The magical plants had always been growing in the healer’s garden, as long as Brianna could remember. Although no. Growing wasn’t the right word. The colourful leaves that caught the sun and seemed to glow from the inside never grew, and never died. They stayed the same over the years, never changing.
It wasn’t clear where they had come from, had they been given by a God? Some people, brave or stupid people, claimed they had been created by scientists, right before the war happened. The war that had changed everything.
Brianna’s grandmother had been a small child when fire rained from the skies, and a horrible sickness befell most people. The old scrolls were talking about a strange thing called “radiation”, an invisible force that broke down people’s bodies. So many people died, and the few left struggled to survive.
Even now, two generations later, the effects were still noticeable. But the biggest effect had been on society.
Hushed voices dared to talk about the past only when they were sure the emperor’s secret police wasn’t listening. The past was a forbidden topic and discussing certain aspects of it was punishable by death. The most dangerous thing to talk about was what had caused the world to die: Science.
Science was blamed for everything; it had created the bombs that had eradicated most of humanity. It had enabled people from all over the world to establish contact with each other and made wars so much worse. Science was the enemy of the empire, and only a traitor would support the enemy.
This is why the plants were magical, at least officially. Brianna didn’t believe in magic. If magic were real, she thought, there would be a rule against talking about it for sure. Magic seemed so much more powerful than science, why would the emperor allow one and not the other?
Her fascination with the “magical” plants had only grown over the years, and today was the day.
Brianna walked up to the healer’s house, her heart fluttering in her chest. Would she be sent away? Would she be allowed to stay? Her hand reached for the door, and she knocked.
“Who’s there?” The healer’s voice came through the closed door.
“It’s me, Brianna. I’m here for …” The door opened, and the healer, a tall elderly woman appeared before Brianna.
“For your assessment, right. Not many come back after the three years of waiting, you’re persistent. That’s one important trait for my apprentice, come in, come in.”
Gingerly, Brianna followed the healer inside. Shelves lined the walls and the boards bent under the weight of well-read looking books. The excitement rushing through Brianna’s body made her shiver as she tried to take in everything. So many books! So many topics!
Then she noticed the healer looking at her.
“I … I’m sorry. Did you say something? I was distracted.”
“No, I didn’t say anything. I was just observing your reaction to the knowledge here inside my home. You don’t seem intimidated, another important trait. But that’s not enough. Can you read?”
“Do you want me to prove it?”
“Yes. Here, take this book and read the first page to me.”
The girl dutifully took the book and opened it. The smell of old paper hit her nose. How many years ago had this book been printed? The pages looked yellowish. She cleared her throat.
“Introduction to basic genetics”, she read. “Genes are the way all organic life on Earth stores information about how it’s supposed to develop and grow. The basic building blocks are …”
The healer took the book away from her before she could finish the sentence.
“Good, good. You can obviously read. That is important. But any further would put you in danger.”
Science. The book was about science. Why did the healer have a book about science?
“Brianna”, the healer said and took the girl’s hands. “You want to become a healer, I know that. You’ve wanted to become one when you asked me the first time, you still want to become one now. But you need to know that it might cost you your life to go down this path.”
“But you’re still alive”, Brianna pointed out.
“That is because I pretend that my knowledge is magical, not scientific. I pretend that the medicine I give to the villagers is natural, not artificial. The secret of my plants has been passed down to me from the healer before me, to him from the healer before that, and to her from the woman who took part in creating the leaves.”
“I knew it”, Brianna whispered. “I knew humans created them.”
The healer nodded.
“The leaves are human-made from artificial substances. They contain liquids that, in combination with sunlight, turn into medication. It was a breakthrough in science, right before the final war destroyed everything. So much hope was placed in them, but too much knowledge has been lost to develop them further. All we can do is keep their secret, use them to treat those in need, and hope for a more enlightened time.”
“I want to help”, Brianna said. “I want to keep the secret; I want to learn everything there is to learn!” Her voice was getting louder and higher from excitement. “Please! This is what I always wanted; I knew there had to be more to life!”
“It is dangerous, Brianna. If the emperor decides to stop tolerating what’s going on here, I’m dead. And if you join me, you’re dead too. We will be burnt at the stake.”
“I don’t care!”
“You should. If you don’t care if you live or die, you become careless and will get caught. You have to fear for your life at all times, day or night, awake or asleep. This will take a great toll on you, do you understand?”
Brianna bit her lip. Did she? She knew she didn’t want to die, but she also didn’t want to spend her life knowing that there was more, but she would never experience it. Slowly, she nodded.
“I understand the risk. I still want to do it, I want to learn.”
The healer smiled.
A knock on the door made Brianna jump.
“Open up, in the name of the emperor!”
The healer grabbed a book, gave it to Brianna and shoved her towards the back door.
“Run”, she hissed, pushed Brianna outside and closed the door.
Clutching the heavy book to her chest, Brianna ran as fast as her legs could carry her.
Behind her, the healer’s house went up in flames, together with the magical, medicine producing plants.
The story was inspired by an article about artificial leaves producing drugs using sunlight.
Signature by @atopy