Written for Write On Edge. A story, about an ancient tradition meeting futuristic farming techniques, begins after the image.
Genre: Science Fiction
Old man Barstow couldn’t help pestering the technician. The young man stood at the “head” of the huge harvester. It looked like a giant centipede with 24 pairs of powerful legs. On one side, hinged levers with sensor pods swung out. Each one possessed arms and supple mechanical hands for harvesting and shucking corn. These “Shuckers” looked like mechanical torsos of men attached to the side of the harvester. Mr. Singh worked, making fine adjustments to harvester’s software.
“I need more efficiency,” said Barstow. “All she’s got.”
“The setting is already as high as it will go,” sighed Singh.
“But I need more,” whined Barstow. The old widower watched several Undesirables ducking into the trees beside the field. The poor people had almost nothing, and lived off “gleaning” unharvested bits of crops from farmers’ fields. The greater efficiency of modern equipment meant they could find little. Barstow sympathized, but worried about making enough money before he was too old to work. Someday, he might join the Undesirables if he didn’t earn as much money as he could while he could.
“There’s another–experimental–option,” said Singh.
“Then do it!”
“Hold on. Theoretically, there’s more efficiency by releasing the Artificial Intelligence’s creative functions. But there’s also the chance of unexpected results. It’s risky; not recommended.”
It was. A supply ship with techs wouldn’t return for four years. If the machine went strange, Barstow couldn’t fix it. He saw a young girl, perhaps 14, watching them from behind a tree. Her eyes were dull and her hair matted. At 72 years, Barstow couldn’t live like her and survive. “I’ll take the chance,” he said.
At harvest time, the harvester worked better than he dreamed. Then one day he saw a 6-year old Undesirable standing in the path of the harvester, arms raised in supplication. Barstow feared the worst and he raced to reach the child. Before he could arrive, the harvester stopped. A man-like Shucker placed an armful of corn in the boy’s arms. It patted him on the head and gently pushed him away.
Pleased the harvester didn’t kill the child, Barstow’s heart sank. In the weeks that followed, he saw this behavior often. Barstow imagined he was ruined by loss of crop efficiency. He queried the harvester’s AI. It fervently insisted it was being “more efficient.” How much of his savings was given away? He foresaw his doom.
Weeks later, the 14-year old girl from before, knocked on his door. Her eyes gleamed and her hair was combed. She wasn’t as painfully skinny as before. She offered to do housework…for nothing in return. “I eat well enough,” she claimed. Wary, but exhausted, Barstow accepted.
In the years that followed, more and more Undesirables joined his “staff.” His workload decreased, and he wasn’t tired all the time.
As he presided over their annual “harvest banquet,” he realized he could go on farming for many more years with all the help. In the end, the harvester’s AI was right. Giving away the corn for “gleaning” truly was more efficient.
The tradition of Gleaning is thousands of years old. It was often a means for the poor and undesired to survive. More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gleaning
Each week, Write on Edge offers a sentence and an image prompt. Either or both can be used for inspiration. This time around, the image really got my mind working. You can find the original writing prompt here: http://writeonedge.com/2014/03/writing-prompt-2014-week-12/