Stanger, Vaughan: “Family Tree”

Family Tree

by Vaughan Stanger

Sarah Henderson groaned as yet another round of applause echoed around
the courtyard. Any moment now she would have to respond to Principal Devlin’s
valediction, a prospect that made her bowels squirm like a snake prodded
with a stick. A quarter-century of teaching history to disinterested students
at Huntsville High had been a breeze in comparison, even this morning when
she struggled to keep her emotions in check.

Don’t spoil things by crying now, she told herself.

Desperate for some respite from the collective gaze of her colleagues
and students, Sarah glanced up at the gnarled grey boughs of the courtyard’s
apple tree. Blossom like pink-tinged snowflakes smothered the outer branches.
Even now, she found if difficult to accept that she would not be there
to collect September’s first fallers.

A cough from Principal Devlin interrupted her thoughts.

“Sarah, would you like to say a few words?”

She sucked in a deep breath, knowing full well that she had no choice.

“What can I say? Time’s up!” She waited several seconds for
the groans to subside before continuing. “Obviously I shall miss the
teaching. And I shall miss all of you.” She turned around slowly,
committing the scene to her memory. There were so pitifully few faces nowadays.

In truth, there was so much more she wanted to say but no one left to
say it to. Her favourite students had graduated long ago, and most of her
friends amongst the staff had transferred to other, bigger schools in the
faint hope of obtaining exemption from the Twenty-Five Year Rule.

“And finally, I must take this chance to thank you for the lovely
present. It’s just what I wanted.”

Wanted or needed? Both really, she reflected.

Sarah glanced at the memory garden, which Principal Devlin had positioned
well out of her reach. The mock-walnut planting tray sat upon a waist-high
system box studded with data ports and sense-stream projectors. All of
a sudden, she felt daunted by the goal she had set herself. Then again,
she had felt George’s absence more keenly today than at any time since
his funeral. What better reason could there be for pressing on with her

After leading another round of applause, the Principal made a sign to
Jeff Mancini, Huntsville High’s Head of Science. He stepped forward and
held both hands out to Sarah.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “but I’ve taken the chance
to seed your garden with a memento from your time at Huntsville High. The
system is configured for public playback, so if you would like to step
over here….”

Seeing Sarah frown, he hooked one arm through hers and walked her over
to the memory garden.

“I’m not senile yet,” she snapped, provoking mocking laughter
from her colleagues and students alike.

In truth, she could not have picked a better escort than Jeff. Quintessentially
tall, dark and handsome, he had the additional virtue of being seven years
younger than her. More importantly, since George’s death he had been her
only real friend in a staff-room made introverted by the slow but inexorable
decline in student numbers. So why then had he not respected her firmly
expressed wish that the memory garden should be left un-seeded?

Suppressing a sigh, she leaned over the garden and inspected its contents.
A solitary seedling protruded from the synthetic loam, its stem no taller
than her middle finger. At its tip a single greenish-white bud nestled
amid a cluster of leaves.

“Just bear with me for a minute,” Jeff whispered. Sarah responded
with an if-I-must smile. “Now, Sarah,” he said, his voice booming
in the courtyard, “I want you to rub this leaf between your thumb
and forefinger.”

She complied with the obligatory smile. Intrigued despite her misgivings,
she watched as the bud unfurled to reveal a tiny pink bloom, which gave
off a faint aroma of apples. “Oh!” she exclaimed, secretly pleased
that she had gotten off lightly. But before she could turn to thank Jeff
for his discretion, a welter of sounds and images engulfed her, obscuring
her view of the courtyard.

Accompanied by the fanfare from Also Spracht Zarathustra, three
nervous-looking twelfth-graders climbed the flight of steps and stepped
onto the stage. Jennifer Bonneville, Lawrence Garvey and Fergal Dalton
exchanged glances as the master of ceremonies began reading out their
nomination. Applause echoed around the auditorium as the trio shook hands
with the CEO of Virgin Lunar Corp, who handed them specks of moon-rock
encased in glass, while footage of Apollo astronauts and apple trees
played on the big screen.

After receiving their awards, the three students stood at the edge
of the stage and waved to their parents, who were sitting in the front
row. Ten rows further back, Sarah was trying to applaud while simultaneously
wiping tears from her eyes.

Eighteen years had passed since Jennifer, Lawrence and Fergal won the
Tom Stafford Award for outstanding scholastic achievement in the space
sciences, after a four-year project that culminated in planting the first
tree on the Moon.

The memory garden made it seem like yesterday.


Satisfied with the growth that had occurred since she planted the seedling,
Sarah rubbed the largest leaf between her thumb and forefinger. The bud
adjacent to it unfurled, revealing a vivid purple flower the size of a
coat-button. She leaned closer to sniff the fragrance.

She strolled past the palm trees that fringed the beach and out onto
the crescent of firm, smooth sand. Overhead, cirrus clouds hazed the
cobalt-blue sky. She sniffed the briny tang of the Indian Ocean. Thirty
yards out, George’s flippers made splashes above the coral reef….

No, no, no! Sarah smacked a fist into her palm in exasperation.

She had followed the memory garden’s manual to the letter: filled the
database with a cornucopia of digital photos and holo-clips, even some
digital signatures of fragrances she’d collected at the time. Yet the resulting
playback conveyed none of the emotional intensity of life with George.
In truth, she felt like a spectator at her own honeymoon.

The fact that she had been moved to tears by Jeff’s reconstruction of
an event he hadn’t even witnessed made her own failure so much harder to

Desperate for help, she activated her holo-vid of Cultivating Your
, Julia Nelson’s best-selling guide for novice memory gardeners.

“Feed your garden with data,” the woman intoned, as if reciting
a mantra. “Fertilise it with your love….”

Sarah loathed the woman with a passion; felt her blood pressure rise whenever
she saw that relentlessly beatific smile. Yet surely there must be a kernel
of useful advice amongst the treacly platitudes? After all, she had wanted
to plant a memory garden precisely because she agreed with Nelson’s central
tenet: that one’s memories should become an organic part of the real world,
not left to fade away in one’s head.

“Embrace your emotions,” chanted Nelson, holding her arms out
wide as if to embrace the entire world. “Dig deep into your soul….”

Maybe that was the problem: that she didn’t yet have the necessary skills
to create such an intense playback. Perhaps she needed to hone her skills
on something simpler first. Thinking back, hadn’t she moved on rather quickly
from reconstructing her first date with George?

Feeling happier now she had a plan, Sarah reached for a neighbouring seedling
and pinched off the single cluster of buds, priming it for re-recording.

“Bring something of yourself,” advised Julia Nelson.

Begin by viewing the raw data, Sarah reminded herself.

The broach-cam recordings showed a confident, smartly dressed man in his
late-twenties, with a wild sweep of auburn hair and eyes deep as the sky,
whose face radiated kindness while he guided her through the intricacies
of the menu. In contrast, the restaurant’s security footage, purchased
the next day, revealed a petite young woman with short, dyed-blonde hair,
wearing a little black dress that did nothing to flatter her figure. Watching
her younger self’s fumbling attempts to use chopsticks made her blush all
over again. George had smiled sympathetically, assured her that everyone
found chopsticks difficult at first and then showed her an easier way to
hold them. He had done everything possible to put her at ease, but she
had been nervousness personified that evening.

“Bring something of yourself,” she echoed.

Was that what the playback needed, an injection of gut-level anxiety?
Until now she had deliberately avoided the “difficult” emotions
that had blighted the later years of her marriage. She had focussed exclusively
on the good times, hoping that her love for George would somehow permeate
the memory garden. But love had not blossomed on their first date; that
had come later.

Equipped with this insight, Sarah snatched up the neural recording headband
from the sofa. But before she could slip the device over her head, the
door to her apartment trilled an alert. The wall-screen revealed the tanned
face of Jeff Mancini. She groaned at the idea of letting him in at this
critical juncture, but his many small kindnesses since George’s death meant
that she could hardly turn him away. Even so, she wished he had phoned

She glanced at the hall mirror to check that her appearance would pass
muster. Satisfied, she tapped her broach-cam to “record” and
commanded the apartment door to open. After an awkward moment when he held
her proffered hand slightly too long for comfort, she led him into the
kitchen, where he regaled her with school gossip while she chivvied George’s
antiquated coffee machine into life.

“So what brings you here?” she asked when Jeff’s stream of news
finally came to an end.

He winked at her. “Just checking up on a friend.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “No need to be concerned.”

Realising that she had handed Jeff his coffee but not invited him to sit
down, she gestured towards the sofa. Other than the memory garden, which
she had placed in the south-facing bay, this was now the only item of furniture
in the living room. Obliged to sit next to Jeff, she felt uncomfortably
aware that she had allowed him to invade her personal space.

She sipped her espresso then pursed her lips. That coffee machine definitely
needed reprogramming.

Jeff inclined his head towards the memory garden. “How’s it coming?”

“Oh, you know….” She hoped he might take the hint and revert
to making small talk, but when the pause threatened to become embarrassing
she added: “Just personal stuff.”

His nod suggested he understood her need for privacy, but his posture
was not that of someone who had just dropped by for a chat. The feeling
of uncertainty made her frown.

“Did I leave something unfinished at school?”

Jeff chuckled. “No, you did an efficient job of tidying up the loose
ends.” He grinned at her — rather sheepishly, she thought — before
continuing. “The truth is that I came here hoping to learn a bit more
about your protégés — and to see you, of course.”

What an odd request, thought Sarah. Surely he had researched their history
while compiling the playback?

“Didn’t you look in the school archives?”

He shook his head. “A lot of data from that period is infected with
pixel blight. I used most of what survived in the playback.”

She found his continuing interest in what to her was ancient history baffling,
but at least it meant she didn’t have to distract him from her own failures.

“Well, I can fill in the back-story if you like.”

Jeff’s clapped his hands together. “So how did the Moon Tree Project

“Ah, that would be when I told my ninth-graders to form into groups
of three and select projects from a list I’d drawn up. Each topic had something
to do with the history of Huntsville High. I guessed the Appleheads would
choose the Moon Tree after I observed them reading the plaque on its trunk
one break-period. That seemed to excite them more than anything I’d taught
them in class.”

Jeff frowned at her. “Appleheads?”

“The nickname came later,” she said, blushing. “My fault!”

“Pretty apt, all things considered.”

She nodded. “Anyway, the Appleheads produced this
amazingly detailed holosim that told the story of the tree from the launch
of Apollo 9 to the planting ceremony at the school.” She frowned at
him. “Did the blight ruin that too?”

Jeff nodded. “Afraid so.”

She shook her head, appalled that the school had been so lax in protecting
its digital history. Thankfully, George had insisted that she safeguarded
her own data archives. Without them her current project would have been

“Does the name Stuart Roosa mean anything to you?” she asked.

Jeff pondered the question for a moment. “Wasn’t he the astronaut
who flew back from the Moon on his own?”

“That’s right; Roosa was command module pilot on Apollo 9. A rocket
malfunction stranded Al Shepard and Jim Mitchell on the lunar surface.” Sarah
paused for a moment, recalling her father’s hushed description of the tragedy,
NASA’s first. But after a ten-year moratorium, NASA returned to the Moon
and built a permanent base there. Now thousands lived the frontier life,
in Tycho Town and beyond.

Jeff cleared his throat. “Go on,” he prompted.

“Like every Apollo astronaut, Roosa carried a personal item with
him; in his case, a packet of tree seeds. He wanted to find out whether
the seeds would sprout normally. He had intended to carry only forest species
— Redwoods and Douglas Firs, that kind of thing — but Al Shepard
suggested he take along something more homely.”

Jeff pulled a face. “Mom’s apple pie?”

Sarah frowned but she continued her account.

“On Roosa’s return, NASA’s scientists tested the seeds. They germinated
normally. So the seedlings were shipped out to government facilities, space
research institutes, even a few schools — including Huntsville High.”

“Inspirational material if you’re lucky enough to have receptive
students,” Jeff remarked.

She could not have been luckier in that respect. Against all predictions,
falling school rolls had resulted in worse behaviour not better. She did
not envy Jeff.

“Go on,” he prompted.

“At the climax of their presentation to the class the Appleheads
proposed planting a seedling grown from the school’s apple tree on the
Moon, to commemorate the Fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 9 tragedy.
Needless to say their fellow students ridiculed them, and my colleagues
thought the idea hopelessly impractical, but I could tell the Appleheads
were serious. So I became their advisor. Which is when the hard work really began.”

Jeff chuckled. “No wonder they were your favourites.”

Sarah looked away from him, embarrassed by the implication that she had
broken one of teaching’s golden rules. She placed her empty coffee cup
on the arm of the sofa and watched a series of concentric rainbow rings
form around it.

“Did you see the Appleheads after graduation?” he asked.

With a sigh, she turned back to him. “Jeff, you know how it is. Life
goes on, or rather our students do, while we stay behind to look after
the next intake.” She shrugged. “The Appleheads kept in touch
for a year or so, but….”

Jeff held out both hands. “So why not contact them now? Surely it
wouldn’t be too difficult to track them down.”

She dismissed his suggestion with a shake of the head. “Too much
time has passed, Jeff. I have my memories of George, which I intend to
cultivate.” Which would keep her busy for years, judging by her progress
to date. 

He raised his eyebrows at her. “But there must be something more
fulfilling you could do, surely?”

She shook her head. “Not for me.”

They rose from the sofa together.

“See you again?” Jeff asked as she escorted him to the door.
She gave a non-committal grunt.

Later, while getting ready for bed, she decided that despite his tendency
to pry, Jeff meant well. And if nothing else, after his departure, she
had found it no problem at all to inject some much-needed anxiety into
her playback of that first date with George.


Conscious that she had just committed one of her most treasured memories
to the memory garden, Sarah’s hands trembled as she reached out to touch
the trigger leaf.

Wrapped in foil that shimmered like an Amazonian butterfly, George’s
birthday present teased her with possibilities. She prised open the enameled
display case. Inside, a tiny fuel cell nestled on the foam inlay. She
rewarded her husband with a kiss on the lips.

“You’ll get the other part this evening,” he said.

“I can’t wait that long!”

“Well, you’ll just have to.”

Her skin tingled with anticipation….

Not bad, Sarah told herself; though the playback still did not quite deliver
the intensity she hoped for. Mindful of Julia Nelson’s advice about linking
short scenes together rather than trying for a grand statement, she moved
her fingers to the next leaf in the cluster.

The long wait had made her twitchy. She padded around the living room,
cursing the afternoon’s drowsy crawl. The two-part ploy was typical of

At last, the antique clock on the mantelpiece chimed six o’clock. George
strolled into the living room, clutching a bulky package.

Powered by the fuel cell, Grebo 2 chased a ping-pong ball around the
living room, before pausing to wash ‘his’ face with careful dabs of a
bent-just-so paw, purring all the while.

Giggling, she let George drag her into the master bedroom. Grebo 2
pawed at the closed door while George undressed her….

A snatch of birdsong announcing an incoming voice-call jolted Sarah from
her recollection.

“Oh, for God’s sake!”

She snatched her tablet from the sofa, index finger ready to stab the dismiss option,
but some deeper instinct made her relent. After all, she hadn’t spoken
to anyone for several days. And this time Jeff had at least thought to
call ahead.

Jeff, as usual, proffered a firm handshake and a friendly smile.

“This is for you,” He waggled a jewel case between thumb and
forefinger. “Delivered to the school this morning.”

Sarah frowned while she fiddled with the catch. It was rare for someone
to post any kind of package these days. Odd, too, that Jeff had removed
the wrapping and tag before giving her the present. At least it wasn’t from him.
That would have been embarrassing.

She tipped the contents onto her upturned palm. The apple pip nestled
on her lifeline like a wooden tear.

“They remembered!”

She could not imagine a more appropriate keepsake, though she felt a slight
pang of disappointment that the Appleheads had not managed to deliver it
in time for her retirement day. Then again, she mused, if the Appleheads
hadn’t known then what they evidently knew now, someone must have told

She frowned at Jeff. “Did I ask you to contact them?”

“Well…not exactly.” He gave a little shake of his head, as
if the point were trivial. “It’s just that I felt you were missing
out on something important.”

A wave of heat flowed up her neck and onto her cheeks. She felt like bawling
Jeff out but knew that all she really wanted was for him to leave.

“Please go, Jeff.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to—”

“Just go!”

The door to her apartment slammed shut with all the finality of a tiresome
affair coming to an overdue end.

An hour spent working out in the gym sweated out much of her anger. She
was on the point of resuming work on Life With George, when her tablet
gave another chirp.

If this was Jeff offering an apology….

The message log showed a cartoon face with three apples representing the
eyes and mouth. Sarah’s delight at seeing her protégés’ signature
for the first time in almost two decades faded somewhat when she tapped
open the message. She had expected a holo-greeting; instead she found a
single line of text accompanying an executable attachment.

Program your HomeMaker with this, read the message.

Intrigued, Sarah walked into her utility room and inserted a fresh tub
of nanocene into the waist-high cylinder. Seconds after loading the Appleheads’
program, the unit beeped twice and expelled its creation into the collection
tray. She placed the bland grey disk on the adjacent worktop. Staring at
it yielded no clues to its purpose. Bemused, she turned it with her fingers.
As far as she could tell, the disk served no purpose, which was not like
the Appleheads at all.

She walked over to the window and raised the blinds. On the windowsill
sat a tiny porcelain bowl, a present from George. Before heading for the
gym, she had placed the apple pip in it. That had represented something.
So, then, must the disk.

A moment later she slapped her forehead, angry with herself for doubting
her favourite students. The Appleheads had often made links between seemingly
unrelated things or concepts during their project. And like George, they
favoured the two-part ploy.

Sarah dropped the apple pip onto the disk and watched as the surface began
bubbling like overheated porridge. Within seconds, the disk had transformed
itself into a miniature landscape of craters and hills. The pip had disappeared.

“Oh!” she exclaimed as a blister welled up to form a transparent
dome at the centre of the disk. A greyish stalk sprouted from the base
and grew branches fine as wire. Within seconds they were smothered in a
blur of green.

She smiled. This was much better than a holo-greeting!

She was still composing her acknowledgement when the tablet announced
the arrival of another message.

Make us too!

This time, the HomeMaker produced three tiny, space-suited figurines.
Sarah placed the astronauts at the edge of the moonscape and watched, open-mouthed,
as the trio bounded towards the dome. After inspecting the tree, they turned
around and tipped their heads upwards, as if looking at her. Eighteen years
after she’d finished teaching the Appleheads their ingenuity still astonished
her. Now the figures were making beckoning motions with their arms. What
could they mean by that, she wondered? She leaned closer. The beckoning
continued. Not “Come closer” then.

“Join us?” she said out loud.

The astronauts lowered their arms.

Sarah’s delight at solving the Appleheads’ riddle turned almost immediately
into exasperation. How could she, a retired teacher with only a modest
pension to draw upon, possibly afford a flight to the Moon? Of course she’d
love to meet them, but the idea was absurd!

Which struck her as odd, for she could not recall a single example of
the Appleheads making an absurd request during their time at Huntsville
High. Challenging ones, yes, but never absurd. So this must be a further
test of her ingenuity. She allowed her thoughts to drift back to
the glory days, hoping that her memories would stimulate some inspiration.

Eighteen years ago, she had watched the Appleheads’ tree-planting ceremony
via a Terabit feed hosted by a rented mining robot. So why not make a virtual
visit to the Moon now? Provided, of course, that she could persuade someone
to let her use Huntsville High’s telepresence facility.

Sarah spent the rest of the afternoon rehearsing her vid-call to Jeff.


After one hour of practice, Sarah felt confident enough to take full control
of the robot. She hardly noticed the time lag now, as she walked past the
myriad craters and mounds that peppered Tycho’s interior. Jeff had tried
to explain how the computer generated a lag-compensated view, but she dismissed
his lecture with a breezy “I’ll take your word for it!” Not long
afterwards, he had made his excuses and left.

She hoped Jeff realised just how much she appreciated his assistance,
which he had offered without hesitation the moment she finished her apology.
Principal Devlin had helped too, by making Huntsville High’s telepresence
facility available to her on the day chosen by the Appleheads.

The per-minute rate for hiring a walking robot ensured that she felt no
inclination to dawdle, despite the impressive view of Tycho’s central peak.
Anyway, she had seen it two decades ago, during her first virtual tour.
As she pressed on towards her destination, less than half a mile distant
now, she continuously swivelled the robot’s upper torso, panning twin clusters
of spotlights over the ash-grey terrain. Several minutes passed before
she noticed a flash of light off to her left. A short walk brought her
to the metal-and-glass hemisphere, which a trio of rented mining robots
had constructed from locally processed regolith. Nearby stood the array
of floodlights that had supplied artificial sunshine through the long lunar
night. Modulating the opacity of the dome itself had turned day into night
on a twenty-four hour cycle.

The scene within matched Sarah’s memory: a skeleton of an apple tree no
taller than her, the tips of its branches almost touching the dome. Every
leaf had turned brown and fallen during a single day three months after
the planting ceremony. Their brittle remains still carpeted the floor,
forming a shroud for the robotic bees that had pollinated the blossoms.
Three apples had dangled from the highest branch for one further day before
they too succumbed to gravity. No one involved in the project, not even
the Appleheads, had expected the tree to survive a month, never mind long
enough to bear fruit.

So where were the Appleheads now? Having proposed the plan, it was, to
say the least, uncharacteristic of them not to keep to it. Sarah found
herself wishing that she’d asked Jeff to stay.

Finally, just as the escalating rental cost had started to outweigh her
desire to see the Appleheads again, she spotted a pair of lights emerging
from behind a low ridge, halfway to the foreshortened horizon. The vehicle,
which sported a colour scheme reminiscent of a Huntsville school bus, bounced
over the bumpy terrain on its sextet of balloon tyres, heading straight
for the dome. As soon as the “bus” had parked up, she jogged
her robot over to its near side. Her stomach felt as if it had been colonised
by moths while she waited for the airlock to cycle. Finally the indicator
turned green, the hatch swung open and three diminutive figures jumped
down onto the surface.

The Appleheads had sent their children!

Frustration instantly tempered her joy, for she knew of no way to make
her robot smile. She settled instead for waving both hands. The tallest
of the child-astronauts responded by indicating the recessed steps leading
up to the airlock. After two abortive attempts to climb them, Sarah disengaged
from the link and let her escorts take over. It felt odd watching from
afar while someone else manipulated her robot. She re-linked as soon as
the junior Appleheads had manoeuvred it into a sitting position on one
of the cabin’s metal-and-webbing seats. The audio channel began relaying
chatter the instant they removed their helmets.

“Hi, I’m Sarah,” she said. After a short delay she heard her
own voice boom in the cabin.

The children exchanged glances then huddled for a whispered discussion
of tactics. Finally the boy looked up and smiled at her.

“I’m Danny.”

“It’s lovely to meet you, Danny.”

“And I’m Mary,” announced the older girl.

“…you Danny,” the comms channel echoed.

Sarah tried again. “It’s lovely to meet you all, but—”

“…Joy,” chipped in the younger girl, smiling shyly.

“—It might be easier if we took turns.”

“And we’re the Appleheads, too!” chorused the children.

“…took turns.”

Sarah sighed; it was in situations like this that the time lag really
hurt. Predictive compensation worked wonders with the view as one moved
through the scenery, but could do nothing to disentangle a conversation
hobbled by c.

The robot’s emulation of her rueful shake of the head provoked laughter
from the children. She raised a finger to her “lips”. The trio
gazed at her, their expressions expectant. What could she interest them

Aware that the children had just removed their gloves, she flexed the
robot’s titanium digits and signed “hello”, waited a beat then
spoke the word. She had learned sign language while teaching a profoundly
deaf student at Huntsville High. Initially her gestures prompted frowns
from the junior Appleheads, but they soon proved themselves every bit as
quick on the uptake as their parents. After ten minutes they could recognise
twice that many words, whereupon they began inventing their own. As far
as she could tell, their conversation centred on the curious behaviour
of their new acquaintance. Sarah smiled, happy to be an observer for the
time being.

The slender, fair-haired girl, Joy, looked to have just turned eight,
Sarah decided, while her darker, bossy-acting sister, Mary, seemed a couple
of years older. Danny, the fidgeting, tousle-haired boy, had to be at least
eleven, maybe twelve. But would Earth standards apply to children born
in one-sixth gee?

“Home again,” Danny announced as the bus pitched downwards onto
a steep ramp.

Sarah closed her eyes and gulped down hard, desperate not to puke. When
she opened her eyes again, she looked through the port and saw rough-hewn
rock walls illuminated by regularly spaced strip-lights. Shortly after
the tunnel levelled out the bus applied its brakes and shuddered to a halt.
A heavy clumping sound announced the joining of two airlocks. Mindful of
her previous problems, Sarah let the children guide her robot out of the
vehicle. She re-linked the moment they emerged into an equipment-choked

Watching the children divest themselves of their spacesuits, Sarah felt
a disorienting urge to do the same. A glance down at her “feet” brought
home the strangeness of her situation.

When the children were ready, she followed them into a much larger room,
which was brightly lit, devoid of furniture and carpeted with grass. Trellises
festooned with vines and runner beans covered three of the walls. A dwarf
apple tree stood in one corner, thriving despite the absence of natural
light. Sarah had just finished admiring its blossom when Jennifer, Lawrence
and Fergal walked into the room.

Jennifer stepped forward with one hand held out in greeting, the other
lifted above her head to ward off collisions with the ceiling. She grasped
the robot’s right hand and waggled it up and down. Sarah laughed in a way
that seemed to roll back the years.

“It’s lovely to see you again, Jennifer.”

After a short delay: “You too, Sarah.”

Sarah noticed that Jennifer still tilted her head to one side when she
spoke, just like at Huntsville High. Sadly, the effect was greatly diminished
now that a grey-flecked buzz-cut had replaced her chestnut curls. Her face,
too, bore the harsh imprint of the frontier life: wrinkles like crazy paving,
blotches like sunspots; the legacy of too much time spent topside.

Now Fergal stepped forward. “Thanks for dropping by.”

Despite his lightness of tone, Fergal’s expression hinted at serious business
to come. That was typical of him, Sarah recalled. The children appeared
to have inherited his penetrating gaze, as well as his wiry build. Then
again, how could she know for sure who was father to whom?

Jennifer looked abashed, as if she had managed to read Sarah’s thoughts
despite the robot’s blank expression. Not that Sarah disapproved. The Appleheads
had evidently pooled their genes to the best possible effect. She envied
them their success. Families with three children were almost unheard-of
on Earth. Sarah would gladly have settled for one.

“You were always so close,” she remarked.

Lawrence made an unsuccessful attempt to snare all three children as he
stepped forward. Danny snorted as he squirmed out of his father’s clutches.
One of girls pinched her sister’s arm, Sarah noticed, receiving a slap
in return.

Shorter in stature than his partners but more heavily built, Lawrence
had lent a powerful physical presence to the Appleheads during their student
years. Whenever there was a difficult request to make, Lawrence stepped
forward. That he did so now reminded Sarah that the Appleheads had not
invited her to the Moon simply to admire their children.

“Life in Tycho Town is hard,” he said. “Teaching our children
takes time we cannot spare and skills we haven’t got. They receive tele-lessons
from Earth, of course, but it’s not the same. What they need is a real teacher.” He
held out his hands, imploring her. “Believe me, this bunch needs the
best there is.”

Sarah stood in silence for several seconds, too stunned to respond. When,
finally, she felt calm enough to speak, all she could think of were objections.

“I’m too old.”

“Nonsense, there are older people than you living on the Moon,” said

“I’m nowhere near fit enough!”

“Your medical records show that your health is excellent, your fitness
well above average.”

Though not greatly surprised, Sarah felt a pang of annoyance that the
Appleheads had cracked the encryption.

“Won’t I have to endure months of training?”

“More like a fortnight. And we survived it.”

“But I couldn’t possibly afford to emigrate!”

“Virgin Lunar Corp will sponsor you, provided you’re willing to sign
a contract giving them exclusive rights to broadcast your lessons for two

Sarah did not doubt that the Appleheads could counter every objection
she raised. Yet there was one problem they knew nothing about, could do nothing

She made the robot shake its head.


“You did what?

Sarah had never heard Jeff so angry.


Lost for words, she stared at the walls, at the floor, anywhere but his

“You’ve just turned down the offer of a lifetime!”

Faced with such a display of exasperation, she found herself wondering
whether there was more to his involvement than met the eye. Not that it
mattered; the deal had never been on, whatever the Appleheads might have
thought, whatever Jeff might have hoped. She risked a glance at his face;
read dismay in his eyes, anger in the curve of his mouth.

“I’ve made my decision,” she said. “If it takes me years
to achieve perfect playbacks, so be it. That’s the task I’ve set myself
and I intend to see it through.”

“But Sarah, teaching is your vocation.”

“I’ve retired!”

“Sarah, you were forced into retirement — and now you’ve
been offered the perfect opportunity to resume your career.” He held
out his hands, as if grabbing an invisible reward. “The Appleheads’
children need a teacher now, while there’s still time to make a difference.
They can’t wait for you to finish your garden.”

“You think I’m wasting my life, don’t you?”

He nodded. “Why devote the rest of it to remembering a dead man,
however wonderful the time you spent together?”

She tapped a forefinger against her temple. “Because George isn’t
dead, not up here.”

“And that’s where he’s supposed to be.” He jerked a hand towards
the memory garden. “Not recreated in this glorified cabbage patch!”

Fearing that Jeff might destroy her precious seedlings, Sarah stepped
between him and the garden. Standing there, she felt an overwhelming urge
to shove him out of her life, once and for all.

“Please leave.”

She took a step towards Jeff, leaving him no choice but to back off. Then
she repeated the move, forcing him out of the living room and into the

He gazed at her, a pleading look in his eyes.

“I think you’re making a terrible mistake.”

She folded her arms. “If so, it’s mine to make.”

She commanded the door to open and closed it behind him before he had
finished his sigh.

Free at last.


“So, shall we?”

“Shall we what?”

“You know what I’m talking about!” She let her fingers snag
his pubic hair; then she pulled, none too gently.

“Oh, you mean make a baby!” Saucer eyes, like a child. George
rolled over, turning his muscular back away from her. She knew he was
teasing, like a perfect husband should. She punched him playfully.

“Make me pregnant, dammit!”

His shoulders were shaking.

“If you won’t, I’ll find someone who will!” She tugged hard
at his shoulder, rolling him over. Expecting laughter, she was shocked
to find tears welling up in his eyes….

“No, no, no!”

This playback was supposed to have recreated the most blissful night of
passion of her life. She had just got back together with George after a
six-month separation. All had been smiles and forgiveness. So how come
he ended up crying? That hadn’t happened in real life.

She slipped the neural recorder over her head and tried to focus on her
memories of their lovemaking.

She tugged hard at his shoulder, rolling him over….

“What’s wrong, dear?”

“There’s something I haven’t told you.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Now he was on the brink of telling her the worst news she would ever hear.
But that hadn’t happened until three years later….

Reset and start again!

Rage burned in her heart. She felt betrayed.

“You idiot! You fuck-witted, stiff-upper-lipped idiot of an Englishman!
Why the hell didn’t you report the symptoms earlier?”

Reset, dammit!

“How long?”

“Nine months. Perhaps a year, if I’m lucky.”

“Isn’t there anything they can do?”

He shook his head. “They can kill the pain….”

Sarah slumped onto the sofa, unable to carry on. Frustration made her
pound the nearest cushion until rings of crimson appeared.

The fertility treatment George had undergone seemed unexceptional at the
time. No one had anticipated the virulent form of testicular cancer that
would afflict one third of those treated, four or five years down the line.
The cancer had to be caught early if there was to be a realistic chance
of survival. Few reported it in time. That George was just one of thousands
caught up in a medical tragedy had made things even worse for Sarah —
had made him seem less special somehow.

During the final months, tumours sprang up throughout his body like weeds
after a summer storm. The drugs did indeed kill the pain, but they also
numbed his mind. The man she loved had faded out of her life long before
he died.

She had pounded the furniture back then, too; imagined herself punching
the face of the consultant who had recommended the fertility treatment.
But mostly she had berated herself for wanting children so desperately
it had cost her husband his life.

And now those emotions had welled up out of her memory, enabling her to
create, albeit inadvertently, a playback that truly reflected how she felt
at the time. Not even the playback of her first date with George had come
close to achieving such emotional fidelity.

The truth was that life with George had been far from perfect. How could
she forget the bruising fights followed by days of festering silence? Or
the time he had hurled a chair through the bedroom window, crushing to
death a kitten called Grebo. Worst of all had been his late-night confession
that he had slept with her best friend.

She had tried so hard to forget the bad times by focussing exclusively
on the good, but her subconscious had found her out. No wonder her other
playbacks felt so insipid.

Jeff had been right; it was time to move on.

But first she had one last playback to prepare.


“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” asked

“This is something I have to do,” Sarah replied. “But I
can’t do it on my own.”

The first time had been difficult enough.

“I really don’t know if….” Jeff held her gaze for a moment,
as if verifying her sincerity. Finally he gave a nod. “Okay. What
do you want me do?”

“Just be here for me.”

She pointed out the seedling she had planted yesterday. Holding hands,
they rubbed the largest leaf in unison. A tiny bud unfurled a flower with
alternating black and white petals.

Her hands trembled as she placed the script on the lectern. George’s
father had offered to read the elegy, but she’d refused. Standing there,
she found herself able to stifle her tears but not the inconvenient memories.
Could she really tell his friends and relatives, even an ex-lover sat
two rows from the back, the truth about life with George?

No, of course she couldn’t. A funeral was no place for the truth.

She sniffed heavily then cleared her throat. “I don’t know about
you,” she said, “but I’ve always had trouble with chopsticks….”

Afterwards, Jeff continued to hold her hand while she recounted her memories
of George. Finally, when the flow had subsided, Jeff said, “He was
a good man.”

“No, Jeff,” she said. “George was every kind of man: a
deceitful bastard, but wonderful in bed; a present-buying genius, but a
fool to himself. I experienced the good and the bad of him.” She
paused for a moment to wipe away a tear. “But I loved him so much.”

They sat in silence for a while.

“I should go,” Jeff said at last.

“And so should I,” she responded.

“To the Moon?”

She smiled at him and nodded. “And you?”

He let out a sigh. “I turned down their offer.”

Which confirmed her guess about the final element of the Appleheads’ plan.
Jennifer, Lawrence and Fergal would be displeased with the outcome, for
they were used to getting their way. Their children would surely be no

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I really don’t think we’re ready for each other.”

And nor, in truth, did she. But perhaps a little space and time would
see to that.      

“How long does their offer stand?”

Jeff grinned. “Best ask them that when you get there.”


Sarah raised her left arm as she waddled out of the Induction Centre.
A glance up at the ceiling revealed generous padding, making the Mitchell
Dome’s reception area less of a hazard to newbies than elsewhere in Tycho
Town. Plus she was wearing sticky-boots. Still, it was good to know that
a fortnight of intensive training had rewired her instincts appropriately.

Feeling sheepish, she lowered her arm and waved to the Appleheads, who
were just getting up from the floor cushions they had been lounging upon.
She noticed the children signing to each other. Teaching them would be
rewarding, though doubtless challenging too.

“Better late than never,” said Mary, last to stand up.

Sarah made a play of glancing back over her shoulder then grinned at the
girl. “I thought they’d never let me out!”

“Well, we’re delighted to see you,” said Jennifer.

“And we have something for you,” announced Joy, wrestling a
foil-wrapped box half as big as her across the floor.

Sarah felt a little awkward at receiving a welcoming present. The gift-wrapping
alone would cost a small fortune in Tycho Town.

“Thank you, Joy. That’s very sweet of you.”

“It’s not from us,” said Danny, smirking.

Sarah cast an enquiring glance at each of the parents, but no one would
hold her gaze.

“Oh,” she said, blushing.

“Please open it,” begged Joy.

“You might as well,” said Fergal. “Seeing as how you’ve
signed away your rights to privacy.”

Sarah knew that Fergal didn’t just mean the sponsorship deal. Singletons
bunked eight to a room in Tycho Town.

It seemed she had no choice.

Ignoring the tag, for she knew who had written it, she peeled off the
foil and passed it to Joy. The girl beamed at her. Sarah felt every bit
as child-like as she removed the grey plastic hemisphere from the carton.
Unable to kneel because of her boots, she squatted on her haunches while
fiddling with the catch. When she swung the dome back on its hinge, she
gasped with surprise. Inside stood the smallest apple tree she had ever

Sarah rubbed each leaf in turn, eager to find the one that Jeff had primed.
Finally, a pinhead-sized bud unfurled, revealing a tiny white blossom.
She leaned closer, sniffed a medley of scents: roses, champagne, and then
something musty…. Was that sweat?

Jostling a pair of cambots aside, he pressed his face against the Departures
barrier at Mojave Spaceport, misting the glass with his breath, desperately
hoping for one last glimpse of the woman he loved.

There she was!

Please turn…

She turned and smiled, then waved and blew him a kiss.

Not really a farewell, then.

Seeing things from another person’s viewpoint provided insights you’d
never obtain from your own, Sarah realised. Composting her memory garden
had been the right thing to do. Huntsville High would doubtless make good
use of it.

“Are you okay, Sarah?”

Sarah looked up at Jennifer. “I’m fine,” she said.

Turning to the children, she said, “Come on you lot, collect your
friends. Classes begin in ten minutes.”

A school for nine children, run by a pensioned-off history teacher, aided
and abetted by a pair of media-bots. It wasn’t much of a start, but she
liked to think that tall trees grew from small seedlings.

A humanoid robot halted nearby, its tri-D lenses zooming in on her. She
smiled for her audience on Earth.

“Can anyone guess the subject of my first class?”

She let them ponder that while she made her way, one snagged step after
another, along the corridor leading to Shepard Dome. When the door to her
new school clicked open, she held Jeff’s present up to the robot’s “eyes”.

“I think we’ll begin with apple trees.”