***Enjoy this sneak peek into 2050: Psycho Island. Please excuse the block formatting and any errors. The manuscript has not been professionally edited yet.
Chapter 1: Derek and The Family Orchard
“Mornin’, Mom.” Derek kissed his mother on the cheek.
Hannah Reeves stood over the electric stovetop, cooking scrambled eggs. A pitcher of fresh squeezed orange juice was on the counter. “Good morning, honey,” she replied, not looking at her son.
Derek stared at his mother, his eyes squinting. She was a sturdy woman with thick gray hair. Chubby but not fat. But she looked a little thinner than usual. And she had dark circles around her eyes. “You okay? You look tired.”
Hannah frowned at her son. “Thanks for noticing.”
“You eatin’ enough?”
“That’s my line.” She went back to the eggs. “Put your toast on.”
“You didn’t answer my question?”
Derek raised his eyebrows. “You need me to work the farmer’s market this weekend?”
“I said, I’m fine. You got enough to do. Make your toast. Your eggs are almost done.”
Derek eyed his mother one last time, then grabbed the loaf of bread from the counter. “You want any?”
“I already ate.”
Hannah sat with her son as he ate his breakfast. The kitchen table was wooden, painted white, made by Derek’s late father. Derek took a gulp of his orange juice.
“You gonna have the George Oranges ready for the market?” Hanna asked.
Derek set his glass on the table with a smile. “I should have ‘em picked and boxed with a day to spare.”
Hannah smiled back. “I remember when we had to hire ten guys for the picking.”
“Good thing we don’t have to anymore. We can’t afford it. And even if we could, I’m not sure we could find farm labor. Not with UBI.”
“It was always a struggle for your dad to find help. Even before UBI.”
Derek nodded and stood from the table, grabbing his plate and glass. “Thanks for breakfast, Mom. I should get movin’.”
Outside, scattered clouds parted for the rising sun. Birds chirped. Dew covered every surface, but would quickly evaporate as the sun took center stage. From the porch of the old farmhouse, Derek surveyed the orchard. Ninety acres of premium farmland in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The orchard sat on a gently sloped, south-facing hill. Every twenty feet or so, ditches had been dug along the contour lines, berms formed downslope, and trees planted on the berms. The ditches collected valuable water and nutrient to feed the trees planted on the berms. Eight compacted clay ponds had been constructed to collect excess runoff and feed the trees in times of drought.
Derek walked to the barn, a dilapidated relic of a time long gone. Two large machines were parked inside, the tractor and the picker. The picker was long and tall and sat on four skinny, knobby tires. On the right side of the machine, a hose end, large enough to pass a grapefruit, was connected to a track that extended twenty-five feet in the air. Derek climbed on the machine, sat in the captain’s chair, and pressed the start button. The touch screen appeared in front of him, the battery powered engine silent. He used the joystick to drive the machine into the orchard. The picker was very slow. Even in transport mode, it inched forward at less than five miles per hour. Derek drove the picker to the first row of ripe oranges, the right side of the machine and the mechanical hose facing the fruit. He tapped the screen, selecting the speed and the settings.
The hose end came to life, moving up the track, then pivoting forward on a joint, into the tree canopy. The hose end suctioned an orange from a branch, then another, and another. The oranges were fed through the hose to a soft conveyer belt and deposited into a cardboard box. The machine inched forward as it picked the tree clean. Derek dismounted the picker and checked the box in the rear of the machine. Derek pushed the full box aside for storage and added an empty box. Every five minutes or so, Derek would need to add another empty box. While he waited, he used another suction hose, one that wasn’t automated, but could be used by humans to vacuum fruit from the orchard floor. As he vacuumed, he smelled the lemongrass and oregano and basil that grew underneath and confused would be orange pests. Vacuuming was an art as much as it was a science. He had to be careful of his herbs, and to avoid gleaning damaged fruit. He had the picker down to a science. The speed he selected was just enough time to vacuum the fruit under the tree and change the box before the picker moved on to the next orange tree.
A mimosa tree grew between each orange tree, planted for nitrogen fixation and bee fodder. In the last few years, as the weather had warmed, Derek had planted ice cream bean trees for nitrogen fixation instead. Mimosa’s still grew, but if the warming trend continued, the ice cream bean tree would be a better selection. When he was born, the orchard was firmly rooted in plant hardiness zone 7. In his early teens, the orchard was in zone 8. It was during this time that he started experimenting with citrus, eventually breeding two orange varieties hardy enough for their mild mid-Atlantic winters, which felt shorter and milder each year. It was dumb luck really, like hitting the lottery … twice. He grew thousands of oranges from seed, the cold weather killing most of them. But some of them lived. So, he cultivated these trees until they produced fruit, which took about twelve years. Most of the fruit was bitter and poor quality, but two of the trees produced tasty oranges, and it was these trees that he used to propagate all the orange trees in the orchard.
These two trees produced delicious oranges, but they were slightly different from one another. One ripened earlier in the season, early November, the fruit slightly smaller, but very juicy and sweet. These were the oranges he was currently harvesting. The other ripened two weeks later, produced twice the yield, with larger but less sweet oranges. He had named the orange varieties after his parents. The earlier ripening variety, George Oranges, and the later, Hannah Oranges. The George Oranges produced a decent income, but it was the Hannah Oranges that saved the farm every year.
Derek had patented his cold hardy oranges and sold the rights to grow them for a small fee. Many local orchards had grown his orange trees, and it produced a modest income, but a large conglomerate had also developed cold hardy oranges suspiciously identical to Derek’s. Unfortunately, Derek did not have the money to sue a well-connected conglomerate with a full-time legal staff. Over the years, many of the small orchards that grew his trees went out of business, saddled with debt, and losing to massive mechanized farms and imported fruit. The banks and financial institutions suppressed commodity prices, hurting the farmers, causing defaults, and placing farms firmly in the grasp of multi-national banks. People rarely complained because they wanted cheap food, but they didn’t get cheap food. The low commodity prices only served to allow for a bigger markup for middle men and grocers. Derek was part of a dying breed of small farmers.
His phone chimed in his pocket. He grabbed his phone and swiped right with his left thumb while still holding the suction hose with his right. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself,” April replied. “I’m sorry to bother you. I know you’re busy.”
“I’m not that busy. The picker’s doin’ all the work. I can do my job with one hand tied behind my back.” Derek continued to suction oranges as he spoke with his girlfriend.
“I won’t be able to see you this weekend.”
“That’s too bad. I was really lookin’ forward to seein’ you.”
“I know. Me too. I’m sorry. We’re prepping for next week’s trial. I’ll be lucky to sleep, much less have the weekend off. Don’t you have Lindsey with you this weekend anyway?”
“I hoped to have you both here. It’d be good if Lindsey got to know you better.”
“She probably wants some father daughter time.”
Derek exhaled. “I doubt that. I don’t think she even wants to visit anymore.”
“That’s not true.”
“I wish it wasn’t. I don’t blame her. She lives in a mansion where she has the all the latest gadgets and doesn’t have to lift a finger. She comes here, there’s no VR room, no butler cleanin’ up after her, and the internet’s slow as molasses in January.”
“She’s a teenager. It’s a faze. She’ll get over it.”
“You’re right.” Derek paused for a moment. “I need to quit my whinin’.”
“I should get back to work. I’ll call you this weekend.”
“Bye.” April disconnected the call. Derek placed his phone back in his pocket. The picker shuddered and stopped cold. Derek checked the dashboard screen. It was black. He turned off the power and waited. He’d been having trouble with the machine overheating. To save itself from frying any important parts, the picker shut down when it got too hot. His mechanic had told him that the picker was in desperate need of refurbishment and probably needed a new motherboard, but Derek hoped to get through the fall, using the money from the harvest for the repairs. Ten minutes later, he turned on the machine. The picker resumed work and Derek breathed a sigh of relief.