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THE SHIP HAD BEEN destroyed five days before. He did not remember how. He knew he was alone now, knew he had returned home instead of to the station as planned or to the emergency base on Luna. He knew it was night. For long stretches of time, he knew nothing else.
He walked and climbed automatically, hardly seeing the sand, the rock, the mountains, noticing only those plants that could be useful to him. Hunger and thirst kept him moving. If he did not find water soon, he would die.
He had hidden for five days and two nights, had wandered for nearly three nights with no destination, no goal but food, water, and human companionship. During this time he killed jack rabbits, snakes, even a coyote, with his bare hands or with stones. These he ate raw, splashing their blood over his ragged coverall, drinking as much of it as he could. But he had found little water.
Now he could smell water the way a dog or a horse might. This was no longer a new sensation. He had become accustomed to using his senses in ways not normally thought human. In his own mind, his humanity had been in question for some time.
He walked. When he reached rocks at the base of a range of mountains, he began to climb, rousing to notice the change only because moving began to require more effort, more of his slowly fading strength.
For a few moments, he was alert, sensitive to the rough, eroded granite beneath his hands and feet, aware that there were people in the direction he had chosen. This was not surprising. On the desert, people would either congregate around water or bring water with them. On one level, he was eager to join them. He needed the company of other people almost as badly as he needed water. On another level, he hoped the people would be gone from the water when he reached it. He was able to distinguish the smell of women among them, and he began to sweat. He hoped at least that the women would be gone. If they stayed, if anyone stayed, they risked death. Some of them would surely die.
THE WIND HAD BEGUN to blow before Blake Maslin left Needles on his way west toward Palos Verdes Enclave and home. City man that he was, Blake did not worry about the weather. His daughter Keira warned him that desert winds could blow cars off the road and that wind-driven sand could blast paint off cars, but he reassured her. He had gotten into the habit of reassuring her without really listening to her fears; there were so many of them.
This time, however, Keira was right. She should have been. The desert had long been an interest of hers, and she knew it better than Blake did. This whole old-fashioned car trip had happened because she knew and loved the desert—and because she wanted to see her grandparents—Blake’s parents—in Flagstaff, Arizona, one last time. She wanted to visit them in the flesh, not just see them on a phone screen. She wanted to be with them while she was still well enough to enjoy them.
Twenty minutes out of Needles, the wind became a gale. There were heavy, billowing clouds ahead, black and gray slashed by lightning, but there was no rain yet. Nothing to hold down the dust and sand.
For a while Blake tried to continue on. In the back seat, Keira slept, breathing deeply, almost snoring. It bothered him when he could no longer hear her over the buffeting of the wind.
His first-born daughter, Rane, sat beside him, smiling slightly, watching the storm. While he fought to control the car, she enjoyed herself. If Keira had too many fears, Rane had too few. She and Keira were fraternal twins, different in appearance and behavior. Somehow, Blake had slipped into the habit of thinking of the hardier, more impulsive Rane as his younger daughter.
A gust of wind slammed into the car broadside, almost blowing it off the road. For several seconds, Blake could see nothing ahead except a wall of pale dust and sand.
Frightened at last, he pulled off the road. His armored, high-suspension Jeep Wagoneer was a hobby, a carefully preserved relic of an earlier, oil-extravagant era. It had once run on one-hundred-percent gasoline, though now it used ethanol. It was bigger and heavier than the few other cars on the road, and Blake was a good driver. But enough was enough—especially with the girls in the car.
When he was safely stopped, he looked around, saw that other people were stopping too. On the other side of the highway, ghostly in the blowing dust and sand, were three large trucks—expensive private haulers, carrying God-knew-what: anything, from the household possessions of the wealthy, who could still afford the archaic luxury of moving across country, to the necessities of the few remaining desert enclaves and roadside stations, to illegal drugs, weapons, and worse. Several yards ahead, there was a battered Chevrolet and a new little electric something-or-other. Far behind, he could see another private hauler parked at such a strange angle that he knew it had come off the highway barely under control. Only a few thrill-seekers in aging tour buses continued on.
From out of the desert over a dirt road Blake had not previously noticed came another car, making its way toward the highway. Blake stared at it, wondering where it could have come from. This part of the highway was bordered on both sides by some of the bleakest desert Blake had ever seen—worn volcanic hills and emptiness.
Incongruously, the car was a beautiful, old, wine-red Mercedes—the last thing Blake would have expected to see coming out of the wilderness. It drove past him on the sand, traveling east, though the only lanes open to it carried westbound traffic. Blake wondered whether the driver would be foolish enough to try to cross the highway in the storm. He could see three people in the car as it passed but could not tell whether they were men or women. He watched them disappear into the dust behind him, then forgot them as Keira moaned in her sleep.
He looked at her, felt rather than saw that Rane also turned to look. Keira, thin and frail, slept on.
“Back in Needles,” Rane said, “I heard a couple of guys talking about her. They thought she was so pretty and fragile.”
Blake nodded. “I heard them too.” He shook his head. Keira had been pretty once—when she was healthy, when she looked so much like her mother that it hurt him. Now she was ethereal, not quite of this world, people said. She was only sixteen, but she had acute myeloblastic leukemia—an adult disease—and she was not responding to treatment. She wore a wig because the epigenetic therapy that should have caused her AML cells to return to normal had not worked, and her doctor, in desperation, had resorted to old-fashioned chemotherapy. This had caused most of her hair to fall out. She had lost so much weight that none of her clothing fit her properly. She said she could see herself fading away. Blake could see her fading, too. As an internist, he could not help seeing more than he wanted to see.
He looked away from Keira and out of the corner of his eye he saw something bright green move at Rane’s window. Before he could speak, a man who seemed to come from nowhere tore open her door, which had been locked, and moved to shove his way in beside Rane.
The man was quick, and stronger than any two men should have been, but he was also slightly built and off-balance. Before he could regain his balance, Rane screamed an obscenity, drew her legs back against her body, and spring-released them so that they slammed into his abdomen.
The man doubled and fell backward onto the ground, his green shirt flapping in the wind. Instantly another man took his place. The second man had a gun.
Frightened, Rane drew back against Blake, and Blake, who had reached for his own automatic rifle sheathed diagonally on the door next to him, froze, staring at the intruder’s gun. It was not aimed at him. It was aimed at Rane.
Blake raised his hands, held them in midair, clearly empty. For a long moment, he couldn’t speak. He could only stare at the short, dull black carbine leveled at his daughter.
“You can have my wallet,” he said finally. “It’s in my pocket.”
The man seemed to ignore him.
The red Mercedes pulled up beside Blake’s car and Blake could see that there was only one person inside now. A woman, he thought. He could see what looked like a great deal of long, dark hair.
The man in the green shirt picked himself up and drew a handgun. Now there were two guns, both aimed at Rane. Thug psychologists. The green-shirted one walked around the car toward Blake’s side.
“Touch the lock,” the remaining one ordered. “Just the lock. Let him in.”
Blake obeyed, let Green Shirt open the door and take the rifle. Then, in an inhumanly swift move, the man reached across Blake and ripped out the phone. “City rich!” he muttered contemptuously as Blake realized what he had done. “City slow and stupid. Now take out the wallet and give it to me.”
Blake handed his wallet to Green Shirt, moving slowly, watching the guns. Green Shirt snatched the wallet, slammed the door, and went back to the other side where the two cars together offered some protection from the wind. There, he opened the wallet. Surprisingly, he did not check the cash compartment, though Blake actually had over two thousand dollars. He liked to carry small amounts of cash when he traveled. Green Shirt flipped through Blake’s computer cards, pulled out his Palos Verdes Enclave identification.
“Doctor,” he said. “How about that. Blake Jason Maslin, M.D. Know anybody who needs a doctor, Eli?”
The other gunman gave a humorless laugh. He was a tall, thin black man with skin that had gone gray with more than desert dust. His health may have been better than Keira’s, Blake thought, but not by much.
For that matter, Green Shirt, shorter and smaller-boned, did not look healthy himself. He was blond, tanned beneath his coating of dust, though his tan seemed oddly gray. He was balding. His gun shook slightly in his hand. A sick man. They were both sick—sick and dangerous.
Blake put his arm around Rane protectively. Thank God Keira had managed to sleep through everything so far.
“What is this, anyway?” Eli demanded, glancing back at Keira, then staring at Rane. “What kind of cradles have you been robbing, Doc?”
Blake stiffened, felt Rane stiffen against him. His wife Jorah had been black, and he and Rane and Keira had been through this routine before.
“These are my daughters,” Blake said coldly. Without the guns, he would have said more. Without his hand gripping Rane’s shoulder, she would have said much more.
Eli looked surprised, then nodded, accepting. Most people took longer to believe. “Okay,” he said. “Get out here, girl.”
Rane did not move, could not have if she had wanted to. Blake held her where she was. “Dad?” she whispered.
“You have my money,” Blake told Eli. “You can have anything else you want. But let my daughters alone!”
Green Shirt glanced into the back seat at Keira. “I think that one’s dead,” he said casually. This was supposed to be a joke about Keira’s sound sleeping, Blake knew, but he could not prevent himself from looking back at her quickly—just to be sure.
“Hey, Eli,” Green Shirt said, “they really are his kids, you know.”
“I can see,” Eli said. “And that makes our lives easier. All we have to do is take one of them and he’s ours.”
It was beginning to rain—fat, dirty, wind-whipped drops. In the distance, thunder rumbled over the howl of the wind.
Eli spoke so softly to Rane that Blake was hardly able to hear. “Is he your father?”
“You just admitted he was,” Rane said. “What the hell do you want?”
Eli frowned. “My mother always used to say ‘think before you speak.’ Your mother ever say anything like that to you, girl?”
Rane looked away, silent.
“Is he your father?” Eli repeated.
“And you wouldn’t want to see him get hurt, would you?”
Rane continued to look away, but could not conceal her fear. “What do you want?”
Ignoring her, Eli held his hand out to Green Shirt. After a moment, Green Shirt gave him the wallet. “Blake Jason Maslin,” he read. “Born seven-four-seventy-seven. ‘Oh say can you see’.” He looked at Rane. “What’s your name, baby?”
Rane hesitated, no doubt repelled by the casual “baby.” Normally she tore into people who seemed to be patronizing her. “Rane,” she muttered finally. Thunder all but drowned her out.
“Rain? Like this dirty stuff falling on us now?”
“Not rain, Rah-ney. It’s Norwegian.”
“Is it now? Well, listen, Rane, you see that woman over there?” He pointed to the red Mercedes alongside them. “Her name is Meda Boyd. She’s crazy as hell, but she won’t hurt you. And if you do what we tell you and don’t give us trouble, we won’t hurt your father or your sister. You understand?”
Rane nodded, but Eli continued to look at her, waiting.
“I understand!” she said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Go get in that car with Meda. She’ll drive you. I’ll follow with your father.”
Rane looked at Blake. He could feel her trembling. “Listen,” he began, “you can’t do this! You can’t just—”
Green Shirt placed his gun against Rane’s temple. “Why not?” he asked.
Blake jerked Rane away. It was a reflex, a chance he would never have taken if he had had time to think about it. He pulled her head down against his chest.
At the same moment, Eli pulled Green Shirt’s gun hand away, twisting it so that if the gun had gone off, the bullet would have hit the windshield.
The gun did not go off. It should have, Blake realized later, considering Green Shirt’s tremor and the suddenness of Eli’s move. But all that happened was some sort of brief, wordless exchange between Eli and Green Shirt. They looked at each other—first with real anger, then with understanding and a certain amount of sheepishness.
“You’d better drive,” Eli said. “Let Meda watch the kids.”
“Yeah,” Green Shirt agreed. “The past catches up with you sometimes.”
“She’s a strong girl. Good material.”
“Good material for what?” Blake demanded. He had released Rane, but she stayed close to him, watching Eli.
“Look, Doc,” Eli said, “the last thing we want to have to do is kill one of you. But we don’t have much time or patience.”
“Let my daughters stay with me,” Blake said. “I’ll cooperate. I’ll do anything you want. Just don’t—”
“We’re leaving you one. Don’t make us take them both.”
“Ingraham, get the other kid out here. Get her up.”
“No!” Blake shouted. “Please, she’s sick. Let her alone!”
“My sister has leukemia,” Rane said. “She’s dying. What are you going to do? Help her along?”
“Rane, for God’s sake!” Blake whispered.
Eli and the green-shirted Ingraham looked at each other, then back at Blake. “I thought they could cure that now,” Eli said. “Don’t they have some kind of protein medicine that reprograms the cells?”
Blake hesitated, wondering how much pity the details of Keira’s illness might evoke in the gunmen. He was surprised that Eli knew as much as he did about epigenetic therapy. But Eli’s knowledge did not matter. If he was not moved by Keira’s imminent death, nothing else was likely to touch them. “She’s receiving therapy,” he said.
“And it isn’t enough?” Ingraham asked.
Blake shrugged. It hurt to say the words. He could not recall ever having said them aloud.
“Shit,” Ingraham muttered. “What are we supposed to do with a kid who’s already—”
“Shut up,” Eli said. “If we’ve made a mistake, it’s too late to cry about it.” He glanced back at Keira, then faced Blake. “Sorry, Doc. Her bad luck and ours.” He sighed. “Well, you take the good with the bad. We won’t hurt her—if you and Rane do as you’re told.”
“What are you going to do with us?” Blake asked.
“Don’t worry about it. Come on, Rane. Meda’s waiting.”
Rane clung to Blake as she had not for years.
Eli gazed at her steadily, and she stared back but would not move. “Come on, kid,” he said softly. “Do it the easy way.”
Blake wanted to tell her to go—before these people hurt her. Yet the last thing he wanted her to do was leave him. He was terrified that if they took her, he would never get her back. He stared at the two men. If he had had his gun, he would have shot them without a thought.
“Use your head, Doc,” Eli said. “Just slide over to the passenger side. I’ll drive. You keep your eyes on Rane. It will make you feel better. Make you act better, too.”
Abruptly, Blake gave in, moved over, pushing Rane. He wanted to believe the gray-skinned black man. It would have been easier to believe him if Blake had had some idea what these people wanted. They were not just one of the local car gangs, obscenely called car families. No one had looked at the money in his wallet. In fact, as he thought about the wallet, Eli tossed it onto the dashboard as though he were finished with it. Were they after more money? Ransom? They did not sound as though they were. And they seemed strangely resigned, as though they did not like what they were doing—almost as though they were under the gun themselves.
Blake hugged Rane. “Watch yourself,” he said, trying to sound steadier than he felt. “Be more careful than you usually are—at least until we find out what’s going on.”
Blake watched Ingraham follow Rane through the muddy downpour, watched her get into the red Mercedes. Ingraham said a few words to the woman, Meda, then exchanged places with her.
When that was done, Eli relaxed. He thrust his gun into his jacket, walked around the Wagoneer as casually as an old friend, and got in. It never occurred to Blake to try anything. Part of himself had walked away with Rane. His stomach churned with anger, frustration, and worry.
After a moment of spinning its wheels, the Mercedes leaped forward, shot all the way across the highway, and onto another dirt road. The Wagoneer followed easily. Eli patted its dashboard as though it were alive. “Sweet-running car,” he said. “Big. You don’t find them this size anymore. Too bad.”
“Strongest-looking car we saw parked along the highway. We didn’t want some piece of junk that would stall or get stuck on us. One tank full and the other nearly full of ethanol. Damn good. We make ethanol.”
“You mean it was my car you wanted?”
“We wanted a decent car with two or three healthy, fairly young people in it.” He glanced back at Keira. “You can’t win ’em all.”
“Doc, what’s the kid’s name?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Keira.
Blake stared at him.
“Tell her she can get up. She’s been awake since Ingraham took your wallet.”
Blake turned sharply, found himself looking into Keira’s large, frightened eyes. He tried to calm himself for her sake. “Do you feel all right?” he asked.
She nodded, probably lying.
“Sit up,” he said. “Do you know what’s happened?”
Another nod. If Rane talked too much, Keira didn’t talk enough. Even before her illness became apparent, she had been a timid girl, easily frightened, easily intimidated, apparently slow. Patience and observation revealed her intelligence, but most people wasted neither on her.
She sat up slowly, staring at Eli. His coloring was as bad as her own. She could not have helped noticing that, but she said nothing.
“You get an earful?” Eli asked her.
She drew as far away from him as she could get and did not answer.
“You know your sister’s in that car up ahead with some friends of mine. You think about that.”
“She’s no danger to you,” Blake said angrily.
“Have her give you whatever she’s got in her left hand.”
Blake frowned, looked toward Keira’s left hand. She was wearing a long, multicolored, cotton caftan—a full, flowing garment with long, voluminous sleeves. It was intended to conceal her painfully thin body. At the moment, it also concealed her left hand.
Keira’s expression froze into something ugly and determined.
“Kerry,” Blake whispered.
She blinked, glanced at him, finally brought her left hand out of the folds of her dress and handed him the large manual screwdriver she had been concealing. Blake could remember misplacing the old screwdriver and not having time to look for it. It looked too large for Keira’s thin fingers. Blake doubted that she had the strength to do any harm with it. With a smaller, sharper instrument, however, she might have been dangerous. Anyone who could look the way she did now could be dangerous, sick or well.
Blake took the screwdriver from her hand and held on to the hand for a moment. He wanted to reassure her, calm her, but he thought of Rane alone in the car ahead, and no words would come. There was no way everything was going to be all right. And he had always found it difficult to lie to his children.
After a moment, Keira seemed to relax—or at least to give up. She leaned back bonelessly, let her gaze flicker from Eli to the car ahead. Only her eyes seemed alive.
“What do you want with us?” she whispered. “Why are you doing this?” Blake did not think Eli had heard her over the buffeting of the wind and the hissing patter of the rain. Eli obviously had all he could do to keep the car on the dirt road and the Mercedes in sight. He ignored completely the long, potentially deadly screwdriver Blake gripped briefly, then dropped. He was a young man, Blake realized—in his early thirties, perhaps. He looked older—or had looked older before Blake got a close look at him. His face was thin and prematurely lined beneath its coating of dust. His air of weary resignation suggested an older man. He looked older, Blake thought, in much the same way Keira looked older. Her disease had aged her, as apparently his had aged him—whatever his was.
Eli glanced at Keira through the rearview mirror. “Girl,” he said, “you won’t believe me, but I wish to hell I could let you go.”
“Why can’t you?” she asked.
“Same reason you can’t get rid of your leukemia just by wishing.”
Blake frowned. That answer couldn’t have made any more sense to Keira than it did to him, but she responded to it. She gave Eli a long thoughtful look and moved slowly toward the middle of the seat away from her place of retreat behind Blake.
“Do you hurt?” she asked.
He turned to look back at her—actually slowed down and lost sight of the Mercedes for a moment. Then he was occupied with catching up and there was only the sound of the rain as it was whipped against the car.
“In a way,” Eli answered finally. “Sometimes. How about you?”
Keira hesitated, nodded.
Blake started to speak, then stopped himself. He did not like the understanding that seemed to be growing between his daughter and this man, but Eli, in his dispute with Ingraham, had already demonstrated his value.
“Keira,” Eli muttered. “Where did you ever get a name like that?”
“Mom didn’t want us to have names that sounded like everybody’s.”
“She saw to that. Your mother living?”
Eli gave Blake a surprisingly sympathetic look. “Didn’t think so.” There was another long pause. “How old are you?”
“That all? Are you the oldest or the youngest?”
“Rane and I are twins.”
A startled glance. “Well, I guess you’re not lying about it, but the two of you barely look like members of the same family—let alone twins.”
“You got a nickname?”
“Oh yeah. That’s better. Listen, Kerry, nobody at the ranch is going to hurt you; I promise you that. Anybody bothers you, you call me. Okay?”
“What about my father and sister?”
Eli shook his head. “I can’t work no miracles, girl.”
Blake stared at him, but for once, Eli refused to notice. He kept his eyes on the road.
IN A HIGH VALLEY
- PRAISE FOR OCTAVIA E. BUTLER'S NOVELS
- "Brilliant, endlessly rich...pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale."—John Green, New York Times(on Parable of the Sower)
- "Wild Seed is a book that shifted my life . . . It is as epic, as game-changing, as moving and brilliant as any science fiction novel ever written."—Viola Davis
- "An internationally acclaimed science fiction writer whose evocative, often troubling, novels explore far-reaching issues of race, sex, power and, ultimately, what it means to be human."—New York Times
- "If we're talking must-read authors like Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, the one-and-only Octavia Butler needs be a part of the conversation. The groundbreaking sci-fi and speculative fiction author was a master of spinning imaginative tales that introduced you to both the possibilities -- and dangers -- of the human race, all while offering lessons on tribalism, race, gender, and sexuality."—O, The Oprah Magazine
- "A revolutionary voice in her lifetime, Butler has only become more popular and influential . . . A generation of younger writers cite her as an influence, from Jemisin and Tochi Onyebuchi to Marlon James and Nnedi Okarafor . . .She is now praised as a visionary who anticipated many of the issues in the news today, from the coronavirus to climate change to the election of President Donald Trump."—Associated Press
- "More than any novel I've ever read, Octavia Butler's Wild Seed examines power, what it means to wield it responsibly and what it means to resist it when it is wielded capriciously."—Rion Amilcar Scott, PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize-winning author of Insurrections
- "In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time, Octavia Butler's 'Parable' books may be unmatched."—New Yorker (on Parableof the Sower)
- "Butler is one of the finest voices in fiction-period . . . A master storyteller with a voice that cradles and captivates, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty and ignorance, and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature."—Washington Post Book World
- "Haunting . . . apocalyptic . . . compelling."—Essence
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2020
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Grand Central Publishing