Surviving Hell

Sofia survived the hemorrhagic version of the HLV virus, and then she survived more than a year as a prisoner at Fort Glacier, where she was subject to experimentation to learn the secret of her recovery. When she finally escapes, she’s determined to survive the collapse of society and being on her own again. Finding the residents of Camp Utopia aids in survival, and Ben, the handsome leader, gives her a reason to live, not just survive. So does the new addition, Joshua, and she finds herself gravitating toward both of them. Their triad is soon tested, first by betrayal and then by danger. Sofia wants to survive when Fort Glacier comes looking for her, not willing to let a possible cure escape them, but what will it cost her, her lovers, and the people at Camp Utopia?

Excerpt

Chapter One

My legs were sore and wobbly, threatening to give out though I’d only crossed a few miles. I remembered with longing the days when I used to run for hours at a time, eating up the miles. Running was what paid for my college. My spot on the track team ensured the scholarship that paid for my tuition, room, and board as long as I maintained a B-average and performed well for the team. I had done so with barely any effort at all, taking to college and the track team like I’d been born to it. That was before my life went to hell. Literally.

When the HLV virus first appeared, I remained unaffected. It took out my mother and three sisters within the first month. My five-year-old brother and my father were dead by the second month, and I was on my own. When the vaccine became available, I signed up to take it simply because I had nothing else to do. They were offering food and shelter for those who needed it, and I needed it desperately if I planned to stay alive. I hadn’t fully committed to that idea just yet, but I was too afraid to kill myself. By that point, I’d lost everything, so I didn’t think I had anything else to lose.

I was wrong. Even now, I shuddered as I thought about just how wrong I’d been. My knees were wobbling like crazy, and I was relieved to see I was approaching a house. It had a neglected air to it, and as I approached, I was certain no one lived there any longer, but I was still cautious. I had no weapons, and I had no idea what the outside world was like these days. I’d spent almost a year held prisoner at that army base.

Warily, I approached the porch and dragged myself up, my heart racing from the exertion. I’d gone from running miles every day to being confined to a small hospital room/prison cell, though no one had called it that. There had been a gym on the base, but most of the soldiers couldn’t be bothered to take me there, so my sole exercise had been running around my room. No wonder I was weak.

When I reached the front door, I knocked tentatively at first. When no one answered, I knocked louder and still received no reply. Finally, I used the side of my fist and pounded on the heavy frame, calling, “Is anyone here?”

When complete silence greeted me, I decided it was safe enough to enter. I pushed open the door and stepped inside, only mildly surprised to find it unlocked. If the people inside had been ill from HLV, or had fled hoping to out run the virus that eventually eliminated ninety percent of the population, they probably wouldn’t have taken time to lock up behind themselves.

It was a typical family house, and it was obvious the family who owned it hadn’t been materially well-off. It was a basic farmhouse in the middle of a working farm, but I hoped it would have some of the supplies I needed.

The front door opened into the kitchen, and I went straight to the knife rack. I pulled out the large kitchen knife, along with a small paring knife. A shudder went through me at the idea of having to use either one. The chef’s knife was purely for defense, though it was probably an inadequate weapon, but I knew what I had to do with the paring knife, and it made sweat bead on my brow. I tucked the smaller blade into the waistband of my scrub pants as carefully as possible, but gripped the larger knife in my hand.

It was a small house, and I was able to search it quickly and determined I had it to myself. There weren’t even any dead bodies, and I wondered if the family had completely abandoned the property, but perhaps they had holed up in a cellar somewhere, hoping to evade the virus. Whatever they’d done, I hoped they had been luckier than my family, but I doubted it.

I went to the bathroom, automatically testing the faucet and disappointed to find no running water, but not surprised. Since this was a farm, I hoped there would be a well, and I left the smaller knife in the bathroom before forcing my jittery legs to exit the house once more, keeping the knife in my hand. If they tracked me here, I wasn’t going to let them take me back.

I didn’t think I could fight off a group of soldiers with nothing more than a chef’s knife, but at least I could end things on my terms. Or so I told myself, but I really wasn’t sure I’d have it in me to do that. If I hadn’t killed myself when things were at the absolute worst, and I’d lost everyone I’d ever loved, I wasn’t sure I could do it now just to escape those awful people who’d held me prisoner.

I found the well easily enough, and it had a hand pump. The thing was squeaky and groaned in protest for the first few pumps, but as I primed it, feeling like my shoulder would break and my arm would fall off, water suddenly spilled out of the faucet. I stopped pumping to reach for the bucket hanging handily on a hook. It looked old, and kind of gross, but it would have to do. I suspected the well had been more of a backup source of water and a decorative piece than an actual working device they needed every day. Even if they had used it on a daily basis, it could have been months, or even a year, since they had needed it.

The first few pumps of water yielded something brown and disgusting, and when it went clear, I dumped what I’d already collected and filled the bucket with the clear water. I lugged the heavy bucket back into the house, spilling more than I’d hoped, but still had an adequate amount to clean up and have a drink of water.

I washed as carefully as I could first, particularly the spot on my arm where I was sure they had put the tracking chip. It made sense that they would have injected it into me at the same time they gave me the vaccine for the HLV virus. If it hadn’t been for Travis Briggs’ big mouth, I wouldn’t have even known it was there or suspected such a thing.

I shuddered as I looked in the streaked mirror, remembering how he had taunted me that he’d find me. Just thinking about him sent a phantom pang shooting between my legs, and I winced. He hadn’t managed to rape me, but his fingers had violated me as he prepared to do so. I’d been lucky to distract him and get my hands on his sidearm. I’d hit him as hard as I could, but hadn’t completely knocked him out the first time. The blow had only incapacitated him, but he’d still been his same cocky self, alert enough to promise he’d tracked me down and find me.

The way he’d said it, with such confidence, led me to the epiphany that I must have a tracking device somewhere in my body. I sincerely hoped it was in the spot where I’d gotten the injection, where a small knot had formed and never went away, because otherwise I would have to start searching for it in a blind fashion, and I couldn’t imagine having to cut up parts of my body in search of a tiny GPS chip.

He’d been so amused by my efforts that I’d been tempted to shoot him with his gun. I had no doubt I could have done so, and would have if the noise wouldn’t have alerted the rest of the scientists and soldiers at the base that I’d shot the captain. Instead, I’d hit him on the temple again, this time making him fall silent. I supposed it was too much to hope for that he died from his injuries. No doubt, someone had found him by now and was watching over him.

Which meant my time was growing shorter. With a deep breath for courage, I met my gaze in the mirror, barely recognizing my haunted brown eyes, framed by flowing brown curls. “You can do this, Sofia,” I said to myself aloud and firmly. It didn’t help much, but I felt slightly more confident as I pushed the tip of the paring knife into my skin. With a small cry, I cut as deeply as I dared, trying to remove the entire knot under the skin. I screamed, but I kept the blade moving.

The pain was awful. The only thing that even came close was when I had been infected with the hemorrhagic version of the HLV virus after getting the vaccine. My nerve endings had burned far worse than this, and I had begged for death when I was in the throes of it. Surprisingly though, I had recovered. The scientists had been amazed, because apparently recovering from the vaccine-induced version of HLV was unheard-of. I’d gotten through that, so I could get through this too.

When I had a ragged square cut in my arm, I dug the knife in to pop out the flesh, screaming and cursing the entire time. I should have been quiet, but it was impossible under the circumstances.

Once I had the gob of flesh out of my arm, I cleaned the spot again and stuffed it full of gauze pads I’d found in the medicine cabinet. I probably needed stitches, but I didn’t have the supplies or the knowledge, so this would have to do. I’d just have to hope I didn’t bleed to death, and that it had been worth it.

With a lack of options, I took off my scrub top and used the larger knife to cut a line so I could rip off strands of fabric. I used four of them to tie the gauze pads in place, disgusted by how quickly it all turned red.

I wasn’t done yet. I had to be sure. I leaned close to the chunk of my arm sitting on a hand towel I’d taken from the ring by the sink. It was red now, but had been white before. Using the paring knife in my left hand, while holding it awkwardly in my right as my arm throbbed, I cut through the flesh until I found what I was looking for.

Using some water, I washed off the tiny device before bringing it closer. It looked slightly larger than a grain of rice, but it was clearly metallic, and it flashed rhythmically. I didn’t know what the light meant. Maybe it was linked to the battery, or perhaps it was just the general signal the chip sent out on a set cycle. For all I knew, it was responding to some pinging they were doing in their search for me.

I put the device on the hand towel and crushed it with the handle of the knife. After that, I left the bathroom on my wobbly legs, searching the house as quickly as I could for anything useful. I found a dented can of fruit cocktail in the cabinet, but that was all that remained. I did find a few changes of clothes in the smaller bedroom.

Judging from the décor and the style of clothing, the family had included a teenage daughter. We were almost the same size, and since she’d favored leggings and tunics, I was able to squeeze in to the pants well enough that they would work. Anything was better than the scrubs I’d worn for a year. The base had provided fresh pairs on a regular basis, of course, but it was always the same drab white scrubs, and without even any underwear. It was nice to have underwear again too, even if they did belong to a stranger.

Her bed was tempting, and I was running on the last fumes of my energy stores, but I knew I couldn’t sleep there. If they tracked me to this place and found me sleeping, they’d have no trouble reacquiring me. Instead, I had to get as far away from here as I could before I took time to rest.

I loaded a few of the other girl’s clothes into a backpack I found hanging in her closet before adding the flip-top can of fruit cocktail and a fork I’d taken from the kitchen. I kept the knife in my hand as I shrugged on the pack, careful to avoid my sore arm, and left the house. I didn’t look back as I forced my feet to keep moving long after I thought I would collapse forward on my face.

I spent that night in a barn that was part of a property several miles past the home where I had stopped to perform self-surgery. I briefly looked at the wound, relieved to find the bleeding had mostly stopped, but I didn’t have it in me to change the dressing. I was just too exhausted. I could have stayed in the house that was on the property, but I was too weak to bother searching to make sure it was safe. It just felt more secure to sleep in the loft in the barn, and that’s what I did.

When I woke the next morning, I felt a little better and up to the challenge of exploring the house. I found a little bit of food, but nothing else useful, and there were two dead bodies in the main bedroom. I hadn’t seen a dead body since my father had passed away, the last of my family to go, and they’d been there a while. It was difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether they had died from the first wave of HLV or the second wave induced by the faulty vaccine that caused HLV to mutate into a hemorrhagic form. It didn’t really matter, because they were dead either way, and there was nothing I could do for them.

I left the house quickly after that and kept walking, managing to overcome my weakness whenever I felt the urge to stop and drop where I was with the motivating fear of being discovered by the soldiers and the scientists again. I couldn’t go back to that, so the only choice was to keep going forward.

It was getting toward dusk when my luck changed, and maybe for the better finally.

Chapter Two

I heard signs of life before I saw the settlement, and at first I hurried, but then caution kicked in as I got closer. I approached warily, doing my best to observe the surroundings from a distance before I committed to entering what appeared to be a thrown-together encampment. There were four large tents and a smaller one, along with some storage sheds, but more importantly, there were people milling around. I was amazed to see three children running across the grounds, clearly chasing each other and laughing. I hadn’t seen a child since my little brother Michael succumbed to the first wave of the virus. I hadn’t seen much of anything besides soldiers and scientists since I’d been locked up at the base.

A pregnant woman walked by, and she was in deep conversation with another woman. They looked reasonably relaxed, and I didn’t think they were being held against their will. It looked like civilization, though on a much smaller scale from pre-HLV days.

I couldn’t stand on the periphery all day, observing them, especially with twilight deepening around me. I either had to get brave enough to approach them or move around cautiously and avoid them.

The thought of walking past without making contact made my stomach churn, and I instinctively rejected that option. With a deep breath for courage, I walked closer to the encampment, keeping my hands loose at my sides and trying to keep my posture relaxed. I was hoping I looked nonthreatening, because I was.

I reached the perimeter, and someone with a gun stepped forward. I swallowed at the sight of it, recognizing it as one of the kind the soldiers carried on the base. Sweat beaded my brow as I contemplated the idea that maybe I had simply walked back into a nest of soldiers, and they’d calmly turn me over to the group at Fort Glacier.

“State your business?”

I eyed the young soldier, though he didn’t dress like one. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, but he held the gun easily, and with a level of confidence suggesting he knew how to use it. I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I’d like to see if I could join you?”

Another soldier-type appeared, but he wasn’t holding a gun. Instead, he wore a holster at his side, complete with a handgun.

It wasn’t his gun I was noticing or admiring though. I was a tall woman, and I used to stand five inches over my father, so it was unusual to meet someone who seemed to loom over me. He was probably a few inches above six feet, with strong features, thick black hair, and well-defined arms that bulged as he stepped closer. I eyed him warily, too cautious to let the sudden surge of attraction make me instantly trust him. “What are you doing?”

He smiled at me, and it softened his face, making him appealing in a different way. “I need to frisk you before we let you in the camp. It’s a matter of safety.”

I blinked. “You’re going to put your hands on me?” I should have sounded far more outraged than I did. I cleared my throat and tried again. “I’m not armed except for this knife.” I held it out to show him, and he flinched, moving backward. Maybe I had swung it a bit too vigorously. Since I wanted to stay, and the knife wouldn’t do much to help me anyway, I bent down and pushed the blade into the ground before standing up again.

He seemed slightly amused, but mostly regretful. “I’m sorry, but I still need to search you. It’s just protocol.”

I nodded grudgingly as I stood there, lifting my arms out at my side. My breath hissed through my teeth when pain shot through me as I stretched my right arm. His gaze went straight to the injury, and he looked concerned. “What happened?”

“I caught it on something.” I couldn’t tell him the truth. If I mentioned anything about the government searching for me, or what was left of the government anyway, I was sure he’d send me on my way. I couldn’t blame him, but I also knew I couldn’t survive on my own. I had no training and no skills, and like most of the world, I’d been completely unprepared for something like HLV to come along. If he sent me away, I’d either end up dying on my own alone, or I’d be recaptured. Neither option was a good one; they both seemed equally bad.

His hands moved quickly and efficiently over me, and I was slightly surprised by my own sense of disgruntlement to find he didn’t linger anywhere. I definitely shouldn’t want a stranger to grope me, especially after Briggs had attacked me earlier yesterday, trying to rape me. The thought of any man’s hands on me should be enough to freeze me in fear, or make me want to vomit.

On the other hand, this man appeared to be nothing like creepy Captain Briggs, and I couldn’t pretend like I didn’t find him attractive. I certainly did, but I was smart enough to try to hide that fact. I still didn’t know if I could trust these people any more than I could trust the group I had escaped from yesterday.

He took my arm in a solicitous manner as he led me into the camp, the other man with the gun moving to block the space we had just entered. I looked around, discovering it was all fairly humble, but it looked pretty good compared to the view I’d had for the last year.

He led me to one of the large tents, holding the flaps so I could step inside.

I immediately recognized I was in their makeshift infirmary. There were stockpiles of bandages and medication, along with an exam room fashioned from draped sheets and a metal table.

A pretty black woman stood up from behind a desk and smiled at both of us. “What’s up, Ben?”

So now I had a name for him. Ben.

“We have a guest, Grace. This is…” He trailed off, cocking his eyebrow in my direction.

“Sofia Vargas,” I said before frowning. Maybe I should have used a different name? It wasn’t like the old world, where there’d be electronic records tracking me, but if anybody from the group at Fort Glacier heard my name, they’d know where to find me. It was too late now though.

“How do you do, Sofia?” The woman held out her hand, shaking my uninjured left hand, since my right arm hung awkwardly at my side. “What happened?”

“I caught it on something.”

“Let’s take a look at it.” She looked over at Ben. “Why don’t you bring our guest some food while I take care of this?” The request was somewhere between deferential and commanding, making it difficult for me to discern exactly who was in charge.

Grace led me to the metal exam table, and I climbed up. I winced as she unwrapped the makeshift bandage, cursing softly when the gauze stuck to the exposed area.

She frowned as she laid a damp cloth over the top of it. “We need to soak the gauze off, or it’s going to hurt a lot more when I remove it.”

I nodded, sitting there awkwardly as I waited for the gauze to get wet enough to separate from my skin. It was hard to believe that I once knew how to carry on a conversation and had been considered extroverted and outgoing. Now, I just felt awkward and completely out of place. I didn’t know if my social skills were rusty, or if I was just so deeply mistrustful of my fellow human beings these days that I couldn’t be bothered to make small talk.

The gauze came off a few minutes later with only a little bit of pain. Grace examined the wound for a moment before looking at me. “What exactly did you catch yourself on?”

“A knife.” I provided no further detail, hoping she would infer someone else had done it to me. I really didn’t want to explain if I could help it, and I wasn’t certain how patient-confidentiality laws applied in this new post-apocalyptic world. I doubted they applied at all, especially if Grace felt the rest of her encampment was in danger from my presence.

Fortunately, she didn’t ask for further details. She busied herself with cleaning it and numbing the area before she stitched several layers of my skin back together. I watched a little bit of it before looking away, feeling faintly nauseated. I was going to have a hell of a scar, but it would be worth that if it kept me free of the Fort Glacier people.

“Where did you come from?” asked Grace as she finished stitching me up, cutting the thread for the last time.

I just shrugged. “A little bit of everywhere.”

It was clear she didn’t really believe my answer, but she was nice enough not to probe for details. Instead, she put a bandage over the top of her handiwork. “See me every day for the next few days for changes. We need to keep the dressing as dry as possible, so no bubble baths,” she added that with a grin.

I smiled back. “I guess there goes my plan to spend the day in the Jacuzzi.”

Grace smiled. “You can have a quick shower. They’ve rigged up a shower tent with solar showers, which works okay for now, but it’s not pleasant during winter.” She shuddered, clearly remembering the cold showers she’d taken just a few months before. “We have a guy who joined us recently, and he seems to know some stuff about alternative energy sources, so he’s been foraging for solar panels and a compatible generator. We hope to have a stable source of electricity and some hot water before the end of summer, when we really need it again.”

I nodded, not even certain if I would be here past a day or two, let alone at the end of summer. I’d spent the last year having the luxury of my own shower and bathroom attached to my hospital room, so it was going to be an adjustment to go from daily showers to makeshift outdoor showers—however often they were rationed out—but again, it seemed like a small price to pay to escape the scientists’ experiments and Captain Briggs’ increasingly aggressive overtures.

Ben returned then, and he held a Styrofoam container out to me. I recognized it as some sort of stew, and I was hungry enough to dig in. I wouldn’t have cared what the ingredients were at that point as I scarfed it down. I’d had the equivalent of hospital food for the last year, all carefully regulated in controlled portions, while being low in sugar, fat, and taste. Even though it didn’t look pretty, it tasted fabulous and was the best thing I’d had in my mouth for months.

I was kind of embarrassed to realize how quickly I’d eaten it as I handed him the container a few minutes later. I hadn’t even made an effort to get off the exam table or leave the infirmary before I’d started shoveling the food in my mouth like I hadn’t eaten for a week. I blushed. “Pardon my manners, or lack of them. My mom would be embarrassed.”

Ben grinned at me. “That’s all right. You look like you’ve missed a few meals.”

I had missed real meals, though I’d been getting a steady supply of calories aside from the last two days. I just shrugged.

“If Grace is done with you, I’ll show you a bunk, and we’ll talk about what kind of skills you have, and how you might help the community.”

I slid down awkwardly from the table, landing slightly unsteadily on my still shaky legs. They felt better than they had when I’d run from Fort Glacier, but they still hadn’t recovered from a year of sporadic exercise. I swayed for a moment, and Ben stepped forward to support me, leading to me slumping against him. I honestly lost control of my legs, but stayed against him a little longer than I needed to, enjoying the simple pleasure of human contact with a man I found attractive.

After a moment, he cleared his throat and stepped back, his hand on my uninjured arm keeping me steady until I was fully upright. I followed behind him, pausing with him when he stopped to toss the Styrofoam container into a large trashcan. I was surprised to see it, and he answered the question I didn’t have time to ask. “We found a stash of these in a restaurant on the run a few weeks ago, and we figured we’d use them while we could. They’re not very environmentally friendly, but they reduce the workload of having to wash dishes. Since there are a lot fewer people producing garbage now, it doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing to do to the planet.”

I nodded, not wanting him to think I was put out by their use of disposables. I’d simply been surprised to see anything remaining like that. I don’t know why. Ninety percent of the population was dead, and in theory, there should be enough of what remained to go around, but I doubted it worked out that way. Humans had never been all that good at sharing.

He led me to one of the large tents, again holding the flap for me as I entered. There were bunk beds arranged neatly around the large interior of the tent, along with a wood stove in the middle, its pipe leading up to the ceiling of the canvas. At the moment, it was unlit, which made sense because it was at least seventy-five degrees outside in early summer.

He gestured to a set of bunk beds just a few feet away. “Looks like these two are open. You can take a top bunk if you want, but right now there aren’t enough women that you have to. I think you make number eight.”

I took the closest bottom bunk, dropping my bag on it before turning to face him. “You wanted to know my skills?”

He nodded.

I felt like I was interviewing for a job, which I’d had a few of during summers, in anticipation of saving for college expenses before I’d gotten the full-ride scholarship to the University of Montana. “I can run really fast. Or I could. I haven’t had much training recently.”

His lips quirked. “What else can you do?”

“I did some waitressing, and I can cook some decent dishes. My mother taught me most of her recipes.”

He crossed his arms over his chest. “Anything else?”

I hesitated, searching for anything useful. “My dad was a competitive shooter, and he showed me how to use a gun. It’s been years since I fired one, but I used to be pretty good.”

He nodded, as though mentally recording that. “And do you have anything else to add?”

“My major was education, though I only made a couple of years’ progress. I hadn’t really gotten to the specific courses that focused on educating kids yet. I was still clearing out my basic requirements. I don’t know the proper way to teach a kid, but I do like children.”

He nodded once more. “So you can cook, you can shoot, and you can take care of kids. You sound like you’ll be a useful addition. I’ll figure out something for you, and you’ll probably start tomorrow, if Grace clears you. In the meantime, take the rest of the day to rest and settle in. You look like you’ve been through some hell.”

“Haven’t we all been through hell?”

He nodded, a touch of sadness in his expression. “More than our fair share, I’m sure, Sofia. Welcome to Camp Utopia.”

I frowned at him. “Utopia?”

“It’s our attempt at sarcasm. It used to be a FEMA camp, but most of the government officials and the soldiers died in the first wave. The second wave took out the rest, so it was just those of us who remained immune. We have a couple of soldiers still around, but neither one of them wanted the responsibility of leading Camp Utopia, so I got elected.”

He seemed young to be leading the whole thing, and I asked, “How old are you?”

“Twenty-six.” He seemed almost embarrassed by the admission, and it was obvious he was still surprised to have ended up as the leader too. “We vote pretty much on everything, but there has to be someone with the final say, and I guess that thankless task belongs to me. Whenever practical though, we run Utopia like a democracy.”

I swallowed the lump that suddenly appeared in my throat. “Does that mean the whole camp gets to vote on whether or not I stay?”

He shook his head. “No, that only happens if there’s a strong consensus that you need to leave. We pretty much accept anyone as long as they pull their weight and aren’t breaking our few rules. The rules are for the safety of everyone, so you’re expected to abide by those.”

“What are the rules?”

“No killing, no stealing, no rape, and no violence. We’re all trying to live here together, and what we have, we all share. We don’t tolerate violence against each other, and as a woman, I want you to feel safe to move among our group. We’ve had a couple of problems in the past, but they were solved.”

He said it in such a cold, intense way, that I inferred how they were solved. Still, I asked, “What happens if you break the rules?”

“It depends on how severely break them. You might be reprimanded, banished, or face the firing squad.”

I caught an uneven breath. “Firing squad? Have you had to do that one yet?”

“Just once.” He seemed unbothered by guilt, and his unwavering conviction assured me that whatever the circumstances, it had been a necessary choice.

I didn’t probe for further details. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, Ben. I really appreciate the chance to rest.”

He took my dismissal gracefully, nodding his head and issuing a word of parting before he left the tent.

I had it to myself, and I figured everyone else was out doing whatever activities they were assigned to keep the camp functioning. After a year of doing nothing, I was actually looking forward to getting to work again, even if it was something menial like cooking. But first, I needed a nap.

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