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.