I stopped when we reached the Interstate, taking my time to review the navigation screen before proceeding. The idea of trying to bull our way through herds of infected really concerned me. I was also worried about where they were coming from. Were more people starting to turn, or had these been stumbling around the countryside and just now were starting to converge on the city? If these were freshly turned, we might be too late in trying to get the vaccine manufactured and distributed.
“What are we doing?” Rachel asked.
“I’m trying to figure that out. I’m concerned about trying to push on in to Little Rock to get to the highway that will take us to the air base. If there’s more people turning, it could be as bad as some of what we went through in Nashville and Memphis.” I answered, checking the mirrors to make sure there wasn’t something sneaking up on us. Couldn’t just worry about people any more.
“Besides swine and birds, are there other animals that humans share viral infections with?” I asked.
“Swine, birds and primates are the big three we commonly hear about, heard about, but almost any mammal has the potential. Think about anthrax – cattle. And that’s just one example I can think of right off. There are whole fields of study dealing with Zoonosis, the transmission of diseases between humans and animals, and I got maybe a tenth of one percent of it in medical school. I do know that we also have to worry about insects, potentially. Think of all the diseases that mosquitos and fleas transmit. Diseases that won’t jump from an animal to a human through casual contact, but the bite of an insect transmits it quite effectively.”
“What about dogs?” I asked, getting a wet nose shoved against my arm when he thought I was talking to him.
“Anything’s possible,” Rachel answered slowly, turning in her seat and reaching out to rub Dog’s furry head. “There are several viral infections that can be passed between humans and dogs. You just don’t hear about them because most people in America keep their pets and themselves clean and vaccinated. But yes, it’s possible.”
“Sorry I asked.” I said, looking at Dog and starting to worry. He’d killed countless infected by tearing out their throats. That meant lots of infected blood in his mouth. There was no way he wasn’t exposed. “I’ve got another syringe of vaccine I brought for Jackson. Should we give it to Dog?”
Rachel looked out the window, thinking, then shook her head. “I don’t think so. The little bit I know about viruses and vaccines – well, I think it would be as dangerous to use a vaccine on him that was developed for humans as not vaccinating him at all. In fact, many human vaccines are human immune system specific and would kill a dog.”
“So what the hell do we do about the infection going the other way, to animals? Anyway to stop it?” I asked.
“Maybe, with a concerted effort by a top tier research team, unlimited funds and manpower. In the world we’re in? It’s going to spread throughout whatever animal can host it until equilibrium is reached.”
“What do you mean? Equilibrium?” I asked.
“Until the infection rate is 100%, or so close as to not matter, and the population of infected stabilizes. Some of the population will die. Some will survive. Some will be naturally immune. All of that will have to work itself out, and man no longer can do much of anything to affect the outcome.” She said, turning in her seat and looking out the rear window. “Whatever we’re doing, we’d better do it soon. We need to get to some shelter. Looks like another round of storms is coming.”
Turning and looking, I did a double take when I saw a green sky. How the hell does that happen? But, Rachel was right. We needed to get somewhere safe. I had been delaying making a decision because I was tired. Tired of running and fighting. I needed about 12 hours of sleep and a hot meal. But I didn’t see that happening anytime in the near future. Oh well, time to move forward.
Stepping on the gas, I once again headed west on I-40. Soon we caught up with the small herd that was moving in the same direction. They were spread out across the roadway, but looked thinner on the eastbound side. Slowing, I drove across the grassy median and up onto the pavement, driving against oncoming traffic. But there wasn’t any traffic, only infected bodies turning at our approach.
I slowed to less than 20 miles an hour, hoping the impact of multiple bodies wouldn’t disable the Lexus or cause the air bags to deploy. Steering, I tried to contact as many of them as I could with the corners of the bumper. The bumper was tall enough to strike most of the infected just below their hips, and the ones that were hit by the corners were sent spinning away into the crowd, knocking others off their feet.
There were a few infected in the herd that looked like they had been wandering around for some time, but many of them were clean and wearing clothing and shoes that were in good repair. Freshly turned. A couple of the males even still had rifles strapped to their bodies. Thank God they were no longer intelligent enough to know how to use them.
“You seeing the ones that look new?” Rachel asked, holding her rifle tightly as she stared out the windows at the herd.
“Yep. Not good news.” I said, turning the wheel to avoid a particularly large concentration of bodies.
The herd had looked small when we approached from the rear, but as we kept pushing forward it became obvious that there were more infected than I had anticipated. They were spread out more than I had become accustomed to, and as a result I had misjudged their numbers. I was starting to get more than a little concerned. I had expected to be through the herd and on clear pavement by now, not encountering a denser concentration as we progressed.
Their numbers seemed to quickly increase as they responded to the sound of the straining engine. The herd started collapsing in on us from all sides, females leaping onto the running boards and pounding on the side windows. I couldn’t see the far edge of the herd and decided this had been a bad idea. It was time to get us out of there before we got swamped and immobilized. If that happened it would only be a matter of time before they were able to smash their way inside the vehicle and spoil our evening.
Spinning the wheel I gunned the engine, less concerned about the air bags than I was with getting us clear of the herd as quickly as possible. Rachel was staying quiet, but Dog was whining and growling, moving from side to side to snarl at females that were hanging on to the Lexus with their faces pressed to the glass. I pushed harder on the accelerator, shoving bodies aside and under us.
The engine was straining to keep moving us through the crush of infected, and we were slowly losing speed and momentum. Fists pounded on the body and glass of the SUV, the sound nearly deafening. I kept my foot on the gas, worrying about being brought to a stop the way the herd in Los Alamos had stopped the MRAP. Fortunately, before that could happen the crush began to thin, the constant thump of the bumper striking bodies easing as we gained speed.
We quickly reached the rear edge of the herd, which was now becoming the leading edge as they turned to pursue. In the mirrors I could see the solid mass of males stumbling along in our wake, dozens of females racing ahead of the main body to chase after us. Five females still clung to the exterior of the Lexus and as our speed passed 50 I started swerving as hard as I felt I could without risking a roll over of the top heavy vehicle. This succeeded in dislodging two of them, but the remaining three clung to us as tightly as barnacles.
Pushing our speed to 80, I warned Rachel to brace herself, checked to make sure Dog was seated, then stood on the brakes. The vehicle’s nose dipped dramatically and the brake pedal vibrated under my foot as the ABS system kicked in. First one, then the other two females went flying, all of them tumbling down the asphalt to our front. As soon as the third one lost her grip I took my foot off the brake and floored the accelerator. I ran over one, smashed one aside and completely missed the third as we roared towards the approaching storm.
“You’re getting good at that.” Rachel commented.
“Too damn much practice.” I answered with a smile.
We quickly left the infected behind, but were heading the wrong direction. The Lexus’ headlights came on automatically as we lost more light to the setting sun and heavy clouds. The entire horizon was dark, the overcast swollen with rain. Lightning continually flashed, lighting the clouds from within. With a couple of miles between the herd and us, I pulled to a stop to take another look at the navigation system.
There weren’t a lot of roads in the area. A few small tracks that cut through the agriculture that dominated the landscape, primarily for the use of farmers. That was it. West of Little Rock it appeared to change dramatically, but between the city and the river, farmers had taken full advantage of the rich soil of the floodplain.
The only route that might help us move on west was to backtrack 20 miles and take state highway 70 that ran south for a few miles before turning and running into downtown Little Rock. With a sigh I selected this route on the screen and accelerated to the east.