I didn’t know much about razorbacks, but what I did know scared the hell out of me. They are faster and stronger than any human, generally nasty tempered, and with their sharp tusks I now understood how Gabbert had been taken down and eviscerated so easily. But the question was, had we stumbled into them, or were they hunting us? I didn’t think the hogs were predators that would come after a human. As far as I knew they would just defend their territory, but I didn’t know enough about them to understand why they had killed him and come after me.
They stood there staring at me, blocking the road. The largest one was closest to me, and his head was lowered as he made a popping sound with his mouth. I could see foam forming along his lips and splattering onto the black pavement. If this was a dog my first thought would have been rabies, but I wasn’t so sure that’s what was going on.
Rifle sighted in on the leader’s head, I reflected that I had the same problem now that I’d had with the bear I’d encountered in Tennessee. The M4 rifle does not fire a heavy bullet. Certainly wouldn’t be my choice for trying to take down a 300 pound wild hog. Or three of the damn beasts. With my thumb I checked to ensure the fire selector was set to burst, then decided to try something a little more devastating.
Moving slowly so I didn’t trigger an attack, I reached to a pouch on my vest and pulled out a grenade. Carefully I pulled the pin and let the spoon release into my hand rather than spin away and clank across the pavement. As soon as the spoon came off the actuator I started counting. At three and a half I tossed the baseball sized explosive at the razorbacks. I was too damn close for this, but I needed a knockout punch on the half ton of pork that looked like it was ready to charge.
I followed the grenade with my eyes, trying to time my move with its arrival on target. I had tossed it underhand with a high arc so it would come down in the middle of them. If I had timed it right it should detonate a couple of feet above the ground. Optimal placement for a fragmentation grenade. Unless you’re standing within the damage radius of the metal fragments that would be propelled outward faster than the speed of sound when it detonated.
Dropping to the ground a fraction of a second before the grenade exploded, I successfully avoided the jagged metal that whizzed overhead, but was still pummeled with the concussion of the blast. And deafened. Popping up I snapped the rifle on target. One of the razorbacks that had been standing to their rear had taken the worst of the damage and lay on the road dead. The grenade had apparently gone off just a few feet in front of its face, destroying the animal’s head.
The second hog from the rear writhed on the ground, squealing in pain. I couldn’t see the extent of his wounds from where I lay, but he was down and no longer a threat. The largest one, the one who had been foaming at the mouth, had damaged hips and rear legs, but was dragging his badly bleeding body in my direction with his front legs. I pulled the trigger and pumped three rounds directly into his face. He spasmed once before collapsing to the ground, dead.
One of the lessons I’d had beaten into me in training was to not relax just because the enemy in front of you is neutralized. That lesson had been reinforced a few times in combat over the years. Now it was automatic, and I quickly got on my knee and scanned behind me. Finding nothing, I stood and walked slowly to where the last razorback was sprawled across the asphalt, writhing and squealing. I stopped a few feet away and looked at him.
Fragments of the grenade’s casing had apparently severed his spine and also torn open his body on the side facing the blast. As he thrashed about, blood and body fluids gushed out of the rent in his abdomen. He saw me standing there looking at him and began trying to drag his shattered body across the pavement to attack me. As he moved, his head turned and the sun shone brightly on his face and for the first time I got a good look at his eyes. Blood red. Just like an infected human.
I was stunned. Rooted to the spot in horror at the thought of the infection spreading to animals. I had idly wondered earlier about the possibility of birds being infected, but hadn’t thought about pigs. I should have. The swine flu has been a problem for as long as humans have been keeping and raising the animals. Now a virus has jumped the other way? That’s just marvelous.
Firing a single round into the animal’s head, I moved to check the other two. I was dismayed when I pulled back each of their eyelids and saw the same red eyes. What the hell did that mean? Were they going to hunt us the same way infected humans did? I still didn’t know if this whole encounter was because we had stumbled into their territory, or if they had been stalking us.
I didn’t think an animal like this would stalk. They weren’t predators the way a wolf, a big cat or a bear are, and stalking wasn’t part of their nature. But was it now? And were these male or female? I stepped to the back of the biggest razorback, and using the toe of my boot raised one of its rear legs. It, he, had an enviously huge set of balls. A quick check of the other two revealed they were both female. I guess slow and stupid was exclusive to males of the human race.
Reminding myself to not get caught up in over analyzing things, I stood and checked the area around me. Still clear. For the moment at least. Were there more of these waiting for me? Putting those thoughts aside I resumed walking toward the truck stop. I was on high alert, moving slowly with my rifle ready to go, but I made it to the far end of the field without encountering any more of Miss Piggy’s cousins.
I was downwind from the truck stop and could smell the bodies well before I got there. I reminded myself to not only watch for infected, but also keep an eye out for razorbacks and aggressive scavengers. It was to the point that I was ready to shoot anything that moved.
The truck stop was massive. There was no other description for it. In front were 20, slightly elevated islands with four gas pumps per island. To the side, 10 islands with two diesel pumps each. The building was all glass, half of it shattered out and twinkling in the afternoon sun. Peering inside I could see what looked like an only slightly smaller version of a shopping mall. Aisle upon aisle of merchandise stretched farther into the structure than I could see.
Dozens of bodies littered the floor inside, several more lying on the concrete apron between the pumps. They all appeared to have died a violent death and were in various stages of decomposition. Some were bloated with gasses, others already having ruptured, spilling their gelatinous contents onto the ground. A few hadn’t started bloating yet and I guessed they had only been dead for a day at the most. Definitely no longer than that in this heat and humidity.
Insects were everywhere. Flies. Ants. Beetles. More than I had ever seen, all busily consuming or laying eggs in the rotting flesh. Checking closer, several of the fresher bodies showed injuries consistent with what the hogs I’d just encountered could do. Legs and torsos slashed open. Throats ripped out, ribs crushed under the weight of the heavy animal as they’d probably stood on their victims to finish them off.
Well, that answered one question. The razorbacks hadn’t been defending territory. They were actively aggressive. I could only hope they’d be as aggressive with infected humans as non-infected. I made another slow scan of the area to check for any approaching danger. All I saw were more bodies in the motel parking lot. Then the missing piece struck me. No scavengers other than insects. There should be crows and vultures and other birds. Coyotes too, and possibly even domestic dogs that had gone feral. None of the bodies showed any sign of having been fed on. Where the hell were the scavengers?
Deciding I’d seen enough, I started looking around for transportation. The first thing that caught my eye was a silver Shelby Cobra Mustang with a fuel nozzle still sticking out of its filler neck. I took one step in that direction before stopping myself. I wasn’t here to find a car that would be fun to drive, and I didn’t need one that could go fast. I needed something tough and practical.
I turned a slow circle, looking at vehicles, but also checking my surroundings. Nothing was moving and I spotted a ride that suited my needs. A brand new Lexus GX SUV sat at the farthest fueling island. Walking over I took a second look around, but it was the only four wheel drive vehicle in sight. Bending as I approached, I checked under to make sure nothing was lying in wait, ready to grab my ankles and yank my feet out from under me.
Looking in the window I made sure there wasn’t a decomposing body waiting for me. Seeing nothing, I opened the driver’s side door, gratified when the melodic tone of an alarm started up. The keys were in the ignition. I took another look at the rest of the interior before reaching my arm in and turning the key. It started easily, engine noise barely audible even standing outside. The gas gauge read full. Thankful the owner had finished filling up before whatever had happened to him had happened, I hopped behind the wheel and pulled the door shut behind me.
The seats were leather, as were most of the surfaces inside, other than the thick carpet that was immediately stained by my filthy boots. Air conditioning came on automatically. A moment later soft jazz started playing. The luxury was almost surreal after weeks of running, fighting and surviving. Shaking my head I played with the touch screen in the middle of the dash until the music was shut off then found the navigation and brought up a street map. A dot pulsed in the middle of the screen, marking the big vehicle’s location.
Shifting into drive I pulled out of the truck stop and followed the map until I reached an entrance ramp that would get me back on I-40 east. The Lexus accelerated smoothly and rode like there was only glassy smooth pavement beneath the tires. I had never driven a Lexus before, always having had an aversion to Japanese cars, but I had to admit this was nice. But give me a kidney busting Ford four wheel drive any day. This damn thing was too nice to ever think about taking off road. Well, not any more I guess.
Within a couple of miles of getting back on the Interstate I saw a vehicle approaching. I slowed and rolled down the tinted window so I could get a good look at it and the occupants. It was an old Ford Bronco, filthy with mud. There were a couple of cleaner spots and it looked like it was painted orange. The Bronco slowed as well, and I looked across the median, meeting the driver’s eyes. He looked back at me, as did the man sitting in the passenger seat. The driver nodded a cautious greeting. I nodded back, then we passed each other and continued in our directions of travel.