Editor’s Note: This excerpt from The Noah Option, Michael McCarthy’s first novel, is part of The Writers Series, our highly popular feature that showcases the work of contemporary novelists influenced by Ayn Rand. Fans of Atlas Shrugged will enjoy McCarthy’s recontextualization of Rand’s classic work. Botanist Dr. Grace Washington struggles to get seeds that can end world hunger into the hands of hard-working farmers in the third world. An extremist group and their government cronies try to destroy the new super-seeds, and Grace is arrested on false charges. Facing an impossible choice – go to jail or destroy her life’s work, the seeds that could save millions of lives – Grace and her ally, software genius Isaiah Mercury, begin a countdown to a daring plan: The Noah Option. Unlike Atlas Shrugged, McCarthy’s protagonists are openly Christian. While The Atlas Society does not endorse religion, we support religious freedom, and we know that many of our readers, members, and friends love both God and Ayn Rand.
Time: The Near Future
With AK-47 rifles slung over their shoulders, two young drivers dressed in military camouflage put their farm tractors in gear. They dragged a heavy chain between them like a scythe through the maize stalks, destroying the livelihood of a farmer they had never met.
Bending as a field of wheat bends before the wind, the healthy maize stalks bowed down and snapped under the weight of the chain. A swath of stubble emerged in the wake of the two tractors. Birds began to hover and dive for the exposed ears of corn, like seagulls following a fishing trawler dragging nets full of fish.
Sweat trickled down their faces from under their hats, baking in the strong mid-day sun of Botswana. Nearby, two more uniformed teenagers armed with AK-47s sat in the back of a lorry, practicing their frowns of intimidation. The white driver and a taller black man stepped out of the cab. Like the young mercenaries, they were also in camouflage.
The white man gestured toward the two young soldiers and turned to his companion. “Tell them to stop anyone who tries to stop us.” The tall man translated this into Tswana for the two recruits. They nodded and fingered the triggers of their automatic weapons.
The white man looked at the growing swath of maize stubble and nodded in satisfaction. “These new strains of maize must be destroyed.” He scratched his armpit.
His companion grunted, “As you say. My men expect to be paid in cash and ammunition.” He looked at the tractors destroying the crops, then added, “And food.”
Three miles away, the same fierce Botswanan sun beat down on Mantate Kubabupe as he tilled his field. He patiently and rhythmically chopped at weeds with his hoe. At the edge of his field, a secretary bird peered at him from her perch in a marula tree. The leaves were just beginning to turn yellow as they did every fall in this dry land. Mantate paused and leaned on the handle of his hoe. He looked around at his crop of maize and smiled. He would do well this year. More than enough to feed his family and much left over to sell.
“Papa!” He turned to see his eight-year-old son Moroka running down the row of maize toward him. Moroka carried a small water bottle in his hand.
“Moroka, my son. What is it?” The boy stopped, panting with the effort of his run.
“Papa, a woman from America is here with Mr. Phewai the seed man. Here is water for you, my father.” Mantate looked into his son’s eager face as he took the water bottle. His son’s eyes shone with excitement. A visitor from America! This was indeed an unusual day. He raised the bottle to his lips and and let the cool water wash the dust from his throat. It was good.
As he tilted his head back down, he could see a trail of dust rising at the edge of his field. That would be William Phewai’s truck. “Moroka, let us go and meet our visitor from America.” He put his hand on his son’s shoulder, and they began walking toward the marula tree, where the truck now came to a halt. The secretary bird flew away, lazily flapping its wings. A man emerged from the driver’s door, and a tall black woman in Western clothing got out on the passenger side.
“Dumela [hello], Mantate Kubabupe. May I introduce Doctor Grace Washington, a botanist from the great Tuskegee University in America?” Mr. Phewai spoke and gestured toward the tall woman in khaki pants and blouse. Her clothing fit trimly, revealing a slim athletic figure.
She extended her hand, and Mantate shook it. He said gravely, “Dumela. I am pleased to meet a visitor who has traveled far.”
She smiled at him, revealing dazzling white teeth. “Dumela. I am pleased to meet you as well. And who might this handsome gentleman be?” she asked, extending her hand to Moroka. The boy looked down shyly, rubbing his big toe in the dust.
“This is my son, Moroka. Shake her hand, Moroka.” The boy looked up and extended his hand tentatively. Grace Washington gravely shook the proffered hand, then smiled again, revealing a dimple. Moroka’s smile deepened into a dimple of his own. She laughed. Moroka laughed. Mantate and Mr. Phewai threw their heads back and laughed deep belly laughs that boomed across the clearing.
“I am pleased to meet you, Moroka. In America, we always ask the children, where do you go to school?”
Moroka spoke up eagerly, “My mother is teaching me to read, and Papa says that if our crops do well I may go to the school in the town. I have read three books already.”
Grace replied, “Three books. You’ve done well. I will send you another book when I return home.”
Moroka took her hand excitedly with both his hands, “What book? What book will you send?”
Looking at his shining eyes, Grace remembered when she was a small girl and was as eager about reading and learning new things. As a child, Grace loved to walk in the woods and in gardens, examining leaves and flowers. After reading a book about how the famous botanist George Washington Carver loved to walk and collect plant specimens, she began her own collection of leaves, flowers, and stems. He became her hero and role model. She still loved to take hikes, collect samples, and sketch plant life as Carver had done.
Grace said, “It is a book about one of my heroes, George Washington Carver. He was a famous botanist in America, and he developed better ways to grow food crops. Like you, he was eager to learn to read, and studied and worked hard. His work helped many farmers. Maybe when you are older, you will come to study at the Tuskegee University, where he taught and researched crops, and where I now teach and research. You could learn to help many good farmers like your father.”
Mantate looked at his son proudly. “My son, let your elders talk business now.”
Grace looked at Mantate with a smile. “Mr. Kubabupe, as a favor to me, will you allow him to stay with us? Young ones can learn by listening to their elders. My hero George Washington Carver often took his students for walks through farm fields. He said ‘A large part of a child’s education must be gotten outside of the four walls designated as a classroom.’”
Mantate looked down at Moroka, “Moroka, you may stay, if you will be silent and listen. You may indeed learn something.”
Grace looked at the field of maize appraisingly. “Mr. Kubabupe, I developed the strain of maize seeds that you planted here. Mr. Phewai’s employer, Nutritional Abundance Industries, paid me to do the research for this high yield strain. May we walk your field with you and ask some questions?”
Mantate nodded, “Of course.”
They walked between stalks of maize. Grace stopped and felt a cob of maize, then asked, “When did you plant this maize?”
Mantate replied, “About eight weeks ago. See how it is nearly ripe already. I have used only one-tenth the irrigation water, as instructed by Mr. Phewai. This is a blessing, as using the foot pedal pump is hard work for me. Moroka is too small to operate it just yet.”
Mr. Phewai looked closely at several stalks. “It seems that you are getting more cobs of maize on each stalk. Last year with the other seeds we got less. This looks to be nearly a fourfold increase!”
“Yes,” agreed Mantate, “I will have extra maize to sell. There are markets for maize in Kenya, I hear, that will pay a good price. I don’t know how to contact those Kenyan markets, but I hope to make enough money to pay for Moroka to attend the school in the town. He is a smart boy.” Here he looked down at Moroka and smiled. Moroka proudly grinned back.
Grace Washington squatted at the base of a stalk and fingered the soil. “Tell me about the fertilizer you use?”
“The same fertilizer as last year,” explained Mantate, “but only a tenth as much, again, as instructed by Mr. Phewai. Again, a blessing, since I did not have to spend as much money on fertilizer this year.” He smiled at his small son, “I bought a book for Moroka. He read it to me in the evenings.”
Grace looked at the man and his small son standing alert and full of curiosity. She thought, Dear Lord, what industriousness and initiative and promise! Thank You for your blessings on this family.
She said, “I am happy, Mr. Mantate Kubabupe, that my seeds have grown well for you and are a blessing for your family. I am happy, Mr. Moroka Kubabupe, that you have read a book to your father. You are a blessing to your family.” She turned to Mr. Phewai, “And you, Mr. Phewai, have done well in instructing this region’s farmers how to use the new seed. You are a blessing to this region.” Mr. Phewai gave her a small bow of his head in acknowledgement.
“Thank you, Mr. Kubabupe, and Moroka, for showing us your maize crop. We will go now,” said Grace.
Mantate raised his hand in farewell, “Tsamaya sentle — Go well.” When Grace and William Phewai began driving back to his office in the town of Maun, they discussed what they had seen on their field visits.
“Dr. Washington, you and I have visited six farmers in two days. I tell you, all of the farmers in this region report the same good results that you heard today from Mantate Kubabupe. I believe you can call your new seed strains a success. Those farmers will prosper this year.”
Just then they heard the distinctive bratatatat of automatic weapons fire in the distance. William pulled over and turned off the engine. They both climbed onto the bed of his truck in order to see farther over the fields.
They saw smoke rising about a mile away, in the direction of the next farm. Then they heard more gunfire. Grace’s knuckles turned white as she tightened her grip on the roll bar. She felt fear stab through her.
Controlling her breathing, Grace said, “There is trouble. We should help. Are you willing?”
William nodded, and they got back into the cab of the truck. They drove on. Grace unconsciously reached up and began twisting a strand of her hair. When they pulled up at the farmstead, the farmhouse and storage sheds were on fire. The farmer and his wife lay on the ground, bleeding.
“I’ll get the first aid kit,” said William. Grace knelt beside the woman. She was bleeding from two bullet wounds in her chest. Grace tore a strip from the woman’s dress and pressed it hard against the wounds, trying to stop the bleeding. William rose from the man and looked at Grace, shaking his head. He took gauze from the first aid box and gave it to Grace. She replaced the strips of cloth from the dress.
“Who did this to you?” asked Grace softly.
The woman coughed up blood and said, “Young men dressed like soldiers with tractors and chains were pulling down our maize stalks. Without our crops, we will starve!” She coughed again, and Phewai gave her a sip of water from a bottle.
“My husband and I tried to stop them. The young men shot us and set our home on fire. Why do they do this to us? We till our fields and mind our own business. Why?” The woman’s eyes looked imploringly at Grace. Then the young body sagged under Grace’s hands, and the head lolled sideways.
William felt her neck for a pulse. “She’s gone,” he murmured.
Grace gently closed the woman’s eyes and whispered a prayer, “Lord, welcome this good woman and her husband home to you.” She stood up and looked at the field of stubble where the chains had passed. She could see dust and birds hovering on the horizon.
“William, the direction they’ve taken leads towards Mantate Kubabupe’s farm. Let’s go.” They drove back at breakneck speed, scattering dust and gravel. William said, “That was Winnie and Felix Reentse. I knew them well. They were good people. Hard working farmers. This killing makes no sense.”
Grace saw a puff of diesel exhaust smoke in the maize field ahead. “Stop. There they are.” She pointed to a trail of dust and circling birds.
William Phewai looked. “How can we stop them?” he asked.
Grace thought for a moment. “Look over there. There’s a truck with a trailer. That’s how they transported the tractors out here. Let’s sneak up to it and see what they’re doing. Have you had any military training?”
William nodded, “I served in the army. I can disarm someone if we can get close enough. And you?” “Tae-kwon-do and self defense.” They took cord and a roll of duct tape from the truck, then made their way slowly and quietly between the stalks of maize, listening for movement. They heard voices. Slowly they inched forward.
The two teenage mercenaries had put down their Kalashnikov rifles and were faced away from them, urinating. Softly, Grace and William advanced and took the rifles. With the butt ends of the rifles, they struck behind the boys’ knees. Both boys fell to the ground. William spoke in Tswana, “Keep silent, put your hands behind you, and you will not be harmed.” He tied their wrists and taped their mouths while Grace covered them with one of the confiscated AK-47s. “Now, walk back to your truck. Be silent,” William commanded.
As they walked toward the truck, the taller mercenary saw them, bared his teeth in a snarl and swung his rifle up. William fired from the hip, instinctively. The mercenary went down. William ran forward and kicked the rifle away. A white man came around the truck from the other side, “What the … ?!” William covered him with the rifle. “I’m unarmed!” shouted the white man, raising his hands.
“Help these two into the truck,” said William. The white man helped the teenagers up, and all three sat on the bed of the truck. William covered them while Grace examined the wounded mercenary.
She tore off strips of his shirt and bound his wounds. “They are flesh wounds. He’s unconscious, but he’ll live. You!” she said to the white man. “Help me lift him into the truck.” Together they lifted the limp man into the back of the truck. Suddenly the white man grabbed Grace and held her in front of him as a shield from William’s rifle.
Grace raised her right foot and stomped down on the man’s instep with her boot. When he flinched, she shot her left elbow into his rib cage, twisted around in his locked arms to face him and gouged out his left eyeball with her thumb. He screamed and released her, clutching at his face. She took two steps away, pivoted, and shot out a side kick to his kneecap. He crumpled to his knees. Grace quickly stepped behind him and applied a choke hold until he lost consciousness. As he slumped, she pulled him onto his back. Retrieving her rifle, she smashed the butt on his right arm, breaking it. Then she knelt down and popped the eyeball back into place.
“This one will live too, but he won’t be grabbing me again with a broken arm and a dislocated kneecap,” she drily observed.
She and William lifted and swung him onto the truck bed beside the other wounded mercenary. Then they unhitched the trailer and drove the truck toward Mantate Kubabupe’s farmhouse.
When they drove up, Moroka ran to the truck. “Mr. Phewai! Help us! My father has gone to stop the men with the tractors, but they have guns!”
Grace looked over at William. “William, I’m a good shot. My father took me deer hunting with him. Those men will feel less threatened by a woman and may hold their fire when I approach. Let me go, while you guard these others.”
William smiled at her, “And if they lay a hand on you, they lose their kneecaps! He chuckled. “Agreed. Be careful, my friend.” Moroka led Grace in the direction his father had gone. They heard shots and began to run. They saw Mantate ahead, holding a harvesting scythe and hiding behind the marula tree. The boy drivers were standing on the tractors in the adjacent field and firing their AK-47s at the tree. Grace reached out and grabbed Moroka and crouched down in the maize.
“Moroka,” she whispered, “keep quiet and stay down. They must not know we’re here.” She took a kneeling position and aimed carefully. Her first burst shredded a tractor tire and ricocheted off the metal fender. The thirteen-year-old soldier was startled and dropped his rifle. He had never been under fire before. He jumped down and ran away. Her second burst hit the other tractor’s fuel tank. It burst into flame. The driver screamed and dropped his rifle too. Then he jumped and fled.
Mantate ran out and confiscated the rifle left behind by the first driver. He turned toward the burning tractor just as the heat caused the ammo from the second rifle to begin popping off. He retreated behind the marula tree, where Grace and Moroka joined him.
“Are you all right?” Grace asked.
“Yes,” said Mantate. He hugged Moroka. “Let us go back to your mother.”
“Yes, my father.”
As the three of them walked up, Mrs. Kubabupe ran out of the house to hug her son and husband. “You are safe, thanks be to God!”
William gestured to the back of the truck where the white man was now conscious. “This one is British. Claims to be acting on behalf of mother earth. Wants to destroy all hybridized or genetically modified crops. Claims they are unnatural.”
Grace looked at him and said, “These crops can end the food shortage in Africa.”
He snarled, “These crops are unnatural. We won’t allow them!”
“Who is we?” asked Grace.
The man looked down sullenly. “I’m not saying. These crops are forbidden!”
Grace looked at his paunchy stomach. “Easy for you to say. You seem to be eating enough for three people. By the way, who made you ruler of Africa?”
Grace covered the prisoners with her AK-47 while William called the authorities on his cell phone. “The constable will be here with reinforcements in an hour. These men will face jail time for their murders and destruction.”
The white man snapped, “We haven’t murdered anyone! That’s a lie!”
William fixed him with a harsh stare. “Two good people, Winnie and Felix Reentse, were shot and killed by your tractor drivers. That makes you an accomplice to murder. When you hired thirteen-year-olds and gave them AK-47s, what did you think would happen?” William started to turn away, then paused. “Just one more thing. Winnie and Felix were not using hybrid seeds on their farm. You destroyed the wrong crop and murdered the wrong people.