The Nanogatherers
a sci-fi novel in progress

3: Solar Tarp

     Tobe stepped down from the wagon into the ancient parking lot that was  Grandview Point, the highest elevation on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, 7,604 feet above sea level, according to his headband. The asphalt was cracked and split like dried playa mud the cracks were overflowing with weeds. Beyond the edges of the parking lot were stands of ponderosa pine, piñon pine, oak, and juniper. Who knew what kind of predators might be lurking amid these pines. After the Singularity, wildlife filled the ecological niches abandoned by humanity. Wolves and mountain lions and coyotes and bears were everywhere, now, you never knew when you might round a corner and encounter one.

     He inhaled a strong and vigorous smell of pine and something else he couldn’t identify, a brisk amalgam of naptha and tar. What was that?

     It was much different terrain than the sparse arid scrublands they’d been traveling through. He stood in the silence for a moment inhaling the restorative and bracing aroma.

     Tobe could see the glittering white thread of the robots’ SkyRing on the western horizon, not yet drowned by full daylight. The full moon was setting in the west, bisected by the bright straight line of the SkyRing, with Venus and Jupiter forming a triangle in conjunction with the moon. It was an unusual view and Tobe clicked it to mark it in his headband’s index of photos.

     The sun was barely risen–Granny was so anal about capturing every drop of sunlight–but it was going to be another hot day. That was good: the solar tarp converted heat to electricity, too, not just sunlight.


     Tobe began preparing the wagon for the deployment of the solar tarp. Tobe had deployed the tarp hundreds of times–it was his normal chore whenever the wagon moved to a new location. He’d been doing it ever since he was three thousand days old.

     Granny’s mobile home was a modern robot-built wagon retrofitted on the inside to be just like the Champion Riviera C984 she grew up in, as she’d told Tobe just about every one of the four tendays he’d been living in her wagon. On the outside it was the same as any other wagon, a hundred feet long, thirty feet wide, fifteen feet high, with huge earthmover tires capable of maneuvering over any kind of terrain without altering floor level for the occupants. The wagon was  festooned with chairs and tables and tools and bicycles and storage bags attached to the sides, and the long cylinder of the solar tarp tube on top running the length of the wagon.

      At the front of the wagon, Tobe climbed rungs in the side and grabbed the red knob of the first horizontal rafter rod. He climbed back down while pulling the rod, which telescoped out, clicking as each section locked. He backed twenty feet away and let go of the rod and it sprang up and wobbled and then stopped.

     There were ten rods to be pulled out, one every ten feet along the length of the wagon. After the solar tarp was deployed the rods would be rafters supporting the first twenty feet of the solar tarp next to the wagon to create a covered area. They were spring-loaded and could be collapsed back into storage with a command to the wagon, but they had to be extended out by hand   

     Before he got to the next rod, the wagon door opened and the brothers stepped out. Alfy was the older, Ben the younger; both were tall and blonde and athletically trim, like everybody in the Tribe. They were dressed in the same kind of cargo shorts and T-shirts as Tobe. Alfy was a couple inches taller than Ben.

     Tobe didn’t know Alfy and Bhatan very well. They had hardly ever talked to him during the days that he’d been living in Granny’s wagon.  

     They stared at Tobe. 

     “Granny says you didn’t even know it was your birthday,” Alfy said.

     “Alfy, you weren’t supposed to say anything,” Bhatan said. “Granny wanted to make it a surprise. She wanted Uncle Joe to tell him.”

     “What do I care what Granny or Joe think. Joe’s still drunk on his butt. In four more days, I’m outta here.” 

     “You still gotta listen to me until then,” Granny said, stepping out of the wagon.    

     “Granny, the GPS says we’re at Grandview Point,” Tobe said. “What’s Grandview Point?”

     “It’s where we are,” Granny said, sweeping her arm. “Right at the south rim of the Grand Canyon.”

     Alfy said, “Why are we at the stupid Grand Canyon? Nobody’s been to the Grand Canyon for a million days. The canyon on Mars is better, three thousand miles long instead of a piddly five hundred miles. And it’s four miles deep instead of just a mile deep. I went flying through it a couple tendays ago.”

     “This is the real world, not your rumspringa dreams,” Granny said. “Where’s your sidearm? Didn’t I tell you there could be big beasts here?”

     “Oh, sure, a cougar is going to pounce on me,” Alfy said.

     “Maybe not, but what will you do if one does?” said Granny.

     Alfy went back into the wagon.



     “Anyway, what the heck we doing here, Granny?” Bhatan said. “I thought we were getting through the badlands as fast as possible to get to Pismo Beach for the clams.”

     “Uncle Joe convinced me it’s time to harvest the copper,” Granny said. “This is just a short side-trip.” She still reeked of booze, and it didn’t look as though she’d gotten any sleep.

     As Alfy came back out of the wagon, now with a holstered sidearm, Granny said, “Quit yakking and get that tarp rolled out, boys, you’re wasting daylight. And you better keep in mind that Tobe can hear you now.” She stepped back into the wagon.

     “What does she mean?” Tobe said. “I can hear fine.”

     “Welcome to the real world, kid,” Alfy said. “The surprise is, people are going to start talking to you. It’s going to be fun. You’ll see.” Alfy walked away toward the far end of the wagon.

     Bhatan said, “He’s still all revved up because he’s done with rumspringa in four more days. Come on, let’s get the damned tarp out, I want to go back to bed.”

     Tobe said, “What’s rumspringa?”

     Bhatan ignored the question and climbed the side of the wagon to get to the second rafter rod, then looked down. “Tobe, I just want to let you know that we weren’t ignoring you because we hated you. It’s something else, Uncle Joe will tell you.”   

     Tobe and the brothers were a practiced team. They pulled out all ten rafter rods and unrolled the flooring mats out of their compartments on the bottom side of the wagon, then climbed the side of the wagon again to the top where the solar tarp was stored.    

     The solar tarp was a roll of graphene fabric mounted at the roofline of the wagon and extending the full hundred-foot length of the wagon. It was coated with trillions of carbon quantum dots that absorbed photons and converted them directly to electricity. 

     The solar tarp was one of the reasons the Tribe was free. They could recharge their batteries without permission from the robots. They could do whatever they wanted and they weren’t going to let a bunch of machines tell them what to do. 

     At the front of the wagon, Tobe climbed up again and grabbed the red handle of the tarp’s tow cord and pulled out the twenty feet of the cord as he climbed down and then backed away from the wagon, and the ultra-black fabric slid out over the rafter rods. The brothers were doing the same thing, Bhatan at the middle of the wagon and Alfy at the far end. The tarp would be a sunshade ceiling for the space next to the wagon, and at night the tarp could be programed to glow with light.

     Tobe waved to Alfy and Bhatan to signal that he was ready. The boys  began running and the tarp billowed up twenty feet in the air in the light morning wind, easily lifting over the low shrubs and boulders of the parking lot. It was almost like flying a kite.

     The solar tarp was a deep velvety black–it absorbed every photon of whatever wavelength, and reflected nothing. The deepest darkest black you have ever seen.

      Tobe maneuvered around rocks and trees and other obstacles. There weren’t many obstacles: the wagon always parked itself in an optimax spot for the tarp to be deployed.

     One big rock had fallen into the parking lot long ago, a couple feet high, but Tobe leaped to the top of it and kept on going. He could see the wagon’s tracks where it had to steer around the rock on the way in.

     They unrolled the tarp for five hundred feet, weaving around the turns in the ancient parking lot, bounded on the cliff side by a four-foot stone wall. The tarp was not heavy–it was made of graphene, and three acres weighed less than a sixpack of beer.  

     The tarp settled to the ground, fitting itself snugly atop every shrub and rock. Graphene’s remarkable flexibility allowed it to behave much like a liquid coating a surface.

     The boys reached the entrance to the parking lot, and that was as far as they could go. The road was narrowed by an overgrowth of trees. There were branches on the ground that must have snapped off with the passage of Granny’s wagon through them.

     The wagon was out of sight around the bends of the parking lot. “Okay, Granny, we’re as far extended as we can get,” Alfy said through his headband connection.

     Back at the wagon, Granny paused in her kitchen preparations and briefly inspected the solar tarp’s current status graphs in her headband, and activated the tarp.

     A wave shimmered through the tarp as the surface stiffened along the contours of the rocks and shrubs as the billions of individual domains in the tarp’s surface arranged into patterns of small hexagons that angled themselves to the sun. The tarp froze into rigidity, anchored to the shrubs and rocks of the terrain. It had a fine structure, a leaf-like series of veins, that you could see if you studied it.  

     The boys walked back to the wagon, trampling on the tarp, but graphene was the toughest material in the world.

     Alfy said to Tobe, “How could you not know?”

     Bhatan said, “Your mom is supposed to tell you, even though it’s supposed to be a secret.” 

     Tobe didn’t have friends among the other kids of the Tribe because of the community hatred for his mother, who abandoned the Tribe in an unacceptable way when Tobe was very small. He barely remembered her.

     It was highly unusual that Bhatan and Alfy talked to him.

     “It’s not because your mom ran out on us,” Alfy said. “Nobody cares about that. It was because you were a kid. Now you’re five thousand. The filters are off. You’ll see.”

     Ben said to Alfy, “Can Tobe hear us yet? it’s his birthday.”

     “Do you have any kids yet?” Bhatan said to Tobe. “I already had a son and a daughter when I turned five thousand.”

     “You’re never going to catch up to me,” said Alfy.   

     “I will after you upload,” Bhatan said.

     “What are you guys talking about?” Tobe said.

     “You’ll find out. You can hear us now,” Alfy said. “See if you can race with us! On your mark, GO!” And they began running back to the wagon.

     Tobe wasn’t expecting that and got a late start–but it didn’t matter; the older boys were faster. They were already inside the wagon and getting back into bed by the time Tobe arrived. The Tribe was not a gang of early risers and they typically slept until noon. They usually stayed up very late drinking and dancing and singing and howling at the Moon and the Skyring.

     Before he got to the door, Granny came out carrying a plate of food. “Just in time, Tobe, these are eggs benedict for breakfast for you. It’s a special treat for you today, a really complicated print job! Sit down.”