THURSDAY: Orange Flies

BY KELLY JOHNSON

Copyright is held by the author.

AMONG THE largest orange groves in Orange County, the Scott’s tree farm occupied a small, hidden lot in San Fernando Valley. However, it became well known for one tree in particular. The Blood Tree, planted more than a century ago by the great grandparents of Brayton Scott, had become their headstone, when as lovers they died under it. One lynched from the tree in a bidding war for the farm; the other, in anguish of the other’s murder, by her own hand. As the legend goes, with their blood, souls, and love feeding the tree, only it bore Pacoima blood oranges at peak season.

To commemorate the loss of his parents, Brayton’s grandfather cleared a two-acre radius around the tree and, one hundred feet from its bark, planted rings of rose-bushes and poison ivy. An obvious warning.

Only Grandfather Scott had harvested the Blood Tree’s bitter-sweet fruit, for Lover’s Day at the market. It was a tradition Brayton had seen his father accept when his grandfather laid on his deathbed. Of course, a farming accident would disable his father and threaten the blood orange ritual.

Though a young man, the tree’s breadth showed too intimidating for Brayton alone to harvest. Not to mention his eventual future would take him away from the family farm.

“Hey, Bray!” Carlos sprung his head into the openness of the computer lab’s door.

Brayton waved a hand over his pad, blacking out its screen, while punching the power button of an adjacent monitor with the other hand and, turning around in his chair, looked to his friend with heavy eye shadow and a pierced nostril. Behind him, traversing the hallway, random clusters of students, some vociferous.

Carlos presented his entire self, leaning against the door’s threshold with crossed arms. “While you’re in here being all secretive with the X-project, Marcus is with Alonna. Over in the gym.”

Brayton stood, and then sighed, looking back over his shoulder to his equipment.

“Hey, I know how much you want to ask her to the prom,” Carlos said. “I just thought you should know.”

“It’s just that I’m close.”

Carlos entered the lab. “Close to what?” He stopped at the first row of workstations.

“Figuring out the optimal thrust to balance the gyroscope for variable lift.”

Carlos back-stepped. “Uh-huh. Whatever, dude.” He turned on his heels, and before walking away, an about-face in the doorway made him linger. “I hope that is worth missing out on Alonna. I think she likes you. At least more than M1.”

Brayton hooked his waist with one hand while the other scratched his head; his typical expression of frustration — before confidence reasserts itself. He crossed his arms. “Run interference for me?”

Carlos flashed a smile. “That I can do. How long?”

“Two minutes.”

“Alright,” Carlos said with a quick thumb’s up. “Don’t have me getting my ass kicked for no reason.”

“Two minutes. Let me save my work and lock up the lab.”

“OK. C’ya in a couple of minutes then.”

“Right behind you!”  Brayton said as Carlos disappeared from the doorway.

Returning to and leaning over his workstation, Brayton waved a hand over his pad and stared at its screen, at his wire frame design. He had spent the last two and a half years developing the robotic architecture. Given its purpose, a specific set of instructions for flight would complete it. Only after that and a few software tweaks and simulation tests could he then mass produce the machine with the school’s 3D printers.

Waving a hand over the pad once more and it powering off, its screen reflected Brayton’s gleam. He restrained a chuckle at the thought of sharing his work with Alonna, as he gathered his phone and key card. From the middle of the fourth row he made his way to the door and, after turning off the lights, closed and locked up the computer lab.

Stepping into a quick pace along the science hall, as two buildings separated the lab from the gym, Brayton recalled past years of jiving with friends along its stone veneered walls and locker sections, or at a classroom. Nearing room 265, he grinned in fond memory of Dr. Jemison, and how he helped her keep her job after she literally threw Marcus — and his desk — out of her class one time. It was widely known not to test the professor, especially by falling asleep during instruction and then arguing with her. Passing the classroom, its door closed and the room dark — from the entry’s dim pane — he felt gratitude for her passion. It impressed perfection onto him.

At the end of the hall, he transitioned through a stairwell, sliding on its rail into the main building. Flowing along the general hall, it stretched by the main office and entrance to the T-section of the gym’s entrance at the far end. Brayton remarked the glitter of cased trophies that framed the lion mascot’s portrait on the facing wall. Just as he passed the lobby of the main entrance, Carlos came running from the gym, with Marcus in pursuit. Brayton stepped up to intercept.

Marcus halted before Brayton, breathing heavy. “Out of my way, punk.”

“What’s going on?”

“Glad you’re on time,” Carlos said from behind Brayton’s right.

“Ya friend is a clown. Ya put him up to block me with Alonna?”

Nose-to-nose, Brayton looked the wrestler in his brown eyes. “I got no idea what you’re talkin’ about.”

“Like hell, man. Ya betta recognize she’s mine.”

“I belong to no one!”

Marcus looked over his shoulder, surprised and somewhat embarrassed, as Brayton presented teeth and a hand-wave — around the tank — to the volleyball queen standing before the school’s mascot and sport accolades.

“Hey, Alonna.”

“Hey, Alonna,” Carlos mimed.

“Hi, Brayton. Carlos.” Alonna approached the boys, cooling herself from practice with repeated pulls of her top by one hand. Sweat had captured and held from disheveled and woolly bangs strings of hair across her eyes, and she wiped her forehead to clear her sight.

The three could only stare in wonder of her glistening bronze skin, and how her gym bag, hanging from over one shoulder, bounced against her hip with every step.

“I’m getting sick of you two squabbling over me, you know.”

“Squabbling? Who’s squabbling?” Carlos said. “Bray, are you squabbling over Alonna?”

Brayton lifted a hand to his friend as Marcus looked back to him; they locked eyes once more.

“Whatcha gone do, punk?” Marcus stepped even closer.

“Hey, M1. Here.” Carlos stood by Brayton’s side. “Have some gum.”

Marcus laughed, taking a couple steps back. “Oh, ya man got jokes?” He swung at Carlos’s hand just as Brayton pulled his friend by the arm out of the way and blocked the swing with his forearm. “Ya wanna show me some kung fu shit now, huh?”

“Marcus! That’s enough!” Alonna tightened their circle, looking to Marcus and then Brayton.

Brayton met Alonna’s eyes with a smile, and Marcus sucker punched him in the chest with his free hand.

“Hey, man!” Carlos said, aiding his friend’s backward stagger.

“Guess ya didn’t see that comin’, huh?” Marcus chuckled some more. “I guess ya won’t be eyein’ my girl anymore, huh, punk?”

“I am not your girl!” Alonna hollered at the top of herself. Seething, she looked Marcus in the eyes, and in a cold tone, said, “Leave.”

“What about prom?”

“I told you I’d think about going with you. Having thought about it, it ain’t happening.”

Marcus huffed, and then looked to Brayton. “Next time, I’ll have more for ya, punk. You, too, clown.”

Having stood up, Brayton watched Marcus track back to the gym.

“M1 has got major issues,” Carlos said as the athlete pivoted at the corner.

“Are you all right?” Alonna’s concern belied the frustration on her face.

“I’m fine.” Brayton rubbed on his chest. “He just caught me off guard.” Smiling, he pointed to his tee with both hands. “I’m also wearing the House of El coat-of-arm. But I’m glad to have a Nubia like you on my side.”

“Oh, God.” Alonna rolled her eyes and walked off.

“Wait. Wait, wait.” Brayton skipped to catch up and cut her off. “That was pretty lame.”

“Yeah, it was,” Carlos said, grinning.

“OK, Carlos.” Brayton flipped a hand at his side to shoo him away.

“Oh, right. I’ll catch you later then, Bray.”

With Carlos walking away, Brayton looked to Alonna. “Listen. May I take you to prom?”

“I’m not interested in going with you either, Brayton.”

“I understand why you’re saying that,” he said, “but let me offer you this.”

Alonna hooked some of her bangs behind her left ear, curious.

“If you go to prom with me, I will show you something magical.”

Alonna restrained her laughter. “Magical? Boy, please.” She stepped past Brayton.

“Wait, wait. No lie.” Brayton jumped in front of Alonna again. “I’m working on something. It’ll set me up for life, and I want to share it with you, first.”

“What is it?”

“Well, I can’t tell you,” Brayton said. “I’m asking for your trust, by you going to prom with me. When I show you what I have made, I’m figuring you’ll be so impressed that you’ll say yes when I do ask you to be mine — on prom night.”

Alonna laughed out this time. “Are you serious?”

“Serious.” Brayton displayed the scout’s honor. “I have to first show you a future you can believe in, yeah?”

“Hmph. The confidence is strong with this one,” Alonna said. “OK. I’ll go to prom with you. I have your number. I’ll message you my address later this evening.”

The hallway pulled back, shrank, and turned sideways behind Alonna; her acceptance transfixed and froze Brayton in time.

“Hey!” said Alonna, blushing. “You still in this?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah.” Brayton stood aside. “I’ll look for your message later then.” As Alonna walked toward the main entrance, he said, “What’s your favorite colour, for your corsage?”

Alonna paused, smiling back at Brayton. “Lilac.”

“OK. Thanks. Thank you.”

“You got me curious, Scott. I’m looking forward to seeing your magic.”

“We both are.” Brayton waved as Alonna went on her way, mesmerized by the goddess.

His image of Alonna shattered with the thought of having to borrow his dad’s truck. It was an old thing. Reflecting on the few shared classes and lunch tables with Alonna though, having gotten to know her, he assured himself while picking her up in a relic would be different, it would be OK. She was both down-to-earth and sensible — and the fifth smartest of their class.

He now had little doubt she would like his project. Pulling his phone from the back pocket of his jeans, he opened the calendar app to mark the prom date and, as he perambulated the hallway, set benchmarks and to-do dates leading up to the big night with Alonna.

Happy and all smiles, Brayton backtracked to the computer lab. Unlocking and entering the room, flicking the lights back on, he returned to his workstation, waved a hand over his pad, and powered on the adjacent monitor, and sighed. Now began the process of coding, tweaking the program, and running simulations — before printing.

Surely he knew the solution to his problem to be as simple as Newton’s third law of motion, to which thrust is the robot’s exhaust speed times the expulsion of its fuel’s mass flow rate. The matter, however, had to account for additional mass given its purpose. As he designed a very efficient and Lilliputian fuel system, given the scale of the robot design, it also needed to maximize its thrust while balancing power in carrying extra weight — within the parameters of a gyroscope keeping it stable during flight.

The solution dawned on him, and he busied himself with programming.

* * *

“I’m really glad . . . about us going to prom together.” Brayton sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Alonna, with one elbow extended past the passenger door window.

“Sure,” Alonna said, between Brayton and his father, “but I thought you’d show me something magical tomorrow, after prom, just to the two of us.”

“Young lady,” Mr. Scott said, driving his classic F100. “The kid’s always been full of surprises.”

The rough trail through the grove mumbled under the classic pickup, bouncing its occupants. Brayton reached for a switch on the dash to turn on the bed lights — a modification he installed as a Father’s Day gift — and looked out the rear window of the cab, to check on Carlos. He rode in the cool night air with a covered cargo, to ensure its safe transport.

“He’s quite the friend. He came to my rescue, when you and Marcus got into it.”

“What did he do?” Brayton grinned with anticipation.

“He faked a sneeze on him, and you know how Marcus took it.”

Brayton signalled to Carlos and received from him a thumb’s up. With Alonna smiling at Carlos as well, Brayton observed how her hair rippled on the airflow into the cab, filling it with her scent. As she pulled a lock behind her right ear, he saw they had arrived at the clearing in the grove, by the lone tree standing in the middle of it.

When Mr. Scott cut the truck’s headlights and silenced its engine just ahead of the tree’s perimeter of poison ivy and rose-bushes, the remnant of sunset along the horizon silhouetted the tree’s branches and foliage against the starry sky and full moon. “This is a living memorial,” he said. “Of our family’s history on this land.”

“So,” Carlos said at the passenger door. “We ready to do this?”

“As ready as ever,” Brayton turned from his friend to Alonna and his father.

“Whatever you’re about to show us, kid, just remember it’s the thought that counts.”

Brayton felt his father’s praise wave goose bumps over him. “Okay, let’s do this.” He opened the creaky passenger door and helped Alonna out of the cab, as his father exited and hobbled toward the back of his truck, to let down the tailgate. “Carlos, help me uncover the hive and lay out the supers,” Brayton said, walking to the back of the truck with his friends.

He and Carlos climbed into the pickup’s bed and removed the cargo’s canvas, and as Carlos roughly folded the cloth, Brayton studied his construction. An apiculture-based tower. He unlocked the five supers above its base and, after removing the top cover and resting it along the side of the truck bed, removed the first super — a pallet of thirty insect-like machines, about fist size. He placed the tech, with Carlos following with the second super, toward the edge of the tailgate.

“What the — are they bees?” said Mr. Scott.

The reaction made Brayton grin ear-to-ear. “You’re looking at your orange pickers.” He turned to receive from Carlos and placed the third pallet. “At least the first generation. Tonight’s test may warrant design changes, but these bees, these SOP Ones are ready to go.”

“SOP Ones?” Alonna said.

Carlos placed the fourth pallet.

“Scott Orange Picker model one,” said Brayton. “Patent pending.”

Mr. Scott erupted in laughter. “Well, all right.”

Brayton winked at his father.

With Carlos having placed the fifth pallet in the F100’s bed, he and Brayton jumped over the sides of the truck to the ground, and Brayton went to the cab to retrieve his satchel. Approaching the back of the truck, he removed his pad from the bag, which Alonna offered to hold — slinging it by its strap over her head onto one shoulder — as he powered on the pad.

“I’m just giving all one hundred and fifty GPS coordinates,” he said, “and running through a preflight check, before green lighting take off.”

To the twitching and clicking of the bots’ bulbous wings, the ends of which illuminated with the start of encased micro-engines, Alonna said, “These are what you made? What you wanted to show me?”

“We.” Carlos swiveled his index finger between him and Brayton. “We built all of these. Or at least he built and I painted. Except that one. The 27th bot, on the third pallet. Unit 3-27. Look, Alonna. You’ll notice also . . .”

“It’s lilac,” Alonna said with a slinky smile, “and the designation matches my birthday. Ha. Seems your father is right about you, Brayton. You’re full of surprises.”

“Well, just you watch the magic unfold.” With a final touch on his pad, the machines levitated, clicked some more, and bobbled midair. When leveled and steady, the first group buzzed off, streaming exhaust glow over the truck and across the ground in waves. The pale blue light from the wings transformed the tech into fairies against the backdrop of evening. Later waves slipped past Brayton and company as he led everyone to the front of the truck. “By my estimate, there are no more than 150 oranges on the tree this season.” He stopped a few meters ahead of the pickup, with the Blood Tree coming more alive with the undulation of lights.

“Your Grand-pappy dun told me the spirit of love in the tree has limits. That which it doesn’t share, the tree uses to rejuvenate and grow. The three of y’all understand?”

“Yes . . . sir,” Brayton said, speaking for himself and his friends, as they all gave Mr. Scott a perplexed look. Unsure of his father’s intended meaning, Brayton continued, “I also wanted to test the full spectrum optics of the bots at night. So, they should identify an orange not only by shape, but also by colour. Including residual UV radiation absorbed from the sun. And texture as well. Latching onto an orange, they will maneuver to snip a little over three-eighths of an inch of its pedicel and then fly it back to the truck, drop it, and land.”

“So you’ve been planning tonight for a while,” Alonna said.

“Yep.” Brayton smiled back at her. “The pad is keeping track of their flight paths, fuel consumption and weight limit. At the same time, the SOPs are collectively spotting and sharing number counts. That is, how many have collected an orange and remaining oranges to collect. If any need to make a second trip, they will do so in the order of drop off.”

Mr. Scott was in disbelief. “These will make short work of harvesting the grove.”

“Yep,” Brayton said. “Especially when more are made. I’m thinking a hive for every ten trees.”

The oranges started to come in, some with blossoms. The random flights between the Blood Tree and the pickup illuminated the dimness in between, and even the party with the occasional stray flyby. In turn, the irregular cadence of oranges thudding into the back of the pickup signaled successful drops.

“Hey, Bray,” Carlos said. “Seems they are all flying back out.”

Brayton reviewed the tree’s data on the pad, and found all its oranges had been collected in under five minutes. “Weird.”

“Something wrong with them?” Mr. Scott said before a final thump from the pickup.

“I don’t know.”

“What are they doing?” Alonna said, as the last techno fairy joined the others.

The party looked to the Blood Tree to see the SOPs hovering in a wide circle just below the canopy, facing the sapwood. The lackadaisical pace of the exhaust ring cast the ground about the tree in pale blue and shadows of grass stalks.

“I have no idea what they’re doing,” Brayton said.

“Did you make them with AI or something?” Carlos said.

“No. Impossible. At least, I think.”

“Oh, my God, Brayton,” said Alonna. “Look.”

Everyone gathered around Brayton to look at his pad and the night vision view of unit 3-27, just as it passed from around the back of the Blood Tree to its front. The apparition of a woman in robe de style dress, smiling and reaching for the flying machines awed at least three of the witnesses.

“She’s beautiful,” said Alonna.

Brayton worked the pad to no avail, but a scroll through the different views revealed a few SOPs identified the entity as unknown, by the very word flashing in bold red with some camera views.

“This is so cool!” Carlos said.

“No. It’s not cool,” said Brayton. “This is so not the plan.”

The bots’ exhaust transmuted the hue around and on the tree from blue to pink. At the same time, the SOPs’ rotation stopped in a cluster before the Blood Tree. To everyone’s amazement, the mass of SOP Ones morphed into a heart.

“Nor that.” Brayton glanced at a smiling and flushed Alonna. “Seriously.”

“Smooth, Bray. Real smooth.” Carlos snickered.

“Seriously. This, this . . . I don’t know how or why it’s happening.”

“It has to do with the both of you,” Mr. Scott said. “The spirit is responding to you and Alonna. It would seem you two have genuine feelings for one another.”

“How do you know that?” Brayton said, looking to his father grinning at the ground, arms crossed as he rubbed a small stone from its settlement with one foot.

Mr. Scott looked to Brayton, moving his hands into his jean pockets, almost shrugging as he said, “Ask your mother about our first date here. She’s a better storyteller than me.”

Brayton looked at his father with a straight face. Alonna, close to Brayton’s side, turned her head down and away to hide her blushing.

“Come on, Carlos,” Mr. Scott said. “These two need some alone time.”

With his father and friend having walked back to the F100, and hearing the doors of its cab creak open and then shut, Brayton turned to Alonna. Feeling just as awkward as she, holding his pad at his side, “This is . . . unreal.”

“You think?” Alonna giggled, covering her smile and then her face with her hands. “Give me a second.” Taking a breath, she braved Brayton with as straight a face as possible. “So, you normally go this far to impress a girl?”

Brayton chuckled, pulling Alonna close by his bag around her. “I really wasn’t expecting the ghost of my great grandmother to meet and approve of you — of us.” As he manipulated the satchel to place his pad inside it, Alonna’s arms moved to dangle over his shoulders, and then his hands found her waist.

The two noticed the Blood Tree’s illumination change, and looking in its direction, the SOP Ones now faced them, paling the tree in blue once more. One by one, the bots shot away from the Blood Tree until the absence of lighted exhaust left it dark. After flashing passed Brayton and Alonna, the bots slowed to a glide over the hood and cab of the pickup, and landed in its bed, each unit randomly settling in its assigned pallet placements.

“Well, colour me impressed, Einstein.”

Under the moon’s light, which stilled the grove’s shadows, Brayton smiled with his forehead to Alonna’s. He felt her hands grasp him by the shoulders, and before he knew it, she pecked him on the cheek and stepped out of his grasp, and walked back to the pickup.

“Consider that a placeholder for tomorrow’s answer,” she said. “And I’ll tell Carlos to help you with the SOPs.”

Brayton, flushed, chuckled after Alonna. “OK. Thanks.” He followed her back to the truck, observing how his satchel bounced off her hip with each sway and step. After Alonna reached the passenger door and traded places with Carlos, Brayton gaited passed her, with smiles between them, and joined his friend at the truck’s rear.

“Dude,” Carlos said with a huge grin, climbing into the truck’s bed with his euphoric friend.

The two restacked and covered the hive, and with the SOPs secured, they each grabbed an orange and sat on a wheel tub of the truck’s bed, opposite of one another. Brayton banged on the side panel of the bed, before he peeled his fruit.

Mr. Scott started his F100 and, with its headlights casting a warm light on the Blood Tree, made a U-turn in the clearing and drove everyone — and their booty — home. Trailing away from the Blood Tree, the young engineer gauged the distance growing between him and it. Placing a russet endocarp of his Pacoima fruit into his mouth, he beamed while chewing, nodding in recognition of his roots.

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