River Of Night – Snippet 46

River Of Night – Snippet 46

CHAPTER 14

Dave Khorbish squinted through the binoculars. His small convoy of Gleaners had not cleared infected as they proceeded, so discretion and sound discipline remained the order of the day. Green had set his team to identifying which crossings of the Tennessee River were open. Or open-ish.

Khorbish was also to identify which dams were intact and where uninfected humans might be clustered.

They had started below Chattanooga.

Wheeler, Guntersville, Nickajack – Khorbish checked dam after dam from his list – either damaged by fire or entirely blockaded by large swarms of infected without any sign of recent human habitation. After a detour around the densest part of the city and despite the danger of being so close to Chattanooga, Khorbish had risked his little convoy to confirm that Chickamauga dam was also a wreck. A shift in the breeze had brought the reek of decomposing bodies, piled along the face of the upper basin, nearly stunning the Gleaner party.

Prior to his departure, Green had insisted that Khorbish study up on hydroelectric power plants in order to be able to report their condition more accurately. Despite their hasty retreat from Chickamauga, Khorbish had still noted the fire damage in the adjoining switching yard, which housed the towers and associated critical equipment such as transformers, rectifiers and regulators.

Shit, if he’d spotted that first, they wouldn’t have had to get so close. Damage to the switching equipment was beyond their capability to repair. Any dam that they hoped to occupy and actually use had to be taken intact.

Further upstream, the next few bridges were clogged with wrecks and human remains. They were also well populated by scavenging infected. Away from the city, the density of zombies dropped considerably, so they were unmolested as they paused to scan the Sequoya nuclear plant from across the river.

Khorbish checked the map again, noting that their vantage point was appropriately named.

Skull Island. Hell, all they needed now was a fifty foot tall gorilla.

“Hey Dave,” his driver whispered in an unnecessarily low voice.

“You can speak up a bit, asshole,” Khorbish said. “The zombies across the river can’t hear you. Whatcha want?”

“How do we know that this place isn’t radioactive?” the driver asked. “That place is a nucular plant, right?”

“Do you see all the live infected?” the convoy boss answered without lowering his binocs.

“Yeah?”

“Well, then there isn’t any radioactivity to worry about, or at least not enough to kill you very fast.”

“Oh,” the driver said, keying on the qualifier ‘fast’. “So we done here?”

“Yeah, let’s cut further north,” Khorbish said, consulting his map. “We can cross this spot off the list. It’s intact, but Boss said for us to check the dams. We don’t have the smarts to run this place yet. Next up is Watts Bar.”

He tucked the compact binocs into his new vest.

###

“Careful with that pallet, Jordan!” Robbins Sr. said loudly. Despite fatigue and irritation he was trying to coordinate the contribution of the newcomers to Spring City.

“I am being careful, Dad!” Jordan replied. This trip she was ferrying a pallet of literally priceless high voltage capacitors.

“She’s doing alright, Robbie,” Kaplan said. “Hasn’t had a spill yet.”

“We can’t afford a single screw up,” Rob said with a glare at Kaplan. “And I know my daughter, thank you!”

“No need to get so crisp,” Kap replied, his hands held up placatingly as Mike Stantz approached from the other end of the TVA assembly building. Essentially a large gray cement auditorium that was adjacent to the fence transformer field, it was where Stantz was turning hoarded equipment into a new weapon.

“Problem?”

Robbins shook his head. “It’s all good Mike. Just keeping an eye on the kids. Howzit on your end?”

“Decent,” Stantz said, taking off his grimy TVA ball cap to scratch his sparse iron gray hair. “We are producing two tested coils per shift. The bottleneck is that I am personally installing and testing each one.”

Stantz hadn’t really asked the Spring City council for permission when he had begun experimenting with Tesla coils as more lethal obstacles to infected. With Brandy’s help, he had completed several prototypes, each increasing in size. However, without the skilled assistance of the former soldiers and a few of their dependents, he could never have assembled so many in the short interval since their arrival a week earlier.

“Is there anyway to have someone else do some of that?” Robbins asked.

“The only surviving engineer with direct experience on the dam and the plant is Brandy,” answered the short TVA engineer. “And I need her here to double-check critical steps in the assembly. Not to mention checking on our power plant, covering the positions of three people that we don’t have.”

“Well, you got us for that, no?” retorted Robbins.

“No offense, soldier boy, but what you don’t know about electrical engineering, generation and distribution is enough to make one of these rigs blow as soon as I put power it,” Stantz said. “Since I’m already handicapped by doing my installs at night to avoid attracting even more infect, you’re invited to guess at my enthusiasm for the risk of lethal electrocution. So, sorry but not sorry.  Brandy or I will recheck each key component and then I do the installs. The toroids that your team are fabbing have a thirty percent reject rate!”

Each coil relied on a large aluminum-coated donut-shaped toroid with a foam core. Installed at the top of each tower, they were the surface from which the lethal electrical streamers discharged. Gross imperfections in the toroids dramatically reduced the length of the streamers from each electrical discharge, and therefore the hypothetical kill radius of each coil. 

“Detkovic is busting his ass, Mike,” replied Kaplan. “The crew’s getting better, but a lot of them are kids. Still, we’ll get them done – hell, we’ll even have some spares in case the bad guys figure out how to disable a few.”

Many of the Tesla coil parts could be readily adapted from stores that Stantz had laid in before infected began to mob the perimeter. Somethings had to be hand made, among them the metal donuts.

And they were fragile.

“No way to make them bullet proof,” Stantz replied. “We’re gonna need spares for sure. As soon as these things fire up, any sane opposition is going to try to shoot them.”

A few test runs using the first models of the Tesla coils had been mixed successes. Kaplan was surprised at the extremely loud snarling generated by the coils when they fired. The gossamer webs of energy were visible even in daylight, but the night time test had really been a visual treat. The down side was that the testing tended to attract more infected. As a result, they only fired them for very brief bursts.

Stantz had been finishing the assemblies during daylight hours but performing the actual installs at night, carefully screening the small amount of illumination required to connect the coils.

The existing design demonstrated the tendency of the coils, over time, to ionize a single pathway through the air. The more that the coil fired, the smaller the area of effect became.

But the coils worked.

Infected tended to simply drop to the ground in jerking piles while their nervous systems were interrupted by the powerful current.  Even if the initial electrocution wasn’t lethal, it was disabling and either subsequent discharges or gunfire would finish off the wounded. For a medium sized group of infected, the growing daisy chain of Tesla coils deployed near Spring City and the dam presented an impassable defense.

A bigger problem was dealing with number of dead.

Stantz used heavy equipment to push bodies into the river below the dam, relying on the current to move the offal a safe distance downstream. It was a messy and ugly business, but the amount of carrion presented a significant risk of disease to the living.

“Alright!” A squeal of tracks accompanied the feminine shout. “Check me out!”

Jordan had successfully drifted the unladen skiploader around a corner, gymkhana style. Her audience of younger teens oohed and ah’ed.

Stantz watched, amused, as the elder Robbins stalked towards his daughter, who in turn immediately moderated her speed and scooted around the corner and out of sight. 

###

“Well, ain’t that some shit,” Khorbish said.

They were on yet another scenic overlook. But unlike the rest whose vistas leaned towards burnt out buildings and dead people, this one was different.

“No holes in the fence,” commented his helper. “And we aren’t the first ones here. There are some car tracks fresher than a couple weeks back where we moved our trucks.”

“Keep the spotters awake.” Khorbish replied. “This place is virgin. They don’t know that we’re here yet.”

The dirty water below the dam foamed brownish green, but it was moving steadily away from the spillways. The chain link fence was still up as far as he could follow it with his binoculars. Further along the cement buildings alongside the switchyard were still closed, and like the electrical equipment visible outside, nothing was blackened by fire.

As the head of the little expedition continued his scan, he identified a boat on the beach, a few infected well outside the fenced area and a series of curious looking constructs, roughly resembling outdoor space heaters.

“I think we’re in business,” Khorbish told his subordinate. “We’ll get closer after dark. Let’s just perch here a bit and see what we can see.”

###

“I don’t care if you can’t see!” Khorbish ordered, albeit very quietly to his companion. “Watch where you put your hands!”

The Gleaner lieutenant was leading one of his least tactically incompetent men towards the most recently added “space heater”. After full dark, he had spotted very small and brief light leaks created when the group of survivors inside the wire, unaware of their audience, worked on another one of the mystery assemblies. They looked like fat umbrellas or space heaters and formed a line stretching towards but not reaching the river. 

If they were adding some kind of barrier or detection system it wasn’t finished yet.

He carried a radio to communicate with the remaining men who guarded their vehicles and the two who had stopped crawling a little ways back in order to provide security overwatch. Not that Khorbish exactly trusted then to shoot over his head once they got excited.

“What are those things?” muttered his subordinate.

They had already crossed the tall chain link fence by the simple expedient of cutting a short flap that could be held out of the way. They had been crawling for several minutes, and the tension was mounting.

“We’re gonna find out. Shut it,” Khorbish said tersely.

“Why don’t we just go back and tell Green what we got so far – why do we have to sneak up through the water, then crawl around and play Navy SEAL?” The whisperer had crawled up alongside his boss so that he could whine quietly. “We’re never going to be as good as that, right?”

The way that this guy made everything into a question was really getting on Khorbish’s last nerve.

He might have to have an accident after the mission.

Still, the man was among the better draftees that were available to Khorbish. He’d trained his group more aggressively than would have been possible at the start, installing a modicum of discipline and weeding out as many as he could afford to, screening out the weakest and most impulsive. Still, none of them were particularly good at planning ahead.

The big blue line of the Tennessee on Green’s map should’ve been a pretty obvious clue.

Khorbish had the foresight to collect swim fins and childrens’ boogie boards during the last few weeks. Even without much time to practice, his picked squad were able to make the slow flowing river an asset, evading infected and any patrols that the locals might have set.

“All the SEALs in the world are dead, you asshole,” Khorbish said in a very low voice, directly into the complainer’s ear. “We don’t have to be better than SEALs, just a little better than the locals. Now shut your face and stay alert, we’re working. Green expects information.”

Distances were deceiving at night, especially to the men who tended to work mostly in the day. Khorbish was surprised when the tower seemed to suddenly loom overhead. He slowly stood and looked more closely at the device.

The amount of starlight was almost enough for Khorbish to read some small printed labels on the tower. He edged forward very carefully, and his foot touched something that felt like a garden hose.

A cable.

The bottom of the assembly was a square that was about an arm’s width wide and deep. It supported a thick tube that was more than head high. Above that was some sort of donut, broader than the base.

“Up close, this thing looks kinda familiar,” the meathead said, reaching out to touch the smooth metal.

“Don’t touch anything, jackass!” Khorbish said, smacking the curious man’s hand down.

###

“Hey, I am getting a wiggle on mount thirty-two,” announced Detkovic.

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