attached a needle, and drove it into her skin. At once, she felt a tingling in her arm and realised the syringe held poison. She let go the plunger, but it was enough, and she fell instantly into an ill sleep.
When one of her fellows came upon her, he was shocked to find her so. His attempts to waken her were fruitless, and he found the poisoned syringe with its cruel needle and performed tests that confirmed the toxin. He called his peers and all agreed the poison had restricted Dr Briar’s breath.
“We cannot find a way to revive her before the asteroid strike,” he said. “She is bound to die.”
“No, we must begin her stasis now, to keep her alive,” another scientist spoke. “In one hundred years, the poison in her body will have decayed and we can surely waken her safely.”
They were not certain, but with the giant meteors rushing ever closer, there was no time for debate. They placed Rose Briar’s lifeless body in her sleep chamber at once, and ready or not, all followed her into that deep, dreamless slumber, not to awaken for one hundred years.
The meteorites came with terrifying force, tearing great rents in the earth and churning mammoth waves from the sea. Dust and fiery matter fell from the sky. People drowned. People burned. People ran in panic from crumbling cities and hundred-foot tides. The planet fought back with angry, belching volcanoes and world-shaking groundquakes that opened yawning chasms and swallowed villages whole. And then the dust – the choking, air-thickening clouds of it thrown up from the ground. It hid the sun. It hid the moon and stars. It shrouded the earth in darkness, and the rain that fell was clogged with it and all that was green and lush withered and died. The land grew cold without the sun to warm it. Those not killed in the strike soon began to starve. Stores of food ran out and nothing new could grow in the dark, smothered world. Livestock died. Wildlife died. People died. Soon the planet was a cold, silent, muffled place where nothing thrived.
But Dr Briar had been right. Most died. Not all. Colonies of people sought refuge in underground villages, designed to be self-sufficient in times of great strife. Some fled to their own bunkers, carefully laid out and prepared over years, while their now-dead neighbours had scoffed and laughed. When finally the clouds began to part and the air was good to breathe again, they emerged like post-larval creatures pushing through soil to begin adult lives.
They found their earth much changed. Where it was dry, the ground was cracked and barren. Where it was wet, mud lay constantly underfoot and the soil gave way in sodden landslides. Still, nothing grew.
Over time, as the sun regained its strength, plants began to reappear. But they were like no plants ever seen before. They grew swiftly and choked the ground, climbing over each other and everything in their path. Their stems were tough, their leaves inedible, and they bore poisonous barbs on every surface. If any creature was stuck or scratched by one, it became paralysed, the plant’s tendrils would envelop it, and its life would be drained, leaving only a dessicated husk of bones and skin. All agreed these evil plants had grown from seeds borne from some alien world on the meteorites.
The vines clustered heavily around the tallest building in the land. The ruins of once-taller structures lay about it, but despite damage to its higher levels it stood firm and steadfast and no one could approach it on account of the barbed plants.
Legends surrounded the towering structure. Some said it contained a vast hoard of riches, to be claimed by any who conquered the vines. Others believed it a great store of seeds and eggs to replant fruits and flowers and bring animals back to life. And another tale spoke of a council of wise men and women, led by the fairest and wisest lady of them all, who slept an enchanted slumber and would one day awaken and bring new life back to the earth.
Life was hard in those ravaged times and many lost their lives attempting to reach the tower and whatever hope lay there. The barbed vines clutched the corpses of all who had tried, for none were immune to their poison.
None, that is, save the son of a mayor whose colony lay a great distance from the tower. When the plants first emerged, the mayor’s son was still a boy. One day he was scratched whilst playing with other children near the deadly vines. His friends were similarly struck, rendered immobile, and held firm in their paralysis whilst the plants consumed them. The boy ran home in terror, and proof of his scratches convinced his parents they had nearly lost their own dear son. But the plants’ poison had no effect on him and he could approach them without fear.
The loss of his young friends affected him deeply. He grew determined to decipher the plants’ secrets, studying them when no one else dared get close enough, and removing the bodies of their victims, both animal and human, in order to examine the remains. But protected though he was, he had neither the tools nor the means to discover such protection for others.
Rumours of the tower reached the struggling colony, and the mayor’s son was overcome by the desire to see it for himself. He had heard the legend of the sleeping wise woman Rose Briar and her council and dreamed of freeing them from the vine-choked tower. He bid his mother and father a tearful farewell and set off to reach it. When he first beheld it from a distance he was awed by its size but knew his quest would not be in vain. He could succeed where all others had failed.
The vines grew thick and tall, obscuring all else. The mayor’s son could see nothing through them and knew they grew a long distance from the tower. And throughout were held the dried corpses of those who had failed before him. Some had travelled a fair way inward, hacking with long knives, before the barbs had finally claimed them. As the mayor’s son sliced away the vines with his blade, he came upon bodies ever deeper in, of those who had chopped their way through and others who had been consumed before the newer plant growth had sprung up and hidden them. The corpses were sucked dry, yellow skin tight over bones, brittle hair sprouting from toothy skulls. Confronting them horrified the mayor’s son, but still he hacked onward, and when the barbs scratched him they did no greater harm.
At last he reached the tower and found its entrance. Its walls were stone, its interior metal and plastic and dusty surfaces. He had never seen its like. He climbed the stairs, round and round and ever higher, still slicing at creepers that had wound their way in. A glimpse from a window showed him the sea of vines entwined with crumbling ruins nearly as far as he could see. And when he reached the top of the tower he found an open wreck of tumbled stonework and smashed glass. The wind howled across it and he was dizzy with the view of the surrounding lands. The tower had barely survived the impacts of a century before.
Disheartened, the mayor’s son made his way back down the stairs. He felt more distraught with each passing floor, realising his quest had been in vain. The legend was merely a story.
When he reached the bottom, he spotted another door. He opened it with no great expectation and beheld another set of stairs, leading downwards. His hopes rose once more and he descended. Light panels illuminated as he passed, showing his way, and at last he reached the final stair and found himself in the mythical chamber of the sleeping wise council. Unbeknownst to the mayor’s son, more than one hundred years had passed since their slumber began. The scientists should have awakened, but tough vine roots had cracked the foundations and wound their way about everything in the chamber, holding vital mechanisms shut.
The council lay entombed in glass coffins, each with a name on it, and each bound by thick, poisonous roots. The mayor’s son recognised the legendary name of Rose Briar, the wise lady the world needed. With nothing to fear from the roots, he slashed them away from her coffin. She lay in peaceful repose as he gazed upon her face. Now free of its restricting bonds, her coffin began to flash bright lights which became a steady blink. The mayor’s son leapt back as the coffin lid slowly lifted with a hiss of air and steam. Realising his purpose, he set about destroying the roots that encased the remaining coffins. As their lids began to lift, he returned to the first one. But Rose Briar remained still. Her eyes stayed shut and she took no air into her lungs. He knelt beside her and took her hand, but still she was motionless.
Frightened that she was taking too long to awaken, the mayor’s son took a breath deep into his chest, placed his mouth over Dr Briar’s, and blew his air into her throat. Her chest expanded. He breathed into her again, and suddenly her lungs began to work of their own accord. She opened her eyes and looked into his.
One by one, the other scientists sat up, blinked, and looked about.
“You’re all awake and breathing…” The mayor’s son uttered the first words they had heard in more than a century.
“And Dr Briar was not?” one of them asked, his voice wooly with sleep.
“No… I had to help her breathe.” He offered her a hand and she slowly sat up.
“You saved her,” said the scientist. “A wicked professor’s poison halted her breath. The poison will be all but gone by now, but were it not for you, her lungs would not have started again. She may never have woken.”
Rose Briar looked upon the mayor’s son and thanked him for his gift of breath and life.
So Dr Briar and her scientists awoke, heard tales of the earth’s damage, and began to carry out their plans. They were wise and noble indeed, for they had stored the codes of plants and animals. The soil bore fruit again and long-gone creatures returned to life.
Together, the mayor’s son and Rose Briar vanquished the vines. He hacked a wide swath through the poison plants and Rose Briar took samples of his blood and discovered the secret of his immunity. Through this, she passed his gift on to others so none could be harmed.
The mayor’s son became Dr Briar’s pupil and strove to learn all she had to teach him. And as the earth grew strong, the health of the people was restored, and they all lived happily ever after.
BIO: Eleanor R. Wood’s stories have appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Deep Magic, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, Diabolical Plots, and various anthologies, among other places. She writes and eats liquorice from the south coast of England, where she lives with her husband, two marvellous dogs, and enough tropical fish tanks to charge an entry fee.
She blogs at http://creativepanoply.wordpress.com
This rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (published 1817) was sourced from here.