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Able's Growth

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

(a fictional story of growth)

Upon birth of their first and only child five years prior to the pandemic of 2020, Able's parents fortuitously decided to spend a portion of their savings to buy a modest tract of land in a remote, mountainous location, the southern edge of which bounded more than one and a half million acres of wilderness area and national forestlands. On that completely unimproved bit of property–more out of frugality and industrious curiosity to leverage emerging off-grid technologies than any consuming drive to become preppers–they built a fully self-sustainable off-grid home, purchased seeds and saplings and planted small orchards and gardens around the new green home before finally acquiring essential livestock and ample starter feed supplies to supplement the animals' continuous daily foraging on grazable acreage of the property.

Within a year after settling into their remote wilderness home, they acquired excellent 4G wifi connection to the internet from new cell towers constructed on hilltops several miles downslope, providing high-speed access to valuable information around the world beyond their wildest dreams. To bring in some income without having to go into towns to work, they discussed starting an online company providing digital creative services for small businesses lacking financial resources for large-scale marketing campaigns driven by secure online information collection, analysis, management and related web-based retail sales infrastructure. Their extensive discussions and learning adventures in coding and big data convinced them it was worth a try. So they invested a significant portion of savings in enough hardware, software and internet services to effectively utilize the world wide web toward that purpose, started their own business working entirely online from home and then began designing a system for express purpose of legally qualifying for homeschooling their only child. Capable of working at home together on their own schedule, they were bound and determined to keep their rapidly growing toddler at home too, away from the county's abysmally mismanaged, reportedly corrupt independent public school district knowing full well it would only inflict irreversible damage on the brand new, boundlessly hungry mind forming within their free-spirited child.

Successfully gaining homeschooling authorization from the state, instead of sending Able off to school by bus at a poorly sheltered stop located alongside a dangerously narrow paved road in a tiny village miles downslope on a daily basis, they spent every free moment available between themselves playing with Able at whatever their child seemed to want to play at. They read to Able from thousands of ebooks and other online sources and told thousands of made-up stories spun from their own wild imaginings. Eventually Able decided to make up stories too and joined in on the storytelling sessions, weaving delightfully rich and entertaining tales from nothing but wispy strands of thoughts and ideas. They watched streamed docos and other informative videos together on the family company's 50-inch flat-screen LCD HD display. They painted and sculpted together. They gardened and cooked and canned and ate what they grew together. They expanded and tinkered on their off-grid systems together, showing Able which system units did what and which switches connected and disconnected them from the system while frequently informing their child of the dangers of high voltage current flowing through living beings. Able watched them both working their company as they wrote and debugged web apps, created and tweaked ecommerce sites, composed original music for advertising videos they shot, edited and produced and sundry other creative tasks. They raised pets and livestock together, solemnly burying beloved pets that always eventually died so their bodies could return to their natural source of creation as they should. They heartily feasted on fresh eggs and milk gathered daily from hen and nanny, and on the meat of farm fowl and livestock they eventually slaughtered and butchered together.

After learning to read and write as soon as Able was compelled to do so (entirely by personal choice at age six), they began providing their child with every material, every tool and every bit of available information required to allow Able to independently explore, experiment and create using those resources. Then they stepped back, stayed out of the way and watched, only intervening when absolutely necessary to keep their intrepid child safe.

By the time the pandemic began, Able's self-directed, self-paced learning adventures were proceeding at an astonishingly rapid pace. Upon completion of each learning experience and related project while they all lived together under government-mandated lockdown, Able's parents were frequently astounded with each educational outcome, knowing they had succeeded at allowing their child to discover, learn and understand anything through pure, unadulterated, extended play without suppressing or destroying any trace of the naturally ravenous curiosity of childhood. That ravenous curiosity never dwindled within Able as years passed and projects became more complex and involved until deliverables from those projects actually became useful for them all in both minor and sometimes major ways.

At age fifteen, Able had independently acquired and developed an especially strong interest, knowledge and set of skills in microbiology and bioengineering and began taking online accredited courses in that subject matter from every source available on the world wide web until eventually matriculating at age nineteen with a masters degree in microbiological science and engineering from MIT with a focus on organic growth systems and processes. Able presented and successfully defended a ground-breaking dissertation on feasibility of genetic modification of plants toward structural growth enhancements for serviceable utilization in industry. Those revolutionary ideas which sprang from such a young, self-educated mind earned Able world-wide acclaim, attracting significant attention. Soon thereafter lucrative job offers began to arrive in Able's inbox even as the pandemic raged on around the world without signs of letting up even a little bit.

Then something happened to drive society beyond critical mass in its ability to adapt quickly enough to deal with the pandemic through application of new coronavirus vaccines developed annually. A couple of the annual vaccines produced were ineffective against prominent strains two years in a row. Economies began sinking and crashing around the world. A second great depression descended upon civilization and Able's dreams of entering into a profession with a bleeding-edge team in a company operating in some city out in the world were dashed by realities of circumstance. Instead, Able turned attention, formidable knowledge and highly honed skills toward projects at home which would help them all continue surviving in isolation as independently as possible. Danger of infection increased as failing economies forced people into ever-increasing risky behaviors thwarting all attempts to maintain effective social distancing practices. Another pandemic wave was underway. The worst since it all began in 2020.

Eventually, coronavirus mutated frequently and rapidly enough to produce an even more deadly and virulent strain than the initial strains which first entered and spread across the nation. Able's parents were infected during a trip into town for the few vital manufactured supplies they still had to purchase and they both quickly succumbed to the ravages of COVID-35 which struck them down for good less than one month apart. Able skillfully cared for them in their isolation–as many more children around the world struggled to do for their own aged, dying parents–but could not keep them alive. Then Able fell ill and was forced to focus every ounce of personal energy and will on simply inhaling another breath of life-sustaining air.


Able's recovery was slow and uneven, as expected. The nastier strains of coronavirus which had emerged over the decade and a half since it began infecting its first human hosts in Wuhan, China frequently induced rough illness with particularly varied, strange and ragged-edged symptoms. Onset of symptoms did not happen quickly. Eight days passed after infection before Able was stricken by an odd, low-grade fever and chills entirely disproportionate to severity of the mildly elevated body temperature. But those chills immediately drove Able to bed seeking sleep between shivering spells for a full week to escape the insanity COVID seemed to always bring with its many other weird indicators, not the least of which were the nightmares. Maddeningly recurrent nightmares of Able's last large task completed mere hours before falling ill: placing mother and father on the huge compost heap used to recycle livestock carcasses–something every truly self-sufficient family farm inevitably must deal with.

Putting them there wasn't Able's idea.

"Compost us," Mother had insisted in their final, halting but still coherent discussion together. She had died before her mate but Able was surprised that father had not yet laid out the same simple instructions. Always direct-speaking people, they never wasted time or breath hemming and hawing around any subject matter.

"After we're fully composted next spring . . . scatter us in the orchard . . . at the north edge of the meadow, to feed the cherry trees . . . so we can help them make lots of your favorite fruit . . . through summertime next year. Then you'll get to enjoy the fattest cherries . . . of the largest harvest . . . you'll ever have."

Able wasn't at all appalled and not at all inclined to argue against this final wish or her predicted outcome, dutifully performing the task of carefully constructing their multi-layered compost bed as soon as she expired three days later, adding fresh moisture to the precisely laid-out layers of feedstock beneath, around and above her body in the form of copious tears shed in steady, silent rain. Able's detached, scientist mind was somewhat amazed tiny ducts of the eyes could produce so many tears and made note to throughly rehydrate while working.

Feeling no small amount of survivor guilt, Able reflected at length on recent events. A month after mother, father was added to the compost heap in like fashion and now Able sat in nervous, twitchy relief–somehow still alive as a rare COVID-35 survivor–weakly tapping and swiping at wifi-connected tablet to read latest news of the latest pandemic wave sweeping the globe. A wave which was still killing victims counted by millions each week. One hundred fifty-eight million totaled so far, with no signs the far side of the wave was approaching. One hell of a carcass composting job going on out there, Able thought and sighed, long and deep, enjoying soothing sensations the extended respiratory exercise brought to battered body and mind.

Sitting in shade beneath largest of the cherry trees at the north edge of the meadow, Able occasionally glanced at the new twin mounds on the compost heap. Various compost heaps on the family farm had provided significant impetus toward the career vectors Able had taken. Any sample from any of them viewed with the microscope received on Christmas at age eight was an adventure of delight. Able decided to carefully monitor microbial development of this most recent addition to the livestock heap. Something new and interesting just might pop up from decomposition of COVID-killed human remains in it. Sun setting behind Able and orchard cast last rays of light at desperate, steep angle over western ridge line against an overcast sky, producing illusion of it rising anew and golden-red behind clouds sailing away east and south before surrendering to night's insistent, inky murk. Recording the sight in eidetic memory as darkness encompassed, Able reveled in it. Then boom of nighthawks and subtle wingbeat of free-tailed bats on the hunt for flying food fleeing in fading light added to an otherwise still evening well worth remembering. Promise of rain from storm clouds gathering overhead was never fulfilled, waiting until well out over eastern high plains to loose lightning, rain and hail upon sparsely-treed, grass-carpeted landscapes. Low thunder rumbled and thrummed from someplace out there. Able could feel it as well as hear its portent, triggering thoughts of many tasks ahead required to prepare for winter, and many more to prepare for long-term survival in an increasingly unstable world.


Able's convalescence was extended and essentially entailed brief periods moving around very slowly while quietly, carefully easing into a new life of solitude. Most pressing task at hand was cooking the first hot meal–including a substantial slab of cured meat for much-needed protein and sodium–consumed since falling ill, wolfing it down and cleaning up the aftermath. Then a long, deep sleep was required to recover from that bit of work. It felt like every cubic inch of body tissue had atrophied much more than the past week in bed could account for, but having watched COVID's effects on mother and father, Able understood all too well that this was a ruthlessly strong virus wreaking microbiological havoc of epic proportions.

Second task was simply to walk about the homestead taking stock of everything. The bout with COVID-35 had dragged on a full week before Able finally rolled out of bed with a long, wheezy groan to do more than stagger to the toilet and back to bed, get some water to drink or fetch something readymade to eat from shelves of home-canned foods stored in the larder. Clove-spiced peaches, string beans, spinach, peas, new potatoes and choke cherry jam, all favorites chock full of vitamins but lacking protein. Able had not lost sense of smell or taste as many had reported being a typical COVID symptom and was grateful for that. Aside from watching streamed videos on tablet or smart phone while sick in bed, savoring flavors of the canned foods had been the only other distraction energy and stamina allowed.

Checking the animals first, Able found many were missing. It appeared a bear had ripped into the coop and had either eaten or scattered the chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese it sheltered. The aviary was still intact and pigeons continued circling above, waiting for fresh food to be shoveled into feed bins. Fortunately, the stream was still running and the small impoundment behind the minimal dam built across it was full. Mennsie and calf were drinking from it when Able first spotted them. No sign of Hector the bull. Both dogs were no shows too, most likely now roaming in search of wild food. Two nanny goats were located grazing contentedly deep in the shade of the oak grove along the east side of the property. One of the cats, Wisp-O, greeted Able with much rubbing and purring about the ankles looking no worse for wear and still carrying her load of kittens which would probably be born within a day or two. No sign of the father, Whop-O.

A long, doleful braying from deep in pine forest somewhere far up the south slope signaled the adopted burro Sanchi was still nearby. Able whistled loudly and the braying immediately ceased. A short minute or two later Sanchi burst at a gallop out of the aspen grove lining the south stream shore, gracefully leapt over the narrow stream and rushed uphill panting hard for their heartfelt reunion punctuated with lots of patting and scratching of the still-shedding burro's silvery-beige coat.

Followed by Sanchi and Wisp-O, the slow, strolling inspection tour continued. Fortunately, there was no other damage to any of the farm facilities or fixtures. PV arrays were all still gathering photons and pumping out electrons. The pair of water turbines were both cranking out their share of electricity, their flue pipes clear of obstructions. And the wind turbine was providing modest current from a steady breeze shifting direction from westerly to southerly and back again as was usually the case during final weeks of late spring. The house was in good shape. No broken windows or ripped screens from nosy bears seeking easy food. There were lots of elk and mule deer tracks around the yard, pressed deep into soil still soft from plentiful spring rains. The meadow was awash in wildflower blossoms as the first blooming of the warm seasons peaked. With all the moisture, Able was sure a second blooming would come in August, if not late July.

Growing tired after filling feed bins, watering troughs and cans, Able went back inside to take a mid-morning nap before doing anything else, hoping more of the farm animals would return when they smelled aromas of fresh feed wafting around on shifting breeze. Sleep was blissfully uninterrupted or disturbed by noise or nightmare. Upon waking, it was time to pull sheets and blankets from beds and get them into the washing machine. Removing the case from mother's favorite down pillow, a small slip of folded paper fluttered out onto the mattress. On it were two Gaelic words written in her distinctively tiny, cursive style: Dialann and Oifig. Able finished getting the load of wash started in the machine then went into her office and looked around for the diary she had left hint of in her native tongue.

Hours later, no sign of anything remotely resembling a dialann was found. Every bound notebook inspected was labeled and cram-packed with her neatly scribed business notes on work or research projects. All other bound volumes were printed textbooks or references. Frustrated, Able stopped searching, made a PB&J, filled a tumbler full of ice cold milk and returned to mother's office to sit at her desk eating and drinking while looking around for more clues. Before finishing the tasty sandwich, randomly-cast gazes here and there caught sight of her AR rig sitting alone on a small side table, and there it was.

"Of course!" Able exclaimed aloud, knowing a computer geek mother so well.

A laminated label with the word DIALANN printed on it was neatly attached to the circular, self-contained central processing unit users of the expensive system clipped to their waist so they could move about freely while immersed in augmented reality, unencumbered by cables or wires attached to any stationary hardware. Donning the AR rig and powering it up, the rig's startup sequence ran through its BIT set and then her interactive journal unfolded before Able's eyes in glorious three-dimensional, high-def color and surround sound. Mother appeared off to one side and spoke to Able as guide and narrator while revealing information copiously flowing from the family company's local, secure cloud storage array housed in the disaster shelter buried beneath the north slope directly behind the house. She showed her child around the office, pointing out important resources which might be useful. Then she directed Able to follow her through the corrugated-pipe tunnel leading from the secret door in the office closet into the disaster shelter where she instructed Able on its many components–their purposes and maintenance requirements and procedures. None of it was complicated and Able was certain it would not be a problem keeping up with it all since it was push-button operational and almost fully automated.

"This is where all of our knowledge acquired while building this home and maintaining it over the years has been stored in augmented reality featurettes," she told Able and then played short segments of several she knew her child would recognize and understand, having participated in many of the featured projects shown in augmented reality replay as well.

"As you know, your father and I have been working with AR for several years. So here are thousands of featurettes stored in our cloud server. And as you continue living and improving this home of ours–of yours, now that we're gone–you can create your own project featurettes for storage and playback as needed by you, your spouse and your own children."

Motioning toward the door, with a smile she added: "You'll find your father's own dialann in his office which also contains–as mine does–private featurettes from each of us for you to view at your leisure at any time, our dear child Able." And then she vanished as the introductory featurette to her dialann ended and a virtual 3-D menu appeared in the air in front of Able awaiting input.

Tentatively reaching up and tapping on a menu item labeled LIBRARY, the exploration of mother's richly captivating AR featurettes began in earnest.


Following a couple of days spent repairing the damaged poultry coop, two hens came back to the farm after being who knows where. A week after that, a rooster came back. No ducks. No geese. If Able was lucky a brood of chicks would hatch long enough before fall for them to grow to winter-survivable maturity. The farm maintenance AR featurettes mother and father created were detailed enough to fill in the gaps of Able's knowledge regarding every facility and system from water well controller and septic to solar power and the two custom-built, walk-in freezers located underground at the rear of the disaster shelter. They showed Able where replacement parts for each system were stored for maintaining these facilities and systems a full decade into the future. On their final supplies run into town, they had returned with a pair of new propane-powered generators to replace the rarely used but aging generator/welding machine which was most likely approaching end of serviceable life within a few more years, if not sooner. They had also brought home another thirty PV panels totaling 9KW of potential output wattage, with matching charge controllers and inverters sized for a pair of 4.5KW PV arrays as well as two sets of the latest models of vanadium flow battery banks including all the wire and cables required to construct a pair of fully-functional solar-power systems to replace the current one now in constant, uninterrupted use for fifteen years.

"Redundancy has always been our goal here, Able," father had explained again and again. "Redundancy saves the day and buys time for recovery from systems failure. And in this day and age of rampant pandemics, saving days and buying time are essential for long-term survival."

While still taking college courses, Able's mind had been overcrowded with massive amounts of information focused on lessons and research, and father's harping on the matter had seemed rather redundant at the time. Now, though, wisdom of his words and both parent's concerted preparatory work for future growth and survivability while Able was so focused on studies in microbiology and engineering made perfect sense, leaving Able immensely grateful they had not only had such pointed foresight but had also put that foresight into practice. This drove Able to work steadily at constructing the new pair of solar power systems, install the pair of new battery banks and both generators, then throughly test everything before first snows of winter began to fall. Taking stock of supplies in larder and freezers while first blizzard of winter raged on outside, Able determined there was plenty of food to last at least two years. This would be enough, Able thought, to gradually resupply food stores from gardens, livestock and harvest of deer and elk for more meat beyond the meager surviving animals over the next two years for survival into future years.

As snow accumulated to world-silencing depths, attention turned back to Able's favorite fields of study in microbiology and engineering. And as those studies progressed to new levels of inquiry and understanding, Able began thinking of ways to leverage the newly acquired knowledge and skills to survive beyond the lifetime of the family farm's finite resources. Coronavirus pandemics seemed to be far beyond humankind's ability to ever stop or control to any practical extent. Knowing this feeling was more opinion than scientific since virology and epidemiology were not within Able's range of expertise, it was still strong enough a feeling to drive desire to develop foresight and then attempt to put that foresight into practice as mother and father had for short-term survivability in their off-grid living approach. But electronics and machines and facilities age and wear out and weather and eventually break down beyond repairability, especially if replenishment of parts and materials supplies becomes an issue. As the pandemic raged on unabated and businesses failed in droves on a daily basis, Able could see a grim future ahead if dependency upon electronics and machines and facilities was not addressed. Manufacturing of products required for the farm would cease soon and might not pick up again in the foreseeable future. Able needed to find a way to survive without depending on things manufactured by people.

Winter across the nation raged on with marked fury and deadly-frigid temperatures. Downslope, people were dying from much more than complications from COVID as so many became homeless and destitute at dreadfully ever-increasing rates each week. Able stayed up with current events related to the pandemic's disastrous effects on the world over the internet connection which somehow continued to remain operational throughout it all until a day came to take a break from the endless streams of bad news. During an extended late-winter snowshoeing journey through steeply-sloped forestland to the top of the south ridge and back home after camping overnight at a favorite overlook, Able marveled at the dense expanse of surrounding ancient trees' ability to live and survive in place through all seasons of the year without use of anything except naturally available resources steadily drawn from earth, air and sky. It seemed almost impossible for such a large thing to exist on such unrefined sources of raw nourishment and energy, but the forest clearly demonstrated it could happen for vast populations of trees of various kinds living in so many places. Able also wondered at redundancies trees must employ to deal effectively with rapidly, drastically-shifting conditions through progression of seasons and extremes of environmental changes.

Able began to draw from a highly developed personal well of knowledge and expertise to formulate ideas on how one might be able to live like a tree to survive only on raw resources drawn from earth and sky. Recent studies in tree roots and ability of quantum dots to travel through their transmission systems tickled at Able's never idle idea engine.


In late April, Able's internet connection went down and service was not restored within the usual few hours, or in worst case for such remote cell tower location, within a few days. Weeks later service was still not available, but before that happened a raw newsfeed the family had kept watch on for several decades reported detonation of a nuclear device in Hong Kong with unconfirmed speculation an extremist group based in Iran had already claimed responsibility. Then Able's safest connection to the outside world went dark for good.

This was disconcerting only in so far as making it impossible for Able to order manufactured products offered by online stores, but this eventuality had been anticipated as worse case scenario triggered by the latest pandemic wave and enough of such manufactured products to last several years had already been ordered, safely delivered and stored in weatherproof locations around the farm. Able didn't allow the mystery of internet service failure consume precious thought cycles better applied toward the most important project underway. Significant progress had already brought the project through its first two phases to successfully produce ample supply of quantum dots of required composition and coating, and complete their deployment into the root system of an ancient spruce standing tall and firm deep in the forest on the southern slope of the property. The ground-penetrating imager construction was almost finished as well for project phase three imagery collection work.

Along with the mysterious internet service outage, Able also noticed the world had grown quieter as all human activity noise occasionally reaching ears from far downslope ceased altogether. And as this silence thickened while artificially created racket rapidly subsided, nature's many audible energy sources became more apparent from singing birds to buzzing insects. The same day Able deployed the first set of quantum dots into the old spruce, mother and father's fully composted remains were added to the soil in wide circumference around the gigantic tree. Having decided the spruce was ideal in species, age, size, health, lifespan and growth rate, it served Able's project goals much better than any of the cherry trees mother and father had suggested should be nourished with their remains. Surveying the work completed, Able wondered if the wild project outcome would reach fruition or not. Short term survival did not depend upon its success but longterm survival definitely did, especially for offspring, if any ever did come into being. Chances of that ever happening seemed outrageously thin considering the rate of degradation of civilization in this age of pandemics, and the biological clock was ticking.

The exciton Bohr radius formula floated before Able's unfocused gaze into the distance from the still, peaceful shade circle of the aged spruce, imagining the passive phalanx of quantum dots just deployed whose electron energies had been so carefully tuned using the equation now coursing through xylem and phloem tissues of the tree's vast root system, and then–hopefully–well beyond that into its supporting mycorrhizal network. Able cast more focused gaze to surrounding needle and pinecone-strewn ground wondering just how far out beyond root tips into the forest's underground fungal community the dots would travel and whether or not the root system and that community could be manipulated to serve desired needs for longterm survival . . . what it would be like to co-exist with and live as a cooperative organism drawing life-giving resources while also enhancing existence for the old spruce and its progeny.

It seemed like a reasonably doable thing considering the massive amount of productivity both root systems and surrounding fungal networks could muster. It didn't seem so far fetched that Able might find a way to synergistically integrate into that biosphere. But then it might be just as crazy an idea as Tommy Chong's $1 million bong marketing scheme before the rabid GW Bush-era feds sent him to prison.


As work progressed, Able kept detailed notes on the labtab mother and father had given as a 15th birthday gift for use in undergraduate coursework. Electronic equivalent of a lab notebook endowed with superb AI thanks to more than thirty years of advances in artificial intelligence since the turn of the century, Able carried the labtab everywhere and it was almost always turned on and in use for countless daily scientific project-oriented purposes.

Having computer geek parents was a distinct advantage for a budding scientist too focused and busy in pure research to have any spare time to work out implementation details for effectively leveraging technology in project work. The labtab was a top-quality, off-the-shelf tablet computer on steroids, decked out with every advanced feature available and customized with apps and peripherals specifically designed to assist in scientific research and engineering endeavors of any kind. It was, essentially, an indispensable lab assistant in a tablet and could even speak and accept voice input for transcription and execution of commands in a surprisingly fluid manner which was almost conversational. And as the labtab's AI gradually became accustomed to Able's characteristic use of it, it grew evermore capable of anticipating the needs of its quirky, compulsively-driven user. Mother and father had even managed to enhance its AI with a sense of humor driven by family-related history, another action of deep, loving foresight almost beyond all comprehension.

Able used it all the time and there were two more labtabs identical to the one used on a daily basis safely stored in the underground vault which were always connected to the farm's wifi network and constantly synching every bit of information keyed into the daily-use labtab or collected by its peripheral devices for replicating into their own storage space. Additionally, all content stored on all three of the labtabs was automatically backed up each hour to nonvolatile memory storage banks for easy recovery if the triple redundancy of three constantly synched labtabs ever failed, a highly unlikely prospect. And understanding this data safety net system well enough based on a few AR featurettes mother and father had provided on the subject, Able never worried at all about safety and security of the vast amounts of project data flowing into the daily-use labtab. It was seamlessly auto-replicated on the other two labtabs and stored on robust local-cloud storage devices which did not depend on off-site cloud-based systems at all–a necessity when there was no internet service to provide connectivity to the world wide web's cloud storage systems. Mother and father's foresight on such details never ceased to amaze Able.

There was a detail of the data safety system mother and father had designed and added to the labtabs which Able was unaware of, though. They kept this detail–an automated feature requiring scant CPU cycles always running in the background–a secret on purpose, for Able's own good. On a regular basis, this feature checked for internet service connectivity to a very specific cloud storage system maintained by a computer users group they were both members of. A secret computer users group called Stealth Truth operating on the dark web which was accessible only by its members–select members from around the world carefully vetted for their integrity, honesty and dedication to truth. And one night as Able was still working through the wee hours using father's AR system compulsively flying repeatedly through specific segments of fresh spatial data sets collected during early stages of the quantum dot imaging phase of the project Able was now referring to as the "Old Spruce" project, this secret feature detected a momentary restoration of internet service, immediately connected to the Stealth Truth cloud storage system via its encrypted dark web linkage and proceeded to dump the entirety of Able's collected data sets into that cloud storage as rapidly as the ultra-secure connection allowed.

Able never knew this had happened but someone else was very aware of it and took notice, becoming very excited by what they were seeing. A young scientist named Robby, living and working in remote wilderness isolation much as Able was thanks to his own deceased parent's thoughtful foresight was alerted to the data dump. And before the brief connection lasting mere minutes was lost, Robby had downloaded the data and launched an autobot into Able's local cloud storage system via their dark web network which would trigger a Stealth Truth app installed there to deliver a personal/professional message directly to Able.

Then the brief connection between the two Stealth Truth users group member's computing systems was lost and Robby began making preparations for a perilous journey across half a continent and two nations ripping themselves apart in deathly throes of pandemic chaos.

Off To The Farm

Robby spent two weeks packing and preparing for his trek from the northern reaches of Vancouver Island, BC to Able's farm in the southern Rockies. The journey would be arduous, to say the least; half by sea and half by land. Fraught with unknowns, Robby knew his chances of successfully making the trip with life and absolutely essential cargo intact were slim and probability of total failure was significant. But Able's data was compelling. He had to try to get there.

After the internet went dead he had been in complete darkness regarding what was going on beyond the extents of the family estate. He could only expect the worst and do his best to prepare for that in every conceivable way utilizing the family yacht, land cruiser and portable resources at hand. Thankfully, his parents' foresight was at least as formidable as Able's had been, all being members of Stealth Truth since its inception.

Robby understood enough of the history of the dark web users group to know that they had skillfully assessed the progressive damage society and its inevitably detrimental effects on world environments over the decades would be, and the group had accurately anticipated the current state of affairs in a general sense, expecting war over most causes but not discounting any. Thus, they had been preparing the family and the estate for it all since the turn of the century–two decades before novel coronavirus made its debut happily setting up shop inside human hosts–investing considerable family influence, wealth, time and labor for procurement of property rights, construction of hardened infrastructure, building the fortress house, its support tunnels and buildings and related surface facilities. After stocking its larders and supply depots with extraordinarily outrageous quantities of anything and everything useful on land and sea. They hunkered down together as a still-healthy family unit in their substantially fortified sanctuary as successive waves of pandemic seized the world by the throat in relentless stranglehold. They watched as economies faltered, then failed. The protests, then the riots. Starvation and homelessness spread around the world. The shit had indeed finally hit the fan. All of this observed over the internet until it fell silent on the same day a final supply boat dropped off the final shipment of vital cargo at the family island dock.

Now that everyone except the youngest member of the family was dead–his parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and Barlow the border collie, too–all of their preparatory efforts were now coming together in support of a single, surviving son in his final, desperate attempt to survive. Robby had fallen ill with COVID-35 too but had survived it without much trouble at all. A tinge of pain in abdominal muscles, a light fever never exceeding 39º C and a slew of strange, nagging after effects including the classic, very startling pins-and-needles sensations across every square centimeter of his skin. Those symptoms eventually subsided too and Robby set to the pressing tasks of dealing with a family being rubbed out by viral infection. He was the end of the line. The final product of the family gene pool. The last hope.

His family's estate wasn't a highlands farm like Able's. It was a cleverly concealed redoubt situated deep in ancient, dense woodland on a secluded island of the Broughton Archipelago adjacent to the Great Bear Rainforest of northern Vancouver Island. His parents had worked hard to acquire rights to the secluded island and even harder to transform it into a place they might be able to survive together through global upheaval of any nature. They had planned well, but not well enough to deal with a novel microbial assault of such virulence. His father's single, standard hand-shake contact with the final supply boat captain and subsequent pass of hand over nose had provided the vector the virus needed to quickly and silently spread throughout the family. Within a few days it was obvious a mistake had been made. Several days later family members began to expire, mercifully quickly, under siege against an assault of multiple horrible, domino-effect ailments. Robby was the only one well enough by then to begin dealing with the aftermath before his youngest sister died quietly and he was alone.

Robby's thoughts were full of these memories as he labored relentlessly to prepare ship, vehicle and cargo for the voyage down the west coast to Santa Monica where he hoped U.S. interstate highways 10 and 40 would still be in adequately usable state to accommodate the land cruiser along the trek east to the southeastern reaches of the Rocky Mountains in northeastern New Mexico. When preparations were complete, Robby retired to bed and checked west coast weather forecasts before falling fast into vivid, deep-sleep dreams of what might come next.

In his dreams there were obstacles too great to overcome by means of land travel. Frustrated and afraid, he screamed at the top of his lungs across the western half of the USA toward Able's farm, pleading for help. Able answered and reassured Robby with notions of alternate means of travel and a suggestion so powerful it was bound to work in the always-absurd, anything-is-possible realm of dreams.

"It just requires the proper attitude," Able offered.

Understanding completely, Robby shifted his attitude toward the positive, levitated briefly a couple of feet above the ground then soared with powerful optimistic surge high into star-studded night sky and eastward, bound for a small, off-grid subsistence farm nestled in a small canyon of distant mountains.

Guest Prep

Able read and reread Robby's communication file, more than a little disappointed to have missed the brief window of internet connectivity but absolutely flabbergasted by core content of his message. Robby had provided as much as he knew of current events in the world, including the nuclear device detonation in Hong Kong, which indeed turned out to be an attack by a terrorist faction in retaliation for China's sudden and complete severing of ties with Iran–something it had been doing with a lot of countries during the second decade of the pandemic.

The human population had generally decided to blame Chinese government for irresponsibly handling the SARS-COV-2 situation in 2020 and was now being ruthlessly persecuted for its incompetence in alerting the rest of the world about the virulent threat. The only difference in this instance was that the utterly desperate situation Iran was currently experiencing drove enough of its radical religious government leaders into jihad frenzy. Blaming security degradations at some of its nuclear research and manufacturing facilities, Iran claimed the compact, very portable nuclear weapon and its arming codes had been stolen and secreted out of the country with inside help. That inside help had been dutifully hunted down, arrested and executed immediately following intense torture-driven interrogation, of course, but Iran's lame excuses failed to make China or the rest of the world feel any better about it all. The nuclear attack had triggered worldwide chaos. Governments were failing, becoming powerless. Survival of the fittest had become de facto lifestyle for all members of the human race, now below its pre-21st century population level of six billion living souls and falling rapidly.

But none of that mattered nearly as much as Robby's core message related to their parent's friendship, mutual lifetime membership in the Stealth Truth users group and how he might be able to help in the applied research Able was currently doing. A mycologist by training and profession, he admitted that he had not gained much practical experience in the field because he had graduated mere days before first wave of the pandemic was officially declared in 2020 and had shifted focus from finding a job in his profession to trying–and failing–to help his family survive. He had provided a wealth of useful information in an enormous data dump to the farm's local cloud from his own doctoral research in mycelium densification for structural engineering applications and that information was as intriguing as it was prodigious.

Able's initial cursory assessment of that data generated a growing sense of conviction that carrying on with the research was essential as Robby made his way across more than three thousand miles of sea and land from his family's island redoubt to the farm. His worst estimate that it would take six months to complete the journey afforded little time for Able to wrap up the final phase of the project and also prepare for his arrival. If it did take six months of travel time then he would arrive by first snowfall and would require self-contained isolated quarters to quarantine in for a few weeks into winter before they could meet face-to-face and begin working together. There were no such quarters on the farm and the main house was just too small to subdivide in any hermetically-sealed way that could guarantee zero virus transmission risk. Able would have to build temporary quarters from scratch somehow and there weren't enough conventional construction resources on hand to do it. Making multiple trips to town for those building materials was out of the question. Aside from inherent risk of exposure to the virus, Able doubted there were any suppliers there with nearly enough of what would be needed in stock to build with. Felling trees and building a cabin of the rawest sort could work but it would be a very primitive solution and wasteful. There wasn't enough time to allow logs to fully dry for construction readiness anyway. If only Robby could be contacted to let him know he should try to arrive with something to live in for the quarantine period.

Able decided it was best to continue research work while allowing subconscious thought cycles to mull over the seemingly intractable problem. He was obviously rich and resourceful. Maybe Robby would be smart enough to obtain a motorhome or travel trailer and supplies adequate for a few weeks of winter living before driving the final stretch out to the farm. Presuming this would be the case, Able dug and set pipes buried well below frostline depth for septic system and water supply connection to freeze proof valve risers at ample distance from the house and set aside a few hours each week for gathering firewood to provide warmth. He would just have to bring his own supply of food, a wood burning stove and source of light for nighttime use to be able to stay in quarantine comfortably. If they somehow reconnected before his arrival, he could be informed of these things.

Gazing out the bedroom window as afternoon drifted toward evening, Able wondered what this Robby fellow might be like. Having lived a life of relative solitude since birth, the prospect of someone coming into Able's isolated realm was as frightening as it was exciting. He had better be good. If not . . .

First Leg

The first leg of Robby's three thousand mile journey would be by sea. About thirteen hundred nautical miles, almost all of it well away from the coast on outside ocean waters. The family yacht had ample range for this stretch, even with the heavy load it carried, including the land rover chained down in the tender. In fact, it had range enough for the entire three thousand mile trek if only all of it could be covered by boat. But the last nine hundred fifty-five miles would be by land, unfortunately, all via interstate highways.

As Robby rounded the northern end of Vancouver Island and turned southwest toward open water, he thought of what Able must be doing now, probably thinking and planning for his arrival. A quarantine period of at least two weeks would be an absolute necessity. Somewhere along the way he would have to pick up a temporary shelter of some sort for that. An all-season shelter if at all possible. Anything from a travel trailer to a tiny house on wheels he could pull out to Able's farm and park. Something with a composting toilet would be perfect. And a wood burning stove. Propane is nice but small tanks run out quickly and he did not want to have to tap into Able's supply, if it existed. He needed to avoid tapping into Able's life-sustaining resources in any form or fashion.

Robby had germinated a seed which had equal chance now to grow or whither, an important seed with potential to open up a sustainable future for all who might survive the waves of novel coronavirus pandemic. Able's work was key to helping the seed sprout and Robby didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that vital contribution. He would have to convince Able of its merit for their own survival first, then for survival of the human race. Before that, though, he would have to convince Able he was not just another self-serving shit suck seeking someone to wallow in shit with him. He had to keep this endeavor as shit free as possible.

Shit Suck Syndrome. "Always remember the three S's, Robby." His father had taught him that it was the greatest failing of the human race. "People allow themselves to get sucked into shit, then they do everything they can to suck others into the shit with them, never content to deal with their shit themselves. Some people are very aware when they're sucking others into their shit. Con artists make a business of it. Some aren't so aware. Either way, the result is the same. So stay alert, Robby. Always be aware of Shit Suck Syndrome so you never get sucked in and never succumb to its temptations because it renders everyone involved a victim, regardless of who initiates it, or why."

Another lesson his father taught his children was the six P's. Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. "Practice the six P's and you'll never have to fret about the three S's". So during the long cruise south, Robby spent every free thought cycle not devoted to piloting and managing ship's systems to planning his moves as soon as he landed and started driving east. He didn't underestimate this leg of the journey. Anything can happen at sea. But the land-based leg would be especially tricky considering the state of the nation he would be traveling across. At least he wouldn't have to brave the eastern half of the United States. That's where the worst of the shit was happening, among the densest population areas.

Even so, getting through Los Angeles to Barstow was going to be a bad stretch. No doubt about it. Lots of Shit Suck Syndrome there now.

Results - Phase One

Able walked round and round in a wide circle, smiling more widely with each circumnavigation of the mycelial node grown from Mother and Father's composted remains. Almost all of the quantum dots had traveled to the outer edges of the node and the scanner was revealing its three dimensional extent in more detail than expected. Lens shaped, its diameter measured about twenty feet and center thickness ten feet which tapered down to six feet at the edges. The node was hollow with wall thickness averaging eighteen inches of porous, hard-skinned mycelium. The node had grown just over ten feet beneath soil surface.

Pocketing the scanner, Able retrieved a coring staff and sank it into the ground with a hard jab and activated its boring mode which set it to humming and vibrating as it bore into the soil. When it made contact with the mycelial node the humming and vibration ceased. A sharp click indicated the coring needle had penetrated the node's hard skin and a few inches more before retracting with a sample of the node secured in its sample chamber. Another bit of vibration and the coring staff was easily extracted from the ground. Able removed the sample chamber at its tip and dashed back to the house to begin analysis work.

Able giggled with glee all the way back to house, into the lab and as analysis work progressed, very pleased with the results so far. The node was perfect for its intended use as the first of many more to come as the mycelial network continued to grow now beyond its compost heap beginning. Mother and Father would have been pleased by how much the node had grown from their remains. By nightfall, Able had all quick analysis tasks completed and the long-run tasks were all underway. Time for sleep. And as Able drifted off, dreams of a new way of life sparked and solidified in subconscious musings. It was going to work. It had to work.

The final decade of their lives, Able’s parents had taken up contracts dealing with big data for two companies which had eventually been decimated by the pandemic’s relentless and numerous negative impacts on traditional educational institutions. Big data businesses required lots of highly skilled minds equally attuned to constant learning and open critical and analytical thinking. As the pandemic shifted population behaviors toward basic survival over esoteric exploration of concepts and their possible applications in megaindustries, higher learning institution enrollments plummeted around the world. There simply weren’t enough sharp thinkers available on the job market to keep such companies operating within acceptable profit margins. So Able’s parents seized opportunity to learn about big data and deep learning algorithms in house and spent five years creating a general-purpose big data collection and deep learning modeling system they could apply to practically any megadata sets imaginable. Mother had dubbed the system BADASS (Big Analog Data Aggregation Service Supplier) and they taught Able how to create models of various types to glean meaningful and useful information from constantly expanding datasets stored onsite in family servers. Able became adept at creating such models, churning out several dozen before mother and father died.

Now Able turned imagination and hands to creating deep learning models to glean useful information from the steadily expanding dataset dumped from the scanner still collecting data bits quantum dots were continuously providing as their transit paths within the mycelial node widened.

As the pandemic stretched on, the models self-refined and Able left them to do their work undisturbed by further hand tweaking for a while to prepare for another winter. Wild berries vital for feeding Able’s body through cold months ahead were rapidly ripening on bush and vine, weighty and in need of gathering, processing, canning and freezing for longterm storage. Able had been eagerly anticipating this harvest season to allow the subconscious mind extended play time to mull over sundry questions, thoughts and dreams while the conscious mind dealt with picking wild edibles.

Able knew the wild berry picking forays would entail some risk. Bears would be out doing their own wild edible harvesting, directly from bush and vine to well-toothed mouth. A significant part of subconscious awareness would have to pay attention to environment–to odors and sounds indicating large omnivores were in the vicinity. Able did not wish to confront one in a contest for berries. Survival depended on that mode of awareness. Thoughts of the vagaries of survival clamored for attention.

Able wondered where Robby might be now. If he was still alive, still traveling this way and still healthy. It was going to be fun showing him all the progress made, hoping he would be astounded into a state of high motivation to go all in on the project. Hoping he could contribute well.

Movie Star Dock

As Robby approached Santa Monica it occurred to him that he might do better to try to find a private dock of appropriate size and configuration to approach instead of risking arrival at a public docking facility. There were plenty of ultra-rich homes along the coast to choose from. So he eased toward shore, close enough to get a good look at some of them as he dared. He kept his radio scanner turned on which occasionally picked up chatter on private bands, some of them spoken in plain speech of various languages but most were cryptically nonsensical conversations–code speak by people wise to protecting themselves and their assets. After slowly cruising south checking out ultra-rich folk's yacht docks, the scanner locked in on one of the cryptic conversations which caught Robby's attention.

He set the scanner to stay on that channel and listened intently to try to figure out why he was so interested in it. A day later is dawned on him it was because he had heard the voice of one of the speakers before but he couldn't remember where. It was so damned familiar he suspected it might be a family acquaintance or friend from one of his father's very select and limited league of entrepreneurial cohorts. Later that evening as he listened to that speaker talk in code about what still seemed pure nonsense he suddenly realized where he had heard the distinctive voice before. It was a movie actresses voice. A very famous movie actress, at least before the pandemic struck. And the funny thing about her was that she had gained shooting star fame playing roles in post-apocalyptic movies frequently portraying what life would be like after some freaky viral contagion swept around the world or some undetected asteroid smacked into the planet. Then he began to understand what the former movie actress speaker was talking about. She was using lines from her movie in to reference real-life subject matter and she was talking about him, having spotted his yacht slowly cruising parallel to shore.

As the sun was setting fiery red eight points starboard, Robby stopped engines and drifted before tentatively keying his radio mike to speak a line of greeting pulled directly from one of her movies then added a coded statement of his own describing who he was using a co-hero character's line from the very last movie she appeared alongside in. He did his best voice impersonation of that memorable character as he spoke, trying hard not to laugh out loud at the irony of it all as he spoke.

"Wimbly Sackton, good evening. This is Dwarfy Bob seeking safe harbor for land transfer including personal rolling transport. Have sweet sharables. Can you accommodate?" then he sent his maritime mobile service identity number knowing she would be able to find it in the directory to discover his call sign which included a bit of information about his yacht type and registration. Not too revealing but enough for her to know he was probably someone trustworthy. Then he waited for a reply which was not as long coming as he had expected.

"Dwarfy Bob, come ashore slow to these coordinates. No hazards ahead on your new heading. Dock and wait on ship's deck for inspection."

Robby smiled, keyed the coordinates into the navigation system and activated approach at slow speed, hoping the actress had not gone rogue. The last thing he needed now was a pirate attack. The yacht's engines rumbled low and smooth as he approached the middle of the dock at a 45º angle, applying a blast of power away from shore when the bow was fairly close to the quay, expertly easing up to it without bumping against fenders, disengaged power to thrusters and waited with engines still running in case he had to try to get away fast.

A lone figure came striding down the walkway to the dock, raised a hand in greeting and shouted, "Are you Robert Calloway's son?"

Robby waved back and replied over the low rumble of still running engines as he prepared lines and fenders for docking,"Yes. How do you know father?"

"I'm Shanna Sparcs. You may recognize me from the silver screen. Your father was technical advisor on one of the movies I worked on, 'The Last Gasp' ". She was wearing a white N95 mask covering the lower half of her face which she momentarily lowered so he could see all of her famousness. He recognized her and in turn briefly lowered his mask in kind, assuming she didn't have a clue what Robert Calloway's eldest son looked like. But she did know and smiled broadly, "Ah it's you, Robby. Your father showed me photos of your family one evening after scene shoots near Bahia de Los Angeles, over margaritas and spicy grilled shrimp. Welcome ashore!"

Surprised by that bit of information, Robby recalled screening the movie at home with his family via secure streaming feed directly from the production studio, a graphic apocalypse plague movie and he now recalled his father talking a little about his contributions to the story line to help keep it somewhat plausible. He had forgotten all about that conversation and now also remembered his father talking about the leading actress being as kind and unassuming a person as one could hope to meet in all of Hollywood. His family had agreed to allow the studio to view and record them as they sat together watching the movie, and he suspected Shanna had seen at least some of that viewer reaction footage too, so she probably knew his physical appearance better than she was letting on. He killed ship's engines and began tossing lines to Shanna. She expertly secured them with the expected nautical knots as he extended the gangway.

"My father drank tequilla?" he asked her as he stepped onto the dock and they elbow bumped in greeting before distancing a good bit again.

"Nah, I got pretty tequila tipsy that evening but he never drank anything except mineral water around me," she answered. "He seemed like a man who never wanted to be out of control."

Robby nodded, "Yeah, that sounds like him. As far as I know he never drank anything but water and fruit juices."

Shanna walked alongside the yacht, admiring its lines and taking note of the tender hatch. "So you're going inland?"

Nodding, Robby engaged the hatch locks to release using a remote control in his pocket. Shanna whistled as the hatch slowly lowered with a hydraulic hiss, revealing the land rover chained down inside the tender. It was already loaded and ready to roll. Along the far walls of the tender were lashed cases of extra supplies.

"Nice ride," she said. "Can I be so nosy as to ask where you're going in it?"

"Can we talk about it over tequila and spicy grilled shrimp?" he asked. "I have the shrimp if you have spices and tequila, of which I will actually drink a little."

Shanna laughed heartily at that and motioned at the land rover. "Do you want to unload your ride now or later? The walkway is sturdy enough to bear the weight of it all the way to shore."

Inspecting the dock substructure he saw that it was indeed constructed of concrete and steel and even had a small ship-to-shore crane and apron which would make easy work unloading sharable supplies he planned to give to Shanna, but he decided to wait a little longer before committing himself to disembark here. He wanted to gradually tell Shanna as much as he possibly could without revealing too much about his destination and reason for his trek inland, still wary of the three S's. He trotted into the tender and came out carrying a container full of frozen Amaebi. "The shrimp," he indicated holding the container out for Shanna to inspect. She eyed the shrimp hungrily then asked if he would allow her to inspect his vessel first.

"A formality of this humble port," she said a little apologetically.

Robby nodded that he understood completely as they walked across the tender hatch together and he started the tour as soon as they were aboard. Shanna was throughly impressed and a little surprised by its advanced fittings and practical accoutrements. It was obviously a ship of purpose, not a run-of-the-mill pleasure craft.

"Your father did a superb job here," she complimented. "I didn't know he had seamanship skills and experience.

Robby nodded, "He had a lot of skills and talents, and he worked hard to try to help us all learn enough to survive this mess the world is in now."

Shanna spent a long time on the bridge admiring it all, especially the navigation and radar systems. They talked at length about the ship's capabilities and how Robby's father had thoroughly trained him and his siblings in its operation and upkeep. Shanna commented how that was obvious by the way Robby had expertly maneuvered it in to dock. She asked why he was traveling all alone and after some hesitation, Robby decided it didn't matter for her to know.

"I'm the only survivor," he answered.

At that, Shanna slowly sagged to her knees, lowered her head into both hands and wept openly for several minutes. Robby resisted an urge to kneel beside her and embrace her, to comfort her somehow, but he kept his distance and let her cry it out. They were taking enough risks as it was. No need to escalate them.

Shanna slowly recovered from her grief attack, rose and apologized for it. Robby assured her he was not shaken by her reaction, that he still wanted to drop and weep just about every other minute of every day, and sometimes did just that. Shanna then had to resist her own strong urge to embrace Robby to comfort him in his own enduring pain, instead asking if she could see the rest of the ship now.

After the tour they returned to the tender and exited the boat across its still lowered hatch. Shanna had recovered from news of his family's demise although her eyes remained tear filled as she stood staring into his for a long silent moment as they stood at safe distance from each other on dock.

Robby toggled the remote and as the hatch lifted, sealed and locked in place he and Shanna turned and walked toward shore in silence. He touched another key on the remote which killed all the lights on the yacht and armed its security system which locked all hatches, activated infrared cameras and silent motion alarms which would set the remote to vibrating if anything untoward happened onboard or molested the ship's hull above or below the waterline. He was slowly deciding he liked Shanna but still did not completely trust her and certainly didn't trust anyone else that may be in the vicinity of her vast oceanside home. He could hear his father's voice whispering in his mind's ear: "The three S's, Robby. Never forget the three S's."

At the house, Shanna set about preparing the shrimp and spice rub for grilling. She didn't ask anymore questions of Robby, choosing instead to tell him about her life experiences since the pandemic struck and ended her prolific movie acting career. Robby listened closely, taking in every word and watching her body language as much as he could without seeing half of her facial expressions as she spoke, realizing just how much was lost in communication by not being able to see that part of a person's face. Robby couldn't tell if she was alone on her property and did not deign to ask about that, but he seriously doubted she was living in total solitude. She seemed to trust him enough to not have anyone else nearby to protect her at the moment, but that was not a certainty. The house was large and the property sprawling, upwards of one hundred acres in all, she told him, with lots of other buildings scattered about it in tasteful manner. He spotted security cameras in several shadowed corners and knew he and Shanna were being watched and their actions recorded.

Shanna must have sensed his apprehension as she dished platters with grilled shrimp and vegetables.

"No, I'm not alone here, but when I found out who your father was I ordered everyone else to stay away while we held our meeting here. Some of them are watching but they can't hear us and they won't interfere unless you attack me."

Robby nodded soberly, grabbing a bowl full of ultra-thin tortilla chips and another of fresh-made salsa as he followed her out to the veranda dining table. She had already set a pitcher of iced margaritas on the table so they settled down then to pour their drinks, eat supper and talk throughout the night.

At midnight they were still talking but only in small, significant bursts. Getting down to some of the nitty gritty regarding his inland trek ahead. Robby had attained a fair buzz from the margaritas which was fading but still held back on details. Shanna didn't press him for more, instead seeing he was exhausted she rose from her chair and asked if he wanted to sleep at the house or on his yacht. He told her he would sleep best on the yacht. So after helping her clear the dishes from the veranda table and thanking her for the excellent meal, margaritas and conversation, he returned to his ship, toggling a personal code into its security system using the remote to allow him passage, boarded, used the head, brushed his teeth and went to bed. He dropped into deep sleep quickly and dreamed of meeting Able, telling all he had just told Shanna through the night and much more. His parents appeared in the dream and his father assured him Shanna was not a shit suck, that he could trust her and that Able's parents had raised a trustworthy child. That ended his dreaming for a while and Robby slept long and still, like a log.

Night Tracks

After sleeping less than four hours, Robby was awakened by a sound he was certain had been an explosion of considerable force. Touching the surveillance remote's berth monitors activation button, the wall opposite his bed lit up with displays channeled from every camera on and above deck. The mastcam pointing toward shore revealed all he needed to see. A ball of fire, though rapidly dissipating, was still rising from ground zero above Shanna's house. Leaping to his feet, he dressed quickly in road clothes, raced to the tender and opened its hatch. He did not hesitate further, getting into the land rover he activated its night mode headsup display, energized the motors and eased the vehicle out onto the dock as quiet as a mouse with all lights switched off, turned it toward land and stopped. The heads up display indicated nothing dangerous ahead along the quay out to where it turned into driveway leading up toward the house. Easing forward, he used the remote in the console to close the tender hatch. He knew he would never see the yacht again but activated its locks and security system. It was now Shanna's to own and use, if she and her crew survived the attack.

Leaving the paved driveway, Robby moved quietly and slowly across lawn which had not been manicured by mowers and trimmers for months, if not years. It was an easy drive in the dark up slope to the main road even without aid of night mode heads up.The pandemic had made daily lawn care a frivolous activity no one cared to engage in now. Survival was top priority for anyone still driven enough to stay alive. Shanna's plight on this night was stark reminder of that sad reality in this age of pandemic hell in which the many variants of SARS-CoV-2 had wreaked constant, unrelenting havoc since B.1.1.7 had emerged in the United Kingdom three and a half decades ago. It and subsequent variants had rapidly outpaced vaccine developer's efforts to keep up with the most virulent and deadly mutations, rendering further research and development mere acts in futility. And, of course, humanity's inability to adhere to practices which could effectively suppress spread were all the virus needed to mutate, find hosts, multiply and be plentiful. Rumors floating around on primitive comm channels estimated only ten percent of the nation's population was still alive, and only a fraction of survivors were in good health. Three hundred million people killed by more than thirty novel coronavirus variants since 2019. And now people were turning on each other tooth and nail to survive. Humans killing humans even as coronavirus continued its killing spree.

Robby didn't even consider trying to help Shanna and her crew fight the battle they now faced, knowing his value to the human race was too precious to risk in a nighttime firefight in strange territory. He had to get away and out on open road leading to Able so they could combine knowledge and skills in the larger battle. The ultimate battle.

Reaching the main road without incident, Robby accelerated away with lights still off and continued dark, silent running well beyond the edge of the city. The land rover's electric motors hummed almost imperceptibly under the whine of tires spinning against pavement. He hoped Shanna could resist the attack on her compound. Against her and her crew. Quick glances at the rearview mirrors as he had driven away had provided glimpses of a few more explosions at various places around her property and possibly on adjacent properties. The attack was intense but Robby had a feeling Shanna and crew were well prepared to defend, possibly having prevailed through previous attacks. Now his full attention was on the road and the land journey ahead and he hoped Able was not facing similar situations.

As dawn approached, Robby found an unpaved side road and a few miles down that a good place in a low draw to park, eat, expel bodily wastes and get some sleep. Activating the land rover's meager but effective security system, he deployed the rooftop PV array and charge controller, dropped the driver seat into flatness, stretched out on it beneath a light blanket and quickly fell into deep sleep, dreaming of mycelium spreading throughout its realm of rich earth. Tendrils thickened beyond imagined diameters and nodes swelled into huge ellipsoids. He dug down to one of the larger nodes and heard noises coming from it. He hacked through its tough shell for hours to find Able living inside the thing.

Greeting Robby with a wave to come on in, Able informed him dinner was ready on the table.

Malibu to Barstow and Kingman

Waking with a start, Robby lay still and listened. Something had awakened him. Something very close. He reached for the holstered sidearm beside him and gently unsnapped the retainer strap then pulled the gun out and rested his finger on the safety. The sound came again–a crow bouncing around on the roof of the land rover. Sitting up a bit, he peered through the windows all around and saw nothing but brush growing on hilly land all around. Easing out of the draw back onto the road he turned left and drove up hill until he found a sign declaring he was on Tuna Canyon Road. He stopped and checked the map on a tablet to find out which way to go next.

Seeing that Tuna Canyon Road would take him toward Topanga Canyon, he continued up hill along its twisting way through beautiful country dotted with impressive estates of the wealthy until it became Fernwood Pacific Drive which led to state highway 27, also known as Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Approaching an old concrete bridge with a sign beside it sponsoring the local Topanga Canyon Boulevard Trash Warriors road cleanup club, Robby eased into the brightly colored, eclectic business district and stopped between Topanga Canyon Seed And Feed and Inn of the Seventh Ray, debating whether to stay on 27 or to head up Old Topanga Canyon Road. The town still reeked of hippiness even after all the decades since the days jug bands and free love were its main attractions. Flashback of his mother spinning old-fashioned vinyl records on sunny bright, spring mornings at home brought memory of a live Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album she loved to listen to. He recalled the lead singer making some kind of joke about Topanga Canyon on that album but couldn't remember its punchline.

He really didn't like the idea of cutting across the west end of Los Angeles by staying on highway 27. So far, traffic had been light and no one seemed interested in bothering him as he made his way inland on rural byways through old hippie land. People looked at him as he passed, most certainly noticing he wasn't a local, though, and he knew scrutiny would be tenfold more intense in the cities where gangs dwelled and prowled the streets. So he turned left and started the long drive up the old road heading toward Ronald Regan Freeway with plans to drive it over to Palmdale, then dash across to Victorville before heading up highway 15 to Barstow where he could get onto Interstate 40 for the long drive east to New Mexico.

An hour later he was on Valley Cir Boulevard having crossed Ventura Freeway without incident. After another half hour of uneventful driving he turned onto Ronald Regan Freeway. Three hours later he was leaving Barstow with gas tanks and jerry cans topped off with fuel costing a small fortune from a station on Main Street still pumping gas. The old man operating the station told him he wouldn't be very lucky finding much diesel heading east on the interstate beyond Kingman and advised he buy some, no matter how little or how expensive, anywhere he could until he could get to Gallup where an old friend of his was still selling self-refined bio diesel.

"You'll smell like a french fries factory driving on his brew but it'll get you where you need to go," he said through snaggle-toothed grin, his breath reeking of weed and coffee.

Robby was confident he could make it to Gallup without refueling. The land rover was a modified hybrid with good range when driven wisely to allow regeneration of its battery bank whenever possible. Normally an eight hour drive from Barstow to Gallup, Robby figured he could do it in ten, maybe nine hours if nothing happened along the way to delay him. He'd been lucky so far, and as he passed through Needles without slowing, he felt good having escaped from California unscathed. That's when the telescopic heads up display alerted him to a possible roadblock ahead just past the J Street exit. Change of plans.

Taking the exit, he turned left and stayed on J until Broadway where he turned left again onto the old Route 66 throughway. Zig zagging right from Broadway onto K then left at Front Street and one more right onto North K he eased north through quiet neighborhoods with small houses Robby imagined were occupied by people still patiently doing their best to isolate until they could receive the next vaccine to aid them through illness against the latest, most aggressive variants of the virus surging across the land as they ventured out for whatever brief amount of time allowed. Palm trees calmly stood watch over passersby right up to the short bridge spanning the Colorado River and beyond as North K became Mojave Valley Highway then Harbor Avenue where a road sign declare Bullhead City was only 22 miles away. Robby wondered what harbor might have prompted naming of the section of street in a town so far out in the desert. Maybe some old river port long since gone. A wide curve to the left then a lesser curve to the right and he was heading out of town at last on Arizona 95.

Wide, tilled fields on either side of the highway nestled between low mountain ranges provided a broad open view ahead. The telescopic heads up display reported no obstacles. He had studied this route briefly the previous evening just in case he had to take it instead of the I-40 loop south before it turned back north and finally east again at Kingman. The detour would add significant time to the journey across Arizona but he didn't dwell on it, always keen to travel open road unhindered rather than have to deal with who knows what at some damned roadblock. Too many highwaymen trying out the Mad Max lifestyle these days to take that kind of risk.

There was traffic moving on the highway, light, but there and enough to keep Robby's pucker factor elevated. Farmers were working the irrigated fields of the valley. Even a nation in the midst of pandemic needed to feed its people as best it could and farmers were cashing in on the demand for raw product big time. A small casino marked arrival at Willow Valley then Fort Mojave Reservation spanning more than forty-six thousand acres across three states. The tribe know as Keepers of the River had been hit hard by the pandemic, as most every tribe across the nation had been. There was a checkpoint there but it wasn't manned when Robby drove past it, thankfully. He wondered how many of the tribe were still alive now. Its population had been barley more than one thousand souls before the pandemic hit the USA. He tried to imagine life on the reservation along the shaded banks of the river snaking along the flanks of the mountains to his left. At Mesquite Creek he pondered turning east on Boundary Cone Road to cut across to Kingman but a quick check of the map showed no pass across the mountains that way. So on he drove north on 95. No amount of man-planted palm trees made Robby feel very good about striking out across the desert on lesser roads than Arizona 95. The land was bleak beneath a powder-blue sky.

Best to stay on 95 through to Laughlin.

The length of the highway resembled one long strip mall from Needles to Laughlin with a lot of assisted living centers scattered along the way now housing the homeless after all the people needing assistance living had been wiped out by the virus.

At Bullhead Parkway, Arizona 95 became Arizona 68 and curved to the east. The land exhibited much more shape then the highway went all snaky up, over and down the mountains before straightening out again across Golden Valley on its approach into Kingman. The sun beat down hot and insistent on the land and road. Robby drove with windows down, unwilling to waste precious fuel to power the air conditioner. "Aw well," he said aloud to himself. "It's a dry heat," and he was actually enjoying the aridity after a life living on an island covered in rainforest. Robby took note of the Runaway Truck Ramps as the Land Rover happily coasted down the long grade to Golden Valley, recharging batteries all the way. He found little to live up to the name of the valley as he crossed it, once again burning fuel to traverse the driest land he had ever seen in his life.

His low opinion of the vast land changed when he was able to fill the diesel tanks of the Land Rover at a tiny roadside gas station still in operation. It cost a small fortune to do so but it would be worth it if it helped him make it even a few more miles eastward toward Able's forest farm in the eastern foothills of New Mexico. Turning onto Arizona 93 then over another hump of bare, rocky mountains brought him into Kingman without incident to finally get back onto I-40 east once again.

Safe Space

Able aimed a picomister's nozzle at the exposed fungal mass and steadily squeezed off a single, straight line measuring mere nanometers wide by fifty centimeters long. The effect the ultra-thin line of solution had on the five-ton, ellipsoid-shaped mass of Armillaria ostoyae-mellea hybrid was immediate and progressed rapidly. Within less than a minute a slit had appeared which then deepened, separated with a soft pop and widened into an almost perfectly circular, smooth-walled opening. Able eased a seven-meter telescopic ladder into the hole and flipped its expansion latch. The ladder smoothly extended downward until it touched the floor inside the hollow mass. Able picked up a field analysis kit and descended the ladder. Radiated body heat triggered enzymatic reactions upon the inner surface of the mass which began to glow with a soft yellow-green light. Pausing at the lip of the hole, Able touched the inner surface and found it was cool and satiny soft with a slightly springy resilience. Pressing hard into it, the light glowed steadily, exhibiting no tendency to pulsate. The surface sprang back a millimeter or so as pressure was released.

Satisfied with that bit of bioengineering, a quick check of the ladder's footing indicated it was firm enough to descend on down to the floor which was much flatter than expected. It also began glowing a bit from lesser heat from footfalls upon it, but the glow rapidly diminished as Able walked across it. Using another picomister from the field kit, Able began carefully painting regions of flat floor and wall which curved upward and inward. The shaped spray of this controlled nanomist made portions of the floor and wall slowly swell into ellipsoidal bulges that appeared to grow from the affected surfaces. And as Able's skill wielding the picomister improved, subsequent sprits from it yielded well-defined shapes from the bulges. A table. A chair. A bed. A few basins of various dimensions. Some shelves.

Another picomister from the field kit allowed Able to carve edges and drill cavities into the inner surface of the mass and the various furniture and fixture shapes created with the previous picomister. Dissolved portions from these carving and drilling operations were readily absorbed by the floor of the fungal mass, leaving no trace of their brief, runny existence. By lunchtime that bit of work had easily been completed and after trying them out for size and comfort, Able smiled at the aesthetic of curvy furniture and fixtures grown in place out of the wall and floor. A third picomister-applied solution sprayed over the surface of these growths began hardening and drying processes of various degree. Able then ascended the ladder to eat lunch outside in the warming midday sunlight. The warmth was delightful and food was delicious. Able relaxed against the Mother Tree's trunk, very satisfied that there was now a safe, comfortable and functional living space for Robby to quarantine in when he arrived.

If he arrived.

He had to arrive safe and sound. Able couldn't do all that needed to be done alone. His help was essential to success. As the sun dropped from zenith, Able gazed west and wondered where he might be now. If he was still well. Still alive. Still strong of mind and will.

~ more to come soon ~

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