We had only been driving for about half an hour when I spotted black smoke in the distance, directly to our front. Rachel had fallen asleep, my hand firmly grasped in hers. Dog was stretched out on the plush leather seat in the rear. He was snoring like a sawmill going full bore, lying on his back with legs extended straight out. He looked comfortable and I wished I could join him.
My hands ached from the wounds of being nailed to a cross in Tennessee, my chest still hurt where I’d been shot in Georgia and I was bone tired; my only sleep in the past few days a couple of naps on the hard decks of aircraft. That was fine when I was 21. Kind of sucked now that I’m not a kid anymore.
When it became apparent the smoke was coming from something burning either on or immediately adjacent to the Interstate, I woke Rachel. She sat up, rubbing her eyes and looking where I pointed ahead. Something with a lot of petroleum in it was burning. I could tell that much from the density and color of the smoke. I lowered our speed, and now at the limit of my vision I could see bright, orange flames on the shoulder of the road. Slowing further, I kept approaching; reaching down to make sure my rifle was ready to go.
A quarter of a mile from the fire I brought us to a stop. A vehicle lay on its side on the right shoulder, completely engulfed in flames. I knew it hadn’t been burning just a few hours ago. We had already passed the Black Hawk I had abandoned, which meant I’d flown over this stretch of the freeway. There definitely hadn’t been a fire then, or we would have checked it out.
Nothing was moving, and I decided to transition to the eastbound lanes to give the furiously burning vehicle a wide berth. The Lexus navigated the soft soil in the median without much difficulty, then back on pavement I drove a sedate 20 miles an hour as we pulled abreast of the wreck.
“That’s the Bronco I told you about.” Rachel said, staring out her window at the fire. I thought so too. The shape was right and there were a couple of small areas not yet blackened where I could see what looked like orange paint. “There’s nothing else around. What do you think happened?”
“Maybe a blowout at speed.” I mused. “Or some kind of mechanical failure that caused them to lose control. Or maybe one or both of them turned while they were driving.”
Rachel looked at me, the horror of the thought clear on her face. I shrugged my shoulders to say it was all just speculation. Maybe it was something as simple as vehicle failure. It didn’t really matter and once we were clear of the heat from the fire I drove back across the median and sped up to 80. The Lexus did a good job of smoothing out the road, and was well insulated and quiet. Within a few minutes Dog started snoring again, Rachel’s eyes closing shortly after that.
We had moved beyond the path of the previous day’s storms and as Little Rock drew closer the terrain changed from flat to rolling and I started seeing more trees. There was also a pall of smoke hanging over the area, held down by the heavy cloud cover. I had seen what was being burned to generate all that pollution, and knew I didn’t want to smell it. Playing with the SUV’s controls I got the air conditioning set to recirculate the interior air rather than bring in outside air. I’ve smelled burning human flesh before, never mind where, and I wasn’t eager to experience it again.
Passing a couple of large truck stops that were dark and abandoned, I slowed when I spied walking figures a few hundred yards ahead. They were on the roadway, and appeared to be moving towards the city. Braking to a stop, I raised my rifle and used the scope to look at them. I made a mental note to get my hands on a pair of binoculars. Now that I was west of the Mississippi, the country really opened up. There was a lot of flat terrain without trees, unlike east of the river, and I wanted to take full advantage of being able to see threats at a much greater distance.
Through the scope I could tell these were infected, and there were too many to count. Certainly not a massive herd like we’d fought in Murfreesboro, or seen during our escape from Tennessee, but still more than I was willing to encounter in our luxury, soccer mom machine. The Lexus was comfortable as hell on pavement, had a decent four wheel drive system for tame off-roading, but it was far from the tank-like protection I wanted before driving into a herd of these damn things.
I messed with the navigation system as Rachel continued to sleep. Dog had wakened when I’d stopped and shoved his head against my arm looking for attention. Giving him a quick neck scratch I focused back on the map display. A couple of tweaks and I spotted us, discovering we were 18 miles from Little Rock. Hoping we were close enough, I fished an earpiece out of my collar and inserted it in my left ear, powering up my radio.
I made four calls on four different military frequencies, but didn’t get anything in response. I hadn’t really expected to reach anyone, but it had been worth a try. Leaving the radio on, I worked with the navigation screen, looking for a bypass route that would get me to Little Rock Air Force Base. There were two options. Continue ahead into the city and turn north on a smaller highway, or backtrack a few miles and take a series of small farm roads. Another look ahead at the small herd and it was an easy decision.
Getting us turned around, I headed east again for a few miles, watching the nav screen and getting off the Interstate onto an unmarked road that ran due north. Following it for a couple of miles, I made a turn to the west and hit the brakes. Some type of giant farm equipment completely blocked the road. It sat on massive tires and was so long each end extended well off the pavement into the muddy fields on either side. There was a large, glass enclosed cab that sat a good 12 feet above ground level.
I had no idea what it was, but had a good idea why it had been parked there. It was a quick and easy, yet highly effective, roadblock. I didn’t think even heavy military vehicles would be able to move it. Rachel had woken when I stopped this time, sitting up looking around.
“Where are we? Why did we leave the Interstate?” She asked, grimacing and reaching down to rub her hip where the vaccine had gone in.
I spent a few minutes bringing her current as I looked around the area. To either side of the road were muddy fields. They looked like they had been harvested and prepared for planting, but the planting had never happened. They also looked like they were nothing more than deep, soft mud. Finished filling Rachel in on our situation I decided to step out and check the ground. From the driver’s seat it looked like the type of mud that would suck the Lexus in all the way to its axles and not let go.
Telling Rachel to stay in the vehicle, I carefully scanned in every direction. Seeing nothing to concern me I opened my door and stepped down onto the road, rifle up and ready the moment my feet touched. Dog scrambled across the center console, onto the driver’s seat and jumped down to go with me. His nose immediately went up and tested the air, a low growl emanating from his chest a moment later. I hadn’t seen anything when I’d scanned the area, but wasn’t about to ignore a warning from Dog. If he smelled something, it was there.
The wind was out of the southeast, behind me. Whatever Dog smelled had to be in that direction, so I turned and put my eye to the scope as I scanned. I missed them on the first pass, black hair blending well with the color of the mud, but caught the movement when they ran onto the road. Two razorbacks. They looked younger, probably no more than 150 pounds each, but still big enough to ruin my afternoon.
They were still several hundred yards away and I had enough time to check the fields. One step off the shoulder and I knew there was no way the Lexus could make it. My boot sank six inches deep into the thick mud, making a wet, sucking sound when I pulled my foot out to step back on the gravel at the edge of the pavement. The big SUV would sink to its frame in this quagmire. I had no doubt of that.
Another check of the razorbacks found them about 300 yards out and still closing fast. I gave Dog three seconds to finish peeing on a small bush, then whistled him into the vehicle. He left muddy footprints on my seat, but I didn’t care. Back inside, I got us moving, careful not to drive off the shoulder as I turned the SUV around. Rachel had seen me peering through the scope at the hogs and knew what was coming.
By the time we were heading back towards the Interstate, the razorbacks were inside 75 yards and showing no sign of slowing. I started to accelerate towards them, then remembered the behavior of the infected humans that would run directly into a vehicle without a thought for their own safety. If the hogs did that, and I had any amount of speed, it could seriously damage the Lexus.
This was a cushy, suburban vehicle designed for trips to the country club, the mall or anywhere you wanted to take along six other people in comfort. It wasn’t armored and didn’t have a heavy push bar like the truck I’d used to get us out of Atlanta. The razorbacks were probably no more than 150 pounds, but couple that with their speed and they could do a lot of damage just by running into us.
I hit the brakes and brought us to a stop when they were 40 yards away. Sitting, I watched them charge, and they weren’t slowing or deviating.
“Put it in park!” Rachel suddenly shouted, making me jump. I started to turn my head to look at her, but she shouted again and I moved the lever that controlled the transmission.
Moments later the lead hog impacted the front bumper hard enough to rock the heavy vehicle. The hood was too tall for me to see what the impact did to him or the Lexus. A moment later the second one arrived, grazing the front fender with his shoulder and causing a horrible scarping sound as his tusk was dragged along the side of the SUV.
I shifted into drive, accelerating, and we bounced over the razorback that had run directly into our front bumper. Maybe he had been dead, or perhaps only stunned, but one of the tires crushed his head into pulp as we drove.
“What was with shifting into park?” I asked, gaining speed and watching in the mirror as the second hog began pursuing.
“Air bags.” Rachel answered. “I was in a McDonald’s drive through a couple of years ago and the car ahead backed in to me hard enough to cause my air bags to deploy. When I took my car in for repairs, the guy in the body shop told me that air bags are disabled if the transmission is in park, even if the motor’s running. Said he always shifts into park in drive through lines. I didn’t know if that hog was big or heavy enough to cause them to pop, but figured why take the chance.”
I nodded, glad she had yelled a warning. Suddenly the Lexus didn’t feel so comfortable. It felt vulnerable. As soon as I could find one, I’d move us to a truck, or preferably a military vehicle. Even though we were only about 30 miles from Little Rock Air Force Base, I had learned the hard way just how difficult it can be to cross 30 miles. Modern life has spoiled us. 150 years ago, 30 miles was a two day journey at best. Now, millions of people commuted farther than that just to go to work each morning. Well, did. Morning commutes were a thing of the past. And 30 miles was once again an adventure in survival.