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Panacea (Red Plague #2)
Copyright 2014 by Anna Abner
Back Cover Blurb:
The red plague has devastated the human race, turning billions of people into zombies with red eyes and an insatiable hunger for human flesh.
No closer to extracting the cure from inside Ben Sawyer, Maya Solomon is ready to give up her quest to cure the zombie virus. But Pollard and Hunny have gone ahead to Washington, DC in search of other survivors. Alone and vulnerable, Maya and Ben begin a final and treacherous journey north in the hope that somehow the secrets locked inside Ben’s blood will finally free the world from the grip of the Red Plague.
I shoved open the door of our borrowed VW Bug and stumbled into several inches of gritty beach sand. Past a craggy dune, the Atlantic Ocean burst upon the shore. Over and over, undaunted. Behind me, Ben curled in the passenger’s seat, his long legs bunched to his chest to fit the cramped interior. He hadn’t woken when I drove hell-bent across fields and marshes to escape Camp Carson. He hadn’t woken when the car stuttered to a stop, empty of fuel, on the Virginia beach. And he didn’t wake as I stood over him, chewing at my bottom lip.
Smart had done more than lie about extracting my dad’s antiserum from Ben’s blood. He’d drugged him. Among other things. He might not wake up, not completely, until morning. Four hours or more.
He needed help, first aid, possibly a doctor, but all he had was me.
I searched up and down the beach. If a pack of quick-footed red zombies, sufferers of the 212R virus, found us, we had no protection except the car. So, not much protection at all.
“I’m going to search the trunk.” He didn’t answer, but talking to someone, anyone, made me feel better. “Okay, Ben?”
He flinched at the sound of my voice. The sedatives he’d been fed hadn’t worn off completely. I grabbed his hand so he’d know he wasn’t alone anymore. Reflexively, he squeezed back, his fingers twining with mine.
In the storage compartment I found a raincoat, but no emergency flares or forgotten bottles of sports drink. Certainly nothing useful. I tossed the coat into the back seat with my gear and then closed the trunk.
“Don’t worry,” I told Ben, “we’ll be fine.”
We probably weren’t going to be fine. Not alone and unprotected.
I turned toward the sound of the surf. “I just need a minute to make a plan.”
The whitecaps looked and sounded exactly the same as they always had. With all the chaos in the world and all the changes that had hammered down upon the human race, it didn’t seem right the ocean kept rolling across the earth, oblivious.
“I’m scared,” I signed at the horizon, my hands stuttering through the motions. Really, really scared.
But the surf kept washing upon the beach in a slow, quiet rhythm. Tempo adagio. Like a hymn. I hummed a counter-beat, and the sad melody I couldn’t shake returned.
Way down here … I disappear.
The water was black as tar with the occasional silver reflection of starlight from overhead. I tried to stay out of the surf, but it was tricky in the dark determining the tide’s reach, and cold salty water splashed over my sneakers.
“Aw, crap.” I didn’t have spare shoes, which only reminded me that my survival knowledge was nil. I knew how to run, hide, and disinfect. That was about it. Because I came from a family of technology loving city folks, not rugged survivalists. For the millionth time I wished my dad hadn’t left to finish his antiserum for 212R. He may not have been able to teach me about hunting or shelter building during the apocalypse, but at least I wouldn’t have spent so much time alone.
But if Dad hadn’t left, he wouldn’t have finished the elixir and Ben would still be a Red. My dad had wanted his work to mean something. To help people. And it had saved Ben.
So, it was worth it. I just wished I had both of them, Ben and Dad.
I glanced over my shoulder, but the compact car was a shadowy shape across the sand. More than anything, I felt alone. For the first time since the plague it wasn’t a pleasant sensation.
Night stretched and lengthened, seeming to last forever.
Where was Pollard?
I shouldn’t have pushed to separate our group. I should have fought to stay together, but I’d been so sure the four of us—Pollard, Juliet, Hunny, and I—would be too visible, too loud, too obvious, breaking into Ben’s locked room. I’d argued to be the only one to pull off the rescue mission.
Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea because everywhere I looked I saw only sand, water, and sky.
Pollard should’ve been on the beach.
But he wasn’t, and I had no way of contacting him. 212R had infected so many people, and so quickly, there was no one left to run water, trash, and electricity services. No GPS, no cell phones. Wherever he was, he was out of my reach.
I walked south, but didn’t catch sight of my friends. Or any human beings at all. Not even a single house or a forgotten beach umbrella. Pivoting, I marched north as far as I felt comfortable. Off in the distance I recognized roofs and a white fence. But that was it. No Pollard, no Hunny, no Juliet, and no sign they’d been anywhere near there.
Thirst drove me back to the car.
As for supplies, we were pathetically undergeared. In my backpack I carried my personal belongings, a canteen of water, some snacks, and a couple changes of clean clothes. An extra-long screwdriver. My short sword, a fully functional replica from the Lord of the Rings films that had been my dad’s before the red plague. And the golden-hued guitar Ben had given me.
Definitely not enough to build a secure shelter and hunker down for days.
Depending on the temperature, my water supply might only last twenty-four hours. The same for the snacks.
And with Ben not in his right mind, everything fell to me to do. Except I wasn’t any good at taking care of other people. I was okay at caring for myself, but awful at taking care of others.
I opened the driver’s side door and reached between the seats for my pack and the canteen inside it. Because of the tiny interior I was forced to get very, very close to Ben. I tried not to disturb him, but my ribs brushed his arm. He snapped awake, and I squeaked in surprise, banging my head on the roof of the car.
“Maya?” he exclaimed, and then he scampered out of the car on all fours into the soft sand.
“It’s me,” I confirmed, climbing out and massaging the top of my head.
“What happened?” He used the car to push himself upright.
“We escaped from Camp Carson,” I explained, glossing over the rough parts. Like the fire. The torture chamber. Unstrapping him from a gurney.
He turned in a circle, scanning the area, and then pinned his intense red eyes on me. “Are you okay?”
“I’ve been better.” Muscles and joints I didn’t even know I had ached. I stretched my arms over my head, and my spine crackled like pretzel rods. “How do you feel?”
He was standing and alert, and he had color back in his cheeks. All good signs.
“I’m okay. How far are we from the base?” He squinted down the beach.
“I drove about fifteen miles-an-hour for two hours.” Camp Carson was southwest of Richmond, but after traveling north and east I could no longer picture our location on a map. We definitely weren’t near any big cities. “The car’s out of gas. I haven’t seen or heard anyone.”
“Where’s Pollard? And Hunny?”
I kicked at a clump of grass. “They left a hole for us to go through. I stayed behind to get you. We said we’d go straight east and meet on the beach.”
“Did you go straight east?”
No. I had messed up. I should’ve forced Ben onto his feet and gotten us through the trees the night before, but I’d been so scared I’d wanted to get as far away from Smart as possible. He’d tortured Ben for days in his locked room, and I was scared he would follow us and recapture Ben.
And because of it, we may have lost Pollard and Hunny for good.
“There were woods to the east,” I said. “I drove north until I found beach access. I guess they went a different way.” Or, worse, went back to rescue us. If they had, they could be locked in Ben’s old prison.
“Was there a backup plan?” he asked.
“Meet at the Washington Monument. Pollard thinks there might be people there.”
Ben blew out a long breath. “Have you seen any sign of them at all?”
“I searched while you were sleeping. I walked up and down the beach but I didn’t see anything. Not even a piece of trash blowing in the wind. It’s too dark, but if I turn on a flashlight I might attract trouble.”
“I need some fresh air.”
I bit my tongue to keep from saying, “We’re already outside. How much fresher can the air get?”
But he was determined and wobbled across the sand to the edge of the water. Just as I had done, he inched too close and wet his boots. Except he didn’t jump back like I had. He stood in the surf and let it wash over his feet.
A memory of him strapped to a gurney in Smart’s barracks room flashed in my mind. What had they done to him?
After he’d injected my dad’s antiserum, I’d been so sure the right thing to do was get him to a doctor and pull the answer to reversing the red plague out of his blood. But Smart had lied to me. I’d thought Ben was being cared for by the residents of Camp Carson. But as soon as they’d closed the door on him, they’d started the horror show. They could’ve done anything to him in there. Surgery. Amputation. Complete exsanguination.
One thing they hadn’t done was extract the cure.
“Are you okay?” I asked hesitantly, afraid to spook him. I stepped closer, itching to feel his brow for fever, but I didn’t dare. Not with him so unsteady.
“Stay away from me,” he gasped. ”For God’s sake, Maya, just stay back.”
I moved away so quickly I nearly tripped and fell on my butt in the sand. But I steadied myself and then kept a healthy distance between us.
Ben’s expression was tense as he turned toward the churning surf. “I don’t like being tied up,” he growled. “They tied me up. Do you understand?” He sucked in a ragged breath. “It was like being in lockdown in Dogwood.”
The Dogwood Juvenile Detention Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The one Ben had been sentenced to. The same one my twin brother had been inside when the red plague hit.
Mason had been incarcerated when he was fifteen and ordered to serve time until his eighteenth birthday. A milestone he probably would never make. We didn’t turn eighteen for three more months. If he hadn’t escaped before 212R spread, then he would have been trapped inside the jail when chaos erupted. Theoretically, he could still be inside.
I shivered. “Can you walk?” I asked. Silly question. Ben was in no condition to walk. He could barely stand. “Nix that. I’ll get you some water. You need to drink lots of fluids. Fruit would be nice.” I was babbling like an idiot. We didn’t have fruit. We were lucky to have clean, drinkable water.
“Here.” I tossed the canteen at his feet so he didn’t have to touch me. Or smell me. “Drink.”
Whatever progress he’d made in the last few days seemed lost. He was just as unstable as the first day after injecting the elixir.
“It’s not safe here.” He took a long swallow from my canteen, and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Carefully, he straightened his heavy boots, then the cuffs of his trousers, and then the sleeves of his black T-shirt. Finally, he rearranged his dark hair. “We have to keep moving.”
“No.” One thing was obvious. Some awful stuff had gone down in Smart’s so-called lab and Ben had regressed to near zombie status. “It’s two o’clock in the morning. We should stay here and sleep. At dawn, I’ll forage in the woods.” I glanced at the Atlantic Ocean rolling away from us. “Maybe I can even fish something.”
“You said Pollard is going to Washington, D.C.?” He frowned as if piecing a puzzle together. “Then we have to follow him.”
“What? No.” I advanced a step, and then reversed trajectory. “Sorry. I mean, you need to rest from,” I eyed him up and down, “whatever happened. We don’t have to rush into another trip.” Because I wasn’t even sure if Pollard was in D.C. Or okay. Or alive.
“You came back for me.” There was a growly resolve in his voice. “I will take you to your Pollard.”
“He’s not my anything,” I said quickly. “And you’re not ready to go on another road trip.”
“You should be part of a family, Maya, even if it’s not your own family.”
I huffed a laugh. Where had that come from? “I’m fine by myself,” I assured. “Besides, I had a family. They’re all dead.”
But Ben had stopped listening. “Is D.C. north of here?”
“It has to be.” There was no way I’d passed it during the night.
“Please pack our stuff. I just need another minute.” He plopped onto the sand again, pressing his palms against his eye sockets.
“Headache?” I guessed.
I left him in the sand to collect my backpack from the car, as well as my guitar and short sword. By the time I closed the Bug’s door, Ben was back on his feet.
“I’ll follow you.” His pace would be my pace, even if it meant slowing to a crawl.
Without saying a word, he lifted the backpack right off my shoulders and walked up the starlit beach, veering away from the water where the ground was firmer and easier to navigate. I jogged to catch up.
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