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An armored KSF vehicle arrives to move the Garfields to Olivar. After Lauren and Joanne say their goodbyes, Lauren and Curtis make love, which they have not done in a while. Afterward, they talk about the future. When Curtis talks of going north, perhaps as far as Canada, Lauren is conflicted. She wants to go north, and she wants to be with Curtis, but she doesn’t want to desert Cory and her brothers. Also, she would first need to tell Curtis about her hyperempathy, and about Earthseed.
Pyro, a drug that promotes arson, becomes a growing problem in California. The night before Christmas Eve, a fire breaks out in the Payne-Parrish house. Neighbors try unsuccessfully to put the fire out, and the fire department is too slow to be of much help. While everyone is preoccupied, the thieves who set the fire rob three other homes, including the Olaminas’ home. Rosalee Payne and all her children die in the fire; only Wardell Parrish escapes. Broken by his loss, he is taken in by the Olaminas but soon goes back to the relatives he lived with before inheriting Mrs. Sims’s house.
Cory still hopes to move to Olivar, but the immediate problem for her family is a lack of income now that Lauren’s father is gone. Cory once taught at the college where Lauren’s father worked, so she arranges to take over his classes. Lauren, in turn, will take over for Cory as neighborhood schoolteacher. Kayla Talcott and another woman will share duties leading the church.
The next summer, shortly after Lauren has turned eighteen, the neighborhood is overrun by pyros, named for the drug that drives them to commit unrestrained arson. Pyros are recognizable by their shaved heads and painted skin. After the pyros drive a stolen truck through the neighborhood gate, they set fire to homes and rape and kill the inhabitants. In the chaos, Lauren falls behind as Cory and Lauren’s brothers flee. She collects a gun off the corpse of a dead neighbor boy, shoots one pyro, makes her way out of the neighborhood, and takes refuge in the garage of a burned-out house down the street.
The next morning, Lauren returns to her neighborhood to look for survivors and to recover what she can from her former home. She finds people scavenging through the rubble. Without attracting attention, she retrieves a packet of money buried in her backyard. She sees the corpses of many of her friends and neighbors, but not of her brothers or Cory, nor of Curtis. Heading back to the garage where she spent the night, she meets two survivors from the neighborhood. One is Harry Balter, Joanne’s cousin and boyfriend, who stayed in Robledo with his family instead of going with Joanne to Olivar. The other survivor is Zahra Moss, the youngest wife of the now-dead Richard. While being raped, she saw Cory and Lauren’s brothers killed. Harry suffered a concussion while coming to Zahra’s aid, and now is unsteady on his feet and occasionally vomits. The sight of him makes Lauren feel sick, too.
Harry takes a day to rest and try to recover, while Lauren and Zahra look after him. Zahra, who has lived on the streets before and has more street smarts than the other two, finds a place to steal some fresh peaches. To Harry’s mild surprise, Lauren is willing to eat stolen fruit despite being a preacher’s daughter. Lauren tells Zahra and Harry about the dead bodies she saw—Zahra’s husband, Harry’s grandfather, and Harry’s two young siblings.
Lauren and Harry both want to head north, and when they invite Zahra to join them, she gratefully agrees. Lauren will cut her hair and pose as a man, with Zahra as “his” female companion, and Harry as their white friend. The three take turns going into a heavily guarded supply store called Hanning Joss. The supplies Lauren buys include cheap sleepsacks, jackets, and ammunition. Harry and Zahra each buy a knife.
Freeways still carry a certain amount of vehicle traffic but have become commonly used public walkways. Lauren, Harry, and Zahra start walking westward on the 118 freeway, planning to hit U.S. 101, which will take them northward to Oregon. Lauren thinks that the three of them have not quite unified yet. They need to build more trust, and she will have to tell them about her hyperempathy.
As Lauren agonizes over the fate of her father, the reality of a solitary path menacingly looms. The existential angst that weighs on Lauren after bidding Joanne goodbye only intensifies after she and Curtis make love. She’s non-committal when Curtis implores her to marry him, revealing Lauren’s leery stance on traditional gender roles and sharing her vision with a partner. For Lauren, taking a solitary route is preferable to navigating the fickle dynamics of a complicated husband-wife relationship. This is hinted at when she contemplates what it must have felt like for Wardell Parrish, who lost his home and entire family in a pyro-related arson, to be all alone. The overt foreshadowing signifies Lauren’s old way of life is on the precipice of destruction and she will soon have to traverse a world where it’s every person for themselves. When Lauren confirms to Curtis that her plan was always to escape the neighborhood alone, the moment has the effect of making Curtis feel alone. Through the emotional turmoil, Lauren finds solace in scripture, not in Biblical verse but in her own writings for Earthseed. If she is to survive, Lauren must consciously embrace change and adaptation even if it means venturing solo.
While the neighborhood’s incineration by pyromaniacs presents a physical and psychological finality for Lauren, it also helps facilitate her rebirth. The novel has been building up to the moment of Lauren’s rise and renewal, and the neighborhood’s fiery end is the turning point. Fire, in this case, is a destructive force wielded by those who lack the power to create. But as the chapter’s opening lines from Earthseed state, a phoenix must burn before it can rise from the ashes. A return to the neighborhood the following day grants Lauren an opportunity to retrieve some stashed belongings and money, but it also allows her to birth Earthseed’s principles into action. Even in a devastated state, Lauren exhibits compassion, and Earthseed virtue, by offering food to a needy child. More importantly, she’s able to meld in with the group of thieves and scavengers by disguising herself as one of them, indicating an innate ability to adapt to prevailing situations. When Zahra Moss confirms that she saw Cory and Lauren’s brothers killed as their neighborhood was torn asunder, Lauren becomes acutely aware of how she will have to start her life anew.
In Chapter 15, Butler paints a picture in which the stability of society’s hallowed institutions is undermined to the point of collapse. This is a world where the rule of law has become an “archaic” construct. Hired gunmen and security forces, like the ones present at the Hanning Joss shopping complex, are free to kill and strip-search anyone they want at will. Invasion of privacy has become not just a common practice but is widely accepted by the populace. Behaviors are recorded and monitored, and personal privacy is a societal luxury. The country’s financial systems have permitted inflation to soar to prohibitively costly heights, leading to a situation where thieving and robbery is commonplace. Highways and roads are no longer being built. They are left to deteriorate and are surrendered to thieves, prostitutes, and murderers. The extent of the destruction and lawlessness illustrates just how much Lauren must take it upon herself to slowly rebuild within the structures of Earthseed.