River Of Night – Snippet 27
Loki continued to watch as Green studied the map and traced several roads eastward. After a bit Green spoke over his shoulder.
“Now, be a good man and pick us out one for after dessert,” Green said, his eyes never leaving the object of his study. “Maybe the one with the lovely eyes. Drug your choice well. I don’t feel like wrestling.”
Loki grinned at his boss’ shoulders.
The job did have some satisfying perks.
Reaching for the easily visible carrion floating just out of reach, the zombie lost its footing on the steep rock covered shore along the dammed reservoir and tumbled into the water.
“Back in the day, I never thought that I’d get sick of the view across the river,” said Mike Stantz. “But I have to say, I’ve had just about enough.”
The days of dressing sharply were well behind senior Tennessee Valley Authority officer. His jeans were stained, his work shirt wrinkled and his boots were muddy.
The few remaining TVA staff were secure inside the fence line at the hydroelectric facility or ensconced in neighboring Spring City.
The dark green Tennessee River lapped gently along the inside face of the dam. Bodies bobbed along the dam wall, herded by the consistent breeze and riding buoyantly as an inevitable result of decomposition. Downstream, migratory seabirds wheeled and dipped, white plumage flashing as they fed on bait fish that were stunned by the impellers that powered the mighty generators.
Enough infected fell from the dam roadway or tumbled into the lake upstream to ensure that the supply of dead bodies was refreshed, despite the scavenging ranks of infected that patrolled the riverbank in full view of the concrete observation platform that jutted out from the shore-side lockhouse. One infected, weakened by hunger, was trying to crawl out of the water while fending off another, more powerful zombie who was drawn by the splash.
“I’d say, ‘eww’–” Brandy Bolgeo replied, “but watching a zombie drown doesn’t even make my gross-a-meter twitch anymore.”
Each dam along the river included a large canal lock which could be flooded or pumped out to raise and lower river traffic, such as barges and tugs. Before the Fall, this arrangement connected the Tennessee River westwards to the Ohio and Mississippi, and southwards directly to Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico. Even though river traffic had fallen precipitously during the economic slowdown, each canal lock still had accumulations of barge trains and tugs which had been stranded when the lock system ceased operations.
The long expanse of visible shoreline was dotted with moving shapes, all of them infected who searched the riverbank for food. In front of their vantage point, the hale zombie first pulled its weakened cousin from the water, and then attacked from behind, burying its teeth in the soft flesh of the neck. The matted beard of the attacking infected suddenly ran with dark red blood.
“Yep, but just when you think it’s over,” Stantz said with the merest hint of humor, “they step it up a notch.”
“Is it… um?” asked his team mate.
“Dinner and a date, apparently,” Mike said as he implacably observed the grotesque scene. “Happens.”
Below, the feeding infected was simultaneously attempting to copulate with its prey. Biological incompatibility didn’t appear to be an inhibitor.
“Ugh,” Brandy said. “I wish we could just shoot them all.”
“Not enough bullets in the world,” Mike said, turning away. “We had thousands of rounds of ammunition, sure. We used most of it just clearing the small part of Spring City that we held onto, never mind trying to clear the dam or any of that.”
He pointed towards the cooling towers of the nearby Watts Bar nuclear generating plant. The wispy white condensate which used to hover over the towers was missing. Quiescent, the towers were a mute reminder of the power of the Fallen civilization.
“Do you think anyone is still alive in there?” Brandy followed his glance.
“Maybe.” mused Mike. “There hasn’t been external communications in months. The diesels went quiet almost two months two months ago. There hasn’t been a catastrophic nuclear accident or believe me, we would have known it by now. We didn’t see anyone on our last foray into their equipment yard for that rough terrain crane. No one has come out, and the grounds are crawling. But they lasted long enough to do their job and shut it all down.”
The Watts Bar and nearby Soddy Daisy nuclear plants had been part of an extensive power generation infrastructure along the Tennessee Valley. As far as they could tell, the dam that they protected was the only remaining operating plant within any knowable distance.
“No, the nuke plant is fine, it’s the dam I worry about,” he continued, fretting. “The maintenance is going undone because we can’t get to the parts that need attention.”
He looked at the dam lock, which in normal times was used to raise or lower barge traffic between the upper lake and the river below the dam. The lock motors had seized during the confusion surrounding the early Fall. That same confusion had damaged a lot of the exterior bits of infrastructure, like the crane that adjusted the critical trash racks. Large coarse screens that fit into grooves along the upper side of the generator house, the racks kept over sized logs and well, trash, from entering the dam intakes and damaging or worse, fouling the turbines themselves.
“I can live with a dinged turbine blade,” he said, gesturing angrily. “But a fouled assembly means burning out the windings and rotors. They’re the heart of the dam. If we lose those, there’s no point.”
Brandy followed his gestures, pensively cupping her chin and calculating the risks, as best she could.
Zombies didn’t swim, or least wouldn’t swim very far. Corpses had begun to accumulate in the raft of debris along the upstream face of the dam. Occasionally, one of the mostly naked, bloated corpses would sink. At flood, a turbine drank in sixty thousand gallons of water a second. And there were five of them, although only two were at risk. When each corpse hit the turbine it was moving at thirty miles an hour. The turbines that spun the mighty generator would burp a dirty cloud of offal into the spillway downstream, gladdening the migratory seabirds which had previously relied on a less frequent diet of small fish.
“So far, so good, right?” she finally asked. “The deaders are mostly naked and the turbines haven’t even hiccupped.”
“For now,” Stantz replied darkly. “Not forever. Come the rainy season, were going to get a lot more debris and the turbines can’t digest a tree.”
“I can’t believe how many infected there are,” Bolgeo said, wondering aloud to distract Stantz from something that they couldn’t chance. “And we’re only seeing a fraction of the horde.”
“They’re filtering in along the shore from the metro area,” Mike replied, referring to nearby Chattanooga. “We are effing lucky that it’s nearly sixty miles away or we would’ve been over run in the first few days.”
“We’re damned lucky that you started getting us all organized when you did, or no one would have lived this long,” Brandy replied. “The power has kept us alive. It’s the only thing that made it possible.”
Stantz had used his authority and remaining staff to isolate and reinforce the dam’s critical components, including a small landing area that they used to beach their boats. Roads remained impassable, but Spring City was a brief boat drive away.
Much further downstream, the fall of Chattanooga had finally been precipitated by a sudden mass of refugees pouring along the I-24 from Nashville. Overnight the infection rate had shot through the roof. Hardy communities east and south tried to block roads with varying degrees of success. Stantz’s early preparations had paid off tremendously. Key among them had been cutting State Route 27, the principal road from Chattanooga into the immediate area of the nuke and hydro plants.
“Such as of us that are left,” Mike said grimly. “We lost two more Springers yesterday. Old lady Johnson insisted on feeding her ‘family’ and she fell off the container wall into the infected. Jimmy leaned too far trying to save her and was snatched off.”
“What was she thinking!” exclaimed Brandy. “Just… damn it.”