As Lauren, Harry, and Zahra keep walking, they see an enormous fire, perhaps a whole other neighborhood set alight. Some of the people walking along the freeway make a diversion in order to scavenge from the site of the fire, and Zahra asks the others if they should join them. Harry refuses, saying that this is theft, and Lauren points out that the fire is far away and will not be cool enough yet. Zahra confesses that she cried when she first saw the fire, because it reminded her of the neighborhood and her dead daughter, and the hatred she feels for people who set fires. Later, Harry suggests that they move in order to keep an eye on the fire and make sure it doesn’t spread toward them. Lauren knows that Harry is still upset about the death of the man the day before; at the same time, the Earthseed scripture she shared had cheered him.
The opening of Chapter 17 serves as a reminder that what happened to Lauren’s neighborhood was hardly a unique situation. Everywhere they go, the characters are surrounded by destruction. Because of this, they are forced to relive the trauma of seeing their entire families and lives burn to the ground. At the same time, they are now in the position of the strangers who descended on the neighborhood after the fire—scavengers who must turn every tragedy into an opportunity to help themselves survive.
Yet despite his interest in Lauren’s writing, Harry remains distrustful of the “new” Lauren. Zahra, on the other hand, is not troubled by seeing this new side of Lauren, perhaps because she didn’t know her that well to begin with. The three of them move camp, and that night Lauren wakes up to the sound of Harry and Zahra having sex. Lauren feels their pleasure as a result of her hyperempathy, but afterward is angry that they did such a thing while Harry was supposed to be on watch. She hears Harry snoring and shakes him awake, asking him to give her the gun so she can take over. Harry apologizes and says he must have fallen asleep by accident. Lauren says that if he cares about Zahra and wants to protect her, he cannot afford to be so careless.
There is little room for privacy in Lauren, Harry, and Zahra’s life on the road. Lauren does not hesitate about making it clear that she knows Harry and Zahra had sex; their collective safety is far more important than any notion of politeness when it comes to this matter. Of course, there is an even more extreme way in which Lauren (unintentionally) violates Harry and Zahra’s privacy—by actually feeling their pleasure while they have sex. This emphasizes the fact that Lauren really has no power to give Harry and Zahra privacy even if she wanted to.
Back on the road, the trio stop at a commercial water station. These stations are the only places that supply reliably clean water; however, they are also dangerous spaces where robberies often take place. As Lauren and Harry approach the station, they intervene in an attempted robbery of a young family—two parents and their baby. The husband tells Lauren, “Thanks man,” which surprises her, even though at this point she has been in drag for some time. The family are interracial—the husband is black and the wife is Latina—and this is part of what moves Lauren to help them. Earlier that morning, when she and Zahra were in the middle of a literacy lesson, Lauren mentioned to Zahra that she was happy to give her and Harry privacy, but that they shouldn’t neglect their watch. Zahra promises to be more careful next time. Lauren admits that the prospect of pregnancy is enough to put her off sex, but Zahra responds: “If it happens, it happens.” Meanwhile the interracial family keeps traveling near Lauren and the others, and she wonders if they could turn out to be “allies.”
This passage contains two different examples of times at which the characters must calculate a risk-benefit analysis. In the case of the interracial family, Lauren believes that the family could become “allies” who could help Lauren and the others stay safe on the road. However, as the characters have emphasized multiple times, it’s dangerous to trust any stranger—even those who appear friendly or harmless. Meanwhile, Zahra also weighs the risk of getting pregnant against her desire to have sex with Harry. For Lauren, the prospect of having children is far more alarming than it is for Zahra. It is clear that Zahra has grown up with the mindset that the risk of getting pregnant is simply an inevitable part of life, rather then something that can be avoided.
The trio reach the ocean, which none of them has ever seen before. Harry goes for a swim, but Lauren and Zahra don’t. Lauren notes that there seems to be little violence and crime on the beach, and wonders if the water soothes people. They set up camp nearby, and Lauren begins to construct a water filtration system in the sand. At night, Lauren and Zahra wash in the sea. Afterward, Lauren tries the water she has filtered, despite Harry’s warnings that it must be dirty. The water tastes “brackish,” but not salty. Lauren reasons that if she boils it or adds a water purification tablet, it will be safe to drink. The interracial family has camped nearby, and Lauren asks Harry and Zahra if they would mind if she invited them over. Harry is a little resistant, but they both agree. When Lauren asks, the man is suspicious. Lauren returns to Harry and Zahra and says she believes the family will join them after some time.
Water is not only practically important to the characters in the novel, but also important on a symbolic level. In a world in which water scarcity has had a devastating impact on the structure of society and in which fires routinely destroy people’s homes and lives, water itself comes to symbolize peace, endurance, and nourishment. It is significant that none of the three characters have ever seen the ocean before; this emphasizes the fact that their lives have been characterized by scarcity and destruction. There are hints that this first encounter with the ocean may mark a turning point in each of their lives.
The next day, the family does not join them. Lauren sees another group of people have their supplies taken by a pack of dogs, which makes her nervous. She then sees the dogs approaching the family; when one dog comes near the baby, she shoots it, scaring the other dogs away. Later on, the family comes to join Lauren, Harry, and Zahra. The man’s name is Travis, the woman is Natividad, and their son is called Dominic (or Domingo). They offer milk chocolate, a rare treat. Lauren asks if the baby is all right, and Travis proudly says that he “hardly ever cries.” Natividad explains that they are heading to Seattle, where Travis has an aunt. They hope to find jobs that will pay in money. Lauren feels “alone between the two couples,” and begins to write in her notebook. Natividad expresses surprise that she can read and write.
Once again, Lauren’s instincts are proven correct—although she has also had to be rather proactive in order to make that the case. After Lauren risks her own safety in order to help Travis and Natividad twice, they are finally convinced that they can trust her. While the group has expanded to include more people, Lauren simultaneously feels lonelier within this new dynamic. While inclusivity is useful for survival, it does not always provide a sense of reassurance; instead, it can sometimes feel alienating.
Harry accidentally refers to Lauren as “she,” and Lauren is forced to admit that she is in fact female. Lauren tells Travis and Natividad that they are “natural allies.” Although Travis insists that he can take care of his family, he confesses that he wishes they had guns like Lauren’s group. Natividad asks to hear some of Lauren’s writing, explaining that the rich woman she used to work for as a maid would sometimes read to her. Lauren reads from Earthseed, choosing passages that are not too “preachy.”
Travis maintains a sense of pride that prevents him from seeing the truth; no matter how hard he tries to protect his family, they will inevitably face threats that he cannot overcome alone. The end of the chapter suggests that Lauren’s dream of forming an Earthseed community may be beginning to take shape in reality.