River Of Night – Snippet 28
Almost ten percent of the people who contracted H7D3 pulled all the way through without turning. Mrs. Johnson had been one of the few older people in nearby Spring City who had weathered the virus’ flu symptoms. Many of her extended family had lived as well, but as mindless carnivores who prowled the edges of the wall formed by shipping containers that Stantz’s crew has emplaced during the early, desperate days of the Fall. Behind the barrier sheltered a small oasis on the edge of Spring City. Extending to the lake shore, it ensured that Mike and his few remaining technicians could commute by boat to check on the dam and the power house. By traveling after dark, they minimized the number of infected attracted by movement.
“She was thinking that she needed to take care of her people,” Mike said, shaking his head. “And even though she died doing it, you can bet that someone will continue the practice. Christian charity, etc.”
“There are still enough of us to protect the plant, the switching yard, the town and keep us fed,” Brandy said flatly. “But not if we keep losing people. How long do we hold on? And what if the number of zombies goes up?”
It really wasn’t a question, but Stantz answered anyway.
“We hold for as long as it takes,” Mike said, scanning the area again. He ignored the growling and wet tearing sounds originating in the disgusting scene right in front of them. “As long as we have to. And I’ve got some ideas.”
Downstream the water was briefly stained an unnatural color and the terns rose into the sky again, screeching happily.
Paul Rune picked his way through the local high school, scavenging for Kohn’s prioritized items. The heat and insects had already had their way with the people that had died inside, so the smell wasn’t too bad. He carefully didn’t examine the classrooms other than to ensure that none held live infected. Though school had been evacuated well before the Fall there were plenty of human remains, and they were somehow especially eerie in a school setting. Behind him, his wingman lagged, though he held his pike at the high ready, blade angled up and ferrule nearly dragging on the blue tiled floor.
“Jackson, move up,” Paul ordered the townie in a low tone of voice. “All we need on this sweep is to confirm there aren’t any infected and see if we can locate the school dispensary.”
“This place gives me the creeps,” mumbled Jackson. “I had a nephew that used to go to school here. Haven’t seen him since.”
“I’ll say I’m sorry for your loss later, when I mean it,” replied Paul in a very soft tone. “Just now I am a little too focused to give a shit. And you should be too.”
The former intel analyst scanned the hallway and held up one hand.
“Okay, hold up.”
He slowly eased forward to look left and right at the hallway intersection. The one story school appeared deserted, but they had deliberately avoided making noise in order to conduct the recon without stirring a large number of infected. It was still even money on whether or not they might hit a nest.
Survivors and foragers had both reported that infected would tend to group up in shelters and appear to doze, perhaps saving energy. So far, there wasn’t much understanding on the how or the why.
“I don’t get why we’re looking through a school?” said Jackson, complaining. “We don’t need school supplies.”
“Were you asleep in the briefi– never mind,” Paul said, biting back his frustration. It was up to him to teach these handless cows how to fight and survive. Dammit, Smith should have been here by now. He would’ve organized this mob in a day. Paul stopped moving and let the second man catch all the way up to him.
“Keeping your voice down doesn’t mean whispering like you are in a theater,” Paul said, speaking softly in order to illustrate his point. “Just use a very low volume and pitch so that your voice doesn’t carry. Now the point of our jaunt into this little corner of heaven is to locate and recover medical supplies, so the school dispensary is a target. Second, this place has a shop class, so we can identify tools for a later sweep. Third, we are looking for paper maps of the surrounding area. Lastly, we are checking for survivors and measuring the density of infected.”
“And another thing, fuck this spear shit,” his wingman said, persisting. “We have guns, why are we using freaking spears?”
“We don’t have unlimited ammunition and guns are loud. Loud equals zombies. Like your voice. Now shut it.”
So far, they hadn’t found a thing, including any infected. Paul was feeling pretty relieved.
Naturally, that meant that it was time for a zombie.
A bank of open wall lockers and trash broke up the infected’s profile, so Paul almost missed the first stirrings as it turned its head, spotting him.
This one must have been a football player. The tall, long haired male was gaunt, but huge muscles still padded its shoulders and arms.
“Pikes!” Paul ordered, taking three long steps forward. He used the momentum of his charge to bury his spear in the infected’s throat, socketing the weapon all the way up to the crossbar, fully eighteen inches past the needle sharp tip.
The zombie didn’t get out more than the beginning of a querulous growl before it choked on its own blood and dropped, clawing at the pike shaft.
“Whataya waiting for?” Paul asked forcefully as he kept his weight on the infected, pinning it to the floor. “Put your pike into the head and finish it!”
Even as the townie moved up, Paul heard another growl, this time from a classroom a door down.
From the bench seat, Risky could see the back of Tom’s head.
She’d spent the day during the flight from the disastrous reconnaissance with her arms around the newest addition to their group. She’d finally persuaded the girl to share her name: Elpis Ambrosio â€“ Elf for short. The gradeschooler had sobbed quietly into Risky’s ribs, her face pressed into the rough cordura fabric of the older woman’s plate carrier. Eventually Elf fell asleep and rather than risk waking her, Risky held still, braced against the inside of the car door. She carefully avoided looking at the rear view mirror, avoiding any eye contact with Tom.
She felt as though her heart had been torn to pieces.
It ached for the little girl’s fear and pain, which resonated with Risky. The refugee had obviously lost her family. She’d been traumatized by her capture, however brief. Finally, she was thrown among strangers. Risky could empathize, understanding precisely what Elf felt as only another survivor could.
Risky was grateful for the temporary preoccupation of caring for the girl, because it distracted her from the second stab to her heart. The one time mobster’s moll had bonded with Durante strongly, as only comrades who’d shared danger could. His patience, his counsel and his obvious allegiance to Tom made the loss of Durante hurt all the more.
Durante had been special.
Perhaps most of all, her heart broke when she remembered the look in Tom Smith’s eyes when she’d pointed out the inevitable, that they had to leave Durante behind. And she knew that Tom blamed her for the fight. From their first meeting she’d acknowledged his attractiveness. In the months since, she had come to see Tom as a paladin who was holding firm to his oath of allegiance, heedless of cost and alternatives, well past the point that any reasonable person would persist. That quality had saved them all.
She didn’t just want him, she respected him. Knowing that he felt her responsible for Durante was an intense, painful ache. Acknowledging that he was right doubled it.
Still, she knew that her decision to save the girl was the right one. There hadn’t been any good decisions available. Durante himself had said that the best definition for combat was a fight where one could do everything right and still die.
The enemy always got a vote.