by Bill Cox
“Uncle, what does my name mean?”
“You, little Spruce, are named after a tree!”
“Uncle, what’s a tree?”
“Patience, little Spruce, one day you’ll find out.”
Spruce was eight years old when she saw her first tree. This was on her first and last journey to the surface with the rest of her clade. The trip was supervised by their teachers, the Aunts and Uncles. It was designed to impress upon their young minds the impossibility of living on the surface and the consequent necessity of ensuring the smooth running of the City, their subterranean sanctuary. The heat and humidity were suffocating, so much so that human life expectancy was measured in hours. Runaway greenhouse effect, the Aunts and Uncles had called it.
The children of the clade wandered around the ruins of the Old, suffering from the heat despite the coolant circulating in their exo-suits. Spruce saw the tree, a lone survivor, nestling in the shade of a ruined building and couldn’t help but run over to it, her heart pounding in her chest with the effort. She reached out her hand, fingers stroking the rough bark. At the base of the tree some leaves had fallen off, and Spruce picked one up and placed it carefully in-between the sheets of her notebook. Surreptitiously, out of sight of everyone else, she dribbled some water from her bottle onto the base of the tree. A funny little thought entered her head as she did so – “At last I know who I am.”
Spruce developed an interest in horticulture – nominative determinism, one of the Uncles joked. She continued her studies up until the last days of her pregnancy. Aged fifteen, she gave birth to a baby boy and became a full citizen immediately afterward. The other females from her clade shared the maternity pool with her and they all gave birth within days of each other, their contribution to the genetic diversity of the City. The babies were taken by the Aunties, the birth of a new clade a cause for great celebration. Thereafter Spruce and the other young women of her clade were sterilized, a painless but necessary procedure so that population could be managed in a sustainable way.
Spruce settled into her life in the City, immersed in her work in the agricultural complex. She enjoyed the feel of soil in her hands, the smell of plants, the scent of green. From time to time, she would take out the leaf that she found that day on the surface. She tried to imagine a whole world covered by trees, a world forest, as there had been centuries ago. She wondered what it must have been like to live in such a time, under a wide-open sky, without the protective shelter of the city. She would experience an agoraphobic shiver before returning to her work; producing food for the inhabitants of the City, the last bastion of a doomed species on a dying planet Earth.