“Do you ever wonder what would happen if you just stepped into the woods?”
She rolled her eyes at the dreamer, taking extra care to steer them away from even looking at it.
“I used to. But then I grew up.” -- Wonderful-Prompts
The land above the leaves was the only place where it was safe to farm. The trees grew only to certain heights above the very lowest parts of the land. Every part of the free land was used for food. The people stayed in the treetops. They dared not traverse the forest floor.
It got dark in the woods. Treacherous. Go too far. Wander too deep, and you will never be seen again.
Would that this world had an ocean, the trees would be easiest explained as being exactly like that. Branches cut or trees felled were easily supplanted by other branches and other trees with barely a difference in the level of the leaves. This was a boon to some, and a curse to others. Everyone knew that the land covered by the wood was the most fertile. Everyone knew that the land covered by the wood was unclearable.
They had tried everything, from those homes tied into the branches. From those floating platforms of stone. Regardless of the consequences. Unthinking of the long-term effects. They tried fire. They tried chain. They tried gargantuan machines.
The forest protected itself.
The people were clever. Oh yes. They had to be. Mistwrains gathered water from the clouds in the treetops. Charcoliers made fuel from the replenishing branches. The land that could not be farmed in any way was mined for its mineral wealth. The creatures of the higher branches were caught or trapped by clever means. Crops harvested on the cleared land and domesticated animals fed the growing hordes of the people.
Industry grew, and the smoke may have damaged some leaves but never for long. The deep forest seemed unkillable. For thousands of years, it had endured. For thousands more it would endure. This was the truth of the world they knew.
But this was not so.
A system that has grown over millions of years is no match for a change of a handful of decades.
Where the trees died, in the densest of cities, the leaves came from a creeping vine. Foul-smelling and foul-coloured. It was poison. And where its bright flowers bloomed, people died. They called it Ironweed, and it was a plague. And like every other plague that hit the crowded throngs, it hit the poorest and the weakest first. And therefore, those who could afford to avoid it, ignored it.
By the time that the plague of the poor could no longer be avoided by the rich, it was too late.
The forest spread by simple arithmetic. Where a tree died, ten would sprout up. And since they could not prosper on the poisoned forest floor, they grew at the shoreline. Following the same old rules that the forest had always followed. Encroaching on the precious land that fed everyone.
It hit the smaller places first. Where there was no thriving industry turning the air foul and making Ironweed grow thick. There, the branches soon drowned the little places from the hope of light. And people fled, for fear of the things that lived in the dark.
Custau had been one of the Mistwrains on a little place that was no more. Now he was one of the lost millions who flocked to a clogged city. Wearing a mask and taking antihistamines and lining up for government-funded allergen shots that would one day guarantee that the Ironweed pollen would only kill him slowly. So he could work every day until retirement age and then die in agony from the seedlings growing into his lungs. And become yet another unworthy body, pitched into the darkness below with all the other waste.
He could not be a Mistwrain in the city. The water caught in web-nets was foul and tainted, like the air. So he tried for unskilled labor. He tried for an education he hadn't needed in a tiny little island of a town that had since been swallowed by leaves.
It was queueing on a walkway that dipped lower down than most that he saw it. The wind changed. The perpetual haze of smoke wafted away. And there, far below, was a creature in the dark spaces. It didn't see the sun, for it had no eyes, but it had armour. It was big, and there were things living on it. Smaller creatures, but still bigger than the housing that Custau lived in. Bigger than the entire building. There was nothing in the sunlit zones like it, and it was instantly fascinating. Custau quickly drew as much of it and its inhabitants as he could. Entranced. He didn't notice that the line had moved until the haze obscured it.
Custau's brain was already on fire with new ideas.
He shared a room with an older Mistwrain who had once been his master. Once full of life and enthusiasm for the Branches, but now worn and weary of being too old to hire, too young to retire, and too unskilled for anything that could have paid the rent. She worked as a greeter for a shopping company that could get away with paying her less than what her time should be worth. She looked at that picture at the end of the day and said, "Do you ever wonder what would happen if we found a way into the woods?"
She handed the notebook back with a roll of her eyes. "I used to," she said. "But then I grew up."
"Be a child again. Wonder," encouraged Custau. "What would we need to study the deep forest in safety?"
Something wonderful began that day. In our world, we would call it oceanography. In this one, it was named Forestry. A new field of science and discovery owes itself to Zack Custau and the Self-contained Undersun Battle Apparatus.
[Image (c) Can Stock Photo / PinkBadger]
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