Canada, year 2819
Humankind had always loved beauty, treasuring above all flora and fauna. From the yellow sunflowers that reached to the golden sky to the sweet-scented lavender that grew in violet meadows, flowers had and always will be a weakness to people.
But years after Aster Quinley was born, the world fell into distress. Natural resources had exhausted, and the ruins of what people had done shook the Earth's soil with new, refound rage.
It was worse than anything before—long dormant volcanoes erupted, destroying entire cities and turning Pompeii into a laughingstock. Colour leeched from everything, leaving crumbling black and white ruins. Species died faster than you could count, and people fought their long-befriended neighbours with an animal-like violence. It was truly the end of the world.
The governments and royals announced states of emergency, shutting down the borders of countries and hoarding and stealing supplies from each other, like everyone had grown used to. Humankind had retreated several centuries of progress, and were unlikely to ever return.
Aster wandered the open field behind her house. Living in the countryside of Canada, she'd never known anyone other than her mother, and photos of her long-passed father.
Smoke poured from the brick chimney of her house in the distance, the amber colour bleached into white for as long as she could remember. Brown stalks of some long-dead crop brushed Aster's arms as she pushed through the meadow, searching for any sign of life.
Fifteen years dedicating to saving a population that didn't want to be saved. But if she stayed too long in the field, she would get a rash anyway, since the field apparently liked her presence there as much as Aster did herself. Her stomach rumbled, and her hands were shoved in the thin pockets of her formerly sage-green frock, red with cold.
They were running out of food, with half a loaf of bread and a couple cans of soup left. Once they ran out completely, Aster and her mother would have to gather as much furniture as possible and bring it to an illegal trader for another month's supply of food. Given her wooden bed frame was the last thing that could be burned, or turned useful for firewood, that wasn't a good sign.
The sun had begun to brush the edge of the horizon, a flickering bright white light turning away. Night would be dark, and dangerous. Aster turned to return home.
Under the toe of her worn leather boots was an iris. All colour had been bleached out of the flower, a miserable sign for blossom supposedly represented hope. The white petals quivered when her fingers brushed them, crumpling slightly when her hand folded around the stem and tucked it away.
Dirt flew into the air as Aster's feet pounded the worn ground. She raced for home, braid flapping behind her like a drowning bird's wings. Not that she had ever seen a bird.
Daisy Quinley glanced up as soon as her daughter barrelled into the cottage house, wrinkles becoming more prominent at the sign of her mud-streaked cheeks flushed red from the cold.
"It's nearly dark, Aster. I went outside and called for you, but you were long gone," Daisy said sternly, dropping her stained dishcloth on the equally spotted countertop.
Rubbing at the dirt on her face, Aster pulled out the iris and handed it to her mother, lips stretched into a grin. "It's most likely dead, I know, but isn't it beautiful? Irises represent faith and hope, right? I found it in the meadow."
Daisy's expression softened as the crumbling bloom touched her fingertips. "It is, love. But I told you not to go back there."
"I know, I know. Could we plant it, though? Would it work?"
The young mother shook her head, bringing the bleached flower up to her eye for inspection. "Where are my glasses, Aster? I told you not to touch them...we'll probably have to sell them, anyway." The last part Daisy said rather gloomily, as if aware that all nice things would soon be gone.
"I think I wore them outside to read," Aster replied. "Give me a moment."
Pushing back through the rickety door, Aster wandered down to the edge of the garden fence, feeling for the thin, metal rimmed glasses in the dark. Her hand brushed glass, but a bark startled her as she stooped to pick up the frames.
Wet saliva matted Aster's black hair, turning it from a messy braid to a tangled monster. Another bark, this time followed by a series of yips. Strangling the animal, Aster fumbled for the glasses and hurried inside to surprise her mother with the creature.
Daisy had placed the iris in a shallow cup of water, watching the flower in bemusement. "I really don't think...what the—Aster, where did you get the dog from?"
"Things escalate quickly," her daughter replied, brushing back a warm lock of hair and handing Daisy her glasses. "It attacked me when I found the glasses."
Daisy slipped them on, examining the dog. "It's a puppy. A female," she said, laughing as it attempted to lick her chin. "It has a collar."
Aster held the puppy in place as Daisy unhooked the strip of leather. "It's colourful," the girl whispered in awe. The leather was dyed a dark purple.
Her mother fingered the hooks on the collar, widening a rip in the leather. "Aster..."
Tucked in the fabric was another flower. An iris, flushed with purple and ivory and gold. Aster was still in awe of the colour, having been born to a world of greys and muddy whites and blacks.
She gently pulled out the blue flag iris, unfolding each crinkle of petal and smoothing out each root. "We'll plant this tomorrow," Daisy declared. "We'll plant hope."
The years moved quickly after that. The blue iris was planted and grown, then transferred to a clay pot and brought to authorities. As soon as the government was in control of the living sample, tests and studies were run to find what prevented the flower from dying off like the other plants.
The news exploded, and everyone had begun the fight for the end.
Aster watched a woman speak on the black TV. She and Daisy were in a recording room somewhere in Toronto, watching the live news as people hurried around them, preparing the two young women for the broadcasting,
"And I'm Azalea, thanks for watching CTV News! Passing it on to Rose."
The TV flickered, then Azalea disappeared, replaced by a woman in front of a Parliament building. "Thanks, Azalea. According to scientists at the top schools and institutions in the world, the iris produces a special scent called Orris. This scent, as we have recently learned, fights away the diseases plaguing our land, transforming it instead into nutrients to help flourish the flower. Crops of this iris—specifically, the blue flag iris—have been found throughout Canada and North America, blooming in hidden spots all around the continent. Let's pass the mic to Jasper, who has in his company Aster and Daisy Quinley, who found the first iris flower, now nicknamed Hope."
Aster shook out her limbs, smiling at her mother, just as the TV flickered off. "We're live in 3...2...1!" someone yelled.
Darkness. Then a spotlight appeared on Jasper Hart, the newscaster assigned to their 'interview'.
"Thanks, Rose. Viewers, I'm fortunate enough to be here today with Aster and Daisy Quinley, the lucky finders of our saviour iris flower, Hope. After living in the countryside for over three decades with her daughter, Aster, Daisy discovered the flower in a search through crops. Daisy, what do you have to say?"
Daisy squeezed Aster's hand. "My daughter found it. Aster found Hope. She brought hope to everyone, even me. My husband, Ren, passed away just as Aster was born, and the world turned to frenzy. No one was there to support me; and as I raised her, I turned more and more desperate for a cure to my sadness. Being in the city again, with everyone filled with hope and anticipation...it's a dream."
Jasper nodded, smiling through his teeth. "That's wonderful, Daisy. Aster?"
She nodded, accepting the microphone and focusing on the reflection of her face in the camera lens. "Five years ago," Aster began, voice trembling slightly. "I searched the dead field behind out house everyday for life. I stumbled across a dried iris. I later met a puppy, who brought me Hope—both the iris and the feeling. The puppy was named after the flower—Iris, not Hope—and lived with us when we moved to the city.
"Iris died two days ago. But Hope prevails." Aster paused to wipe her wet eyes. "In this moment, let us remember: Beauty is everywhere, but when we cannot find it, we turn to ourselves. We are beautiful, and so was Iris. Thank you, my little flower, for helping the world find beauty with fresh eyes, for helping the world find beauty again."