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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.CHAPTER 2
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.
Excerpted from Clay's Ark by Octavia E. Butler. Copyright © 1984 Octavia E. Butler. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Read this book in a day. Easy reading for a laid back day. Simple and to the point. Its a great idea of something we think is impossible, but can very well be a possibility in life. Great way to Escape with a bit of a thrill. Love Octavia Butler. This book is an easier read than her well known Wild Seed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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