We made good time, quickly reaching the turnoff for the smaller state highway and getting off the Interstate. It was almost completely dark by the time we turned back to the west and I lowered our speed so anything or anyone on the pavement wouldn’t surprise me. The world around us was dark, no lights to be seen in any direction. Behind us the lightning continually lit the clouds and the night sky, but the storm didn’t seem to be drawing any closer. Ahead, there was a faint glow that I suspected was the lights of Little Rock reflecting off the bottom of the cloud cover.
As we continued to approach the city it became apparent the light we were seeing was from fires. We were too far away to tell what was burning, but this definitely wasn’t the steady glow of electric bulbs. Wrecked and abandoned vehicles were also becoming more frequent, and I had to slow further to navigate around them. I was starting to get a really bad feeling.
Just a few hours ago, flying into Little Rock Air Force Base before continuing on east in the Black Hawk, I had been comforted to note how normal everything on the ground looked. Well, other than the mass funeral pyres, but the citizens had done a good job of keeping the roads clear and mopping up any infected that were stalking around. Maybe all these wrecks had been here and I just hadn’t noticed them, but I didn’t think so.
A couple of months ago I would have never believed an American city could fall apart in a matter of hours, but I now knew better. If a significant percentage of the population had turned, that was all it would take to start an incredibly rapid descent into chaos. And once that descent was started, there wasn’t anything that could stop it.
We kept pushing forward, reaching the edge of the city and beginning to see infected. They were roaming around either individually or in small groups. And they all looked clean, which meant freshly turned. A few were on the road and I avoided them when possible, but had to run down a few to continue our progress forward.
“You should tie me up in the back seat.” Rachel suddenly said.
“What?” I wasn’t sure I had heard her right.
“Tie me up,” she said. “Vaccinations aren’t instant. It takes time for the body to respond to the vaccine and produce enough antibodies to create immunity. You just gave me that shot a few hours ago. If I turn, here, inside the vehicle while you’re driving… well, I’m just saying it’s probably better if you restrain me somehow.”
“Are you serious?” I asked, taking my eyes off the road to look at Rachel. All I could see was her dark outline in the passenger seat, long hair obscuring much of her face.
“I’m very serious.” She said in a subdued voice. “The only thing that would be worse than turning would be killing you or Dog after I did.”
Hearing his name, Dog sat up and stuck his head between us, chin on the center console. Rachel placed her hand on top of his head and starting gently rubbing his ears. He let out a contented sigh and closed his eyes.
“No.” I said. “I’m not tying you up just because you might turn. Hell, I might turn too. I got the vaccine less than 24 hours ago.”
“Yeah, but you’ll be slow and stupid.” Rachel shot back.
It’s not often that I don’t have some sort of comeback, even if it’s a simple “kiss my ass”, but she came out of left field with that one. It was quiet in the Lexus for a couple of heartbeats, then Rachel started laughing. She laughed long and loud, probably picturing me stumbling around like a moron. Her mirth was contagious and I began chuckling, but couldn’t work myself up to the level of amusement she was at.
Our laughter died out instantly when an infected male stumbled into our path. He had suddenly appeared from the shelter of an overturned sedan, probably drawn by the sound of our approaching vehicle. I had enough time to hit the brakes, but was still moving at speed when the right front fender of the Lexus struck him. With a loud bang his body was twisted around and slammed into the passenger door before tumbling to the pavement.
Chastising myself for getting distracted, I dropped our speed further and kept my eyes glued to the road to the front. We were moving into a more built up area, the state highway becoming a four lane street with businesses along either side. More and more infected were stumbling around the parking lots and the frequency of crashed vehicles was increasing. Ahead I could see a large fire, and as we approached I could make out a box truck entangled with a city bus. Both were burning furiously and completely blocked the road.
The infected in the area had noticed us and were all zeroing in on our noise and movement. Several females sprinted towards us from the parking lot of a large shopping center. The power was still on, the area lit by street lights and parking lot lighting, the flames from the burning vehicles adding a surreal quality to the scene.
Glancing at the navigation screen I took the first right, turning onto a smaller street. As I made the turn, the power blinked out, plunging everything into inky darkness. Behind, I could see the glow of the fire, and more fires ahead were lighting up the sky, but without the SUV’s headlights it would have been too dark to see on the street. Infected suddenly began appearing at the edge of the lights, males slamming into the vehicle, females screaming and pacing us.
Ahead the road swept to the left, and as I started into the curve I stepped on the brakes and brought us to a stop. A block to our front the road was straddled by two large apartment complexes that pushed right up to the pavement, and both were burning. It was too dangerous to try and drive between them. The heat would be tremendous. This was confirmed for me as a truck parked on the street in front of the building on the right suddenly exploded in a massive ball of flame.
The females that had been chasing us caught up and began pounding on the outside of the vehicle, males soon shambling into the gaps between them. I shifted into reverse and got us moving, running over a couple of males, dragging more to the ground as I turned the wheel. Retracing our path, I checked the navigation and made a turn before we reached the main road we had followed into town.
This one was even narrower, lined with small houses and the occasional block of apartments. Cars were parked along both sides of the street and there would have barely been room to meet oncoming traffic. Males repeatedly stepped out from between parked cars as we approached, and I held our speed to under 20 so the Lexus didn’t take too much damage from the impacts with their bodies.
The terrain had been climbing for several miles, then we suddenly crested and started down into what had to be a river valley. I couldn’t see a river below us in the dark, but I knew there was a fairly large one that ran through Little Rock. The houses had grown in size dramatically when we topped out, and nearly all of them had large decks that probably afforded fabulous views of the valley as well as the entire city spread out in front of us. As I drove, the image of Bill Clinton relaxing on one of these decks with a cigar and an intern popped into my head.
The city was dark with the exception of numerous fires. There had to be at least three dozen separate locations that were burning, and some of them looked to be quite large and growing. The downslope was gentle in places, severe in others as the road dropped, like it had been terraced. It wasn’t long before the SUV’s headlights reflected off a vehicle that completely blocked the road. I immediately slammed on the brakes and brought us to a stop.
“Ambush?” Rachel asked quietly.
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe it’s a real accident. Either way, I haven’t seen a side road for over two miles.”
In the mirror I could see females approaching, still over a hundred yards away, but coming fast. Males were moving amongst the parked cars, struggling to bump their way through and reach us. If it had been an ambush, I didn’t think it was still manned. There were too many infected in the area for someone to be sitting and waiting for unsuspecting travelers.
“We’re going to try it.” I said, stepping on the accelerator.
Approaching the wreck, I got a better look and it was obvious it hadn’t been staged. A Chevy sedan appeared to have been traveling in the same direction we were when it crashed into a parked car. The front of the Chevy was crumpled and tangled into the side of the vehicle it had hit. Maybe the driver had tried to avoid an infected, or maybe the driver had turned. The other thing that was obvious as we approached was that I wouldn’t be able to push the abandoned car out of the way with the Lexus. The Chevy would just twist around and get wedged even tighter. Shit!
Looking around I hoped there was a way to drive across the front lawn of one of the houses and bypass the wreck, but the houses were built on terraced lots. Each lot was flat, the upslope side of it cut down into the hill and a block retaining wall holding back the neighboring land. This explained the road alternating between steep and flat, and there was no way to drive from one lot onto another. Each retaining wall was close to eight feet high, way too much of a drop for the Lexus to survive.
Out of options, I shifted into reverse and focused on the large screen in the middle of the dash. It had been displaying a moving map with our location highlighted, but when I went into reverse it changed to display the image from the rear view camera. The quality was surprisingly good. Good enough to see the pack of females bearing down on us.
Hitting the accelerator I shot backwards and spun the wheel, reversing into a driveway. A couple of males were bulled aside, suddenly growing large on the screen before being knocked flying by the rear bumper. Shifting back to drive I roared out of the driveway just as the females arrived. Blasting through the pack I was fairly certain I killed or disabled at least half of them, but the remaining ones immediately turned around and continued their pursuit.
We quickly outdistanced them and soon found ourselves back in the area where we had first turned off the main road. The bus and truck were still burning away and the flames had spread to an adjacent two story office building. It was only feet from the building next to it, and it wouldn’t take long for the fire to jump and spread more destruction.
We were out of options. Little Rock, or at least this part of it, was becoming impassable. Not only did we have to worry about being trapped by infected, fire was a very real concern. The more the fire spread, the hotter it burned, heating the air around it. Eventually the air would become superheated and when that happened, anything combustible would burst into flames. This place had less than half an hour at the most before it was nothing more than a large, flaming cauldron. Resigning myself to finding another route, I turned back to the east on the main road and accelerated away from the dying city.