Razor Mountain — Chapter 4.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with a new chapter published every week. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

There were three or four of everything in the storage room, which meant that Christopher had a limited range of random clothing sizes to choose from. The largest pair of boots was about a size too big, but the rest of the boots were far too small. He found one of the heavy overcoats that fit well enough and a pair of gloves that were perfect for him. Then he grabbed a tinderbox and a hatchet and made his first real excursion outside the bunker.

The radio was still the most likely way to make contact with the outside world, but he had no idea what frequency he was broadcasting on, what frequencies anyone was likely to be listening on, or what the range was on the damn thing. The only transmissions he had heard were from the cycling numbers station, and if they were hearing him, they weren’t acknowledging it. A multi-pronged approach was in order. He would try other signals.

First, he shuffled to the nearest group of pines and chopped off the lower branches, looking for a good mix of dead wood and green. He heaped it up in the rocky, open space between the bunker door and the lake. Then he collected a large pile of dry pine needles. He criss-crossed small bits of deadwood over the needle pile.

He still had sharp pains in a variety of joints when doing almost any physical activity, but it felt good to be outside, and he thought his troublesome right leg felt a little bit better. He was sweating under the overcoat after fifteen minutes of chopping and hauling.

The tinderbox was a little wooden box painted gray-green and labeled in stenciled white letters. When he opened it, he found several strips of black cloth and two pieces of metal. Christopher had never used flint and steel, but he had assumed that one would clearly look like metal and the other would clearly look like rock. These were both rectangular metallic pieces of slightly different proportions. He had to scrape a few edges between them before he got them to spark.

Once he understood the basics, it was surprisingly easy to produce a cascade of sparks with the flint and steel. He tried to light the little pile of pine needles, but a cold wind was gusting across the open space, and the needles only smoked and smoldered. He piled the wood next to the needles, as a bulwark against the wind, then stood on that side as well. Already sweaty, he was getting uncomfortably hot striking the flint and steel over and over. The wind was icy on his neck and face where his clammy skin was exposed.

He had wanted to save the little scraps of fabric that were obviously intended to be used as kindling, but the needles refused to light after several minutes. He finally took a scrap of the black cloth out and draped it over the needles. It only took a few tries for the sparks to light it, creating a tiny, fluttering flame. With the flame going, the needles caught fire more easily, and soon he had a decent little fire going.

“You thought this would be easy,” he muttered. “You didn’t think about how you’ve never done any of this before. You’ve barely been camping. Flint and steel starts fire. Wood burns. Easy, right?”

He placed several dry branches onto the pile as it crackled and sizzled. The needles were consumed in less than a minute, and the pine branches were burning well, but much more quickly than he had expected. The wood he had cut would only last a few minutes, and he had built the little fire a hundred feet from the trees.

“You’ve got to plan these things step by step,” he said. He threw the rest of the dry wood onto the flames, and stacked a few pieces of the green wood with intact needles on top, in hopes that it would burn more slowly.

He hobbled back to the copse, finding an untouched tree to hack at. He glanced at the fire as he worked, worrying as the flames dwindled. He chopped quickly and haphazardly, and returned to the much-diminished fire with an armful of wood. He sorted out some of the dead branches and threw them on to get the fire going again, then began to arrange the rest of the wood over it.

He had hoped to get a good fire going, then use the green wood to create thick smoke for a signal that could be seen by any nearby towns or passing aircraft. However, the wood was burning too fast and not generating that much smoke. The plume blew away in the wind before it could get very high. The attempt was clearly a failure. He’d just have to treat it as a test run. He would need an improved plan for the next time.

He would need more fuel. The fire ate through the skinny pine boughs much more quickly than he’d anticipated. He’d want to look for something that made thicker smoke. The fresh needles and green wood produced an unimpressive amount of gray smoke that would be hard for anyone to see against the dull clouds or snowy peaks. Finally, he would need to do something about the wind. It would help to wait for a calmer day, but Christopher didn’t know what typical weather was like up here. For all he knew, the wind always blew like this.

The problem with the wood was that he had already hacked away a lot of the lower branches from the pines close to the bunker entrance for his failed fire. He would need to go further afield, to the trees ranging further down the lake shore. He would need to do some scouting, which was fine because he had already intended to walk around the lake and get a better sense of his surroundings. He needed to determine conclusively where the bunker was on the map (or if it even was on the map).

He felt his energy ebbing. A slow walk around the lake had seemed reasonable first thing in the morning, but now he wasn’t so sure. He would definitely need a more manageable solution for hauling the wood if he was going to chop more and bring it further for another fire.

The sun was getting high in the sky. Christopher went back to the bunker and looked for some food that he could take with him. There were shelves in the pantry that appeared to contain various kinds of field rations. A few were labeled “MRE,” but many of the packages were inscrutable. He found a box of bars in vacuum-packed plastic that were pliable and made from some kind of reddish-brown, greasy, granular substance with more colorful bits embedded. He guessed they were some kind of granola bar, or a very odd piece of jerky. Either way, he grabbed two and went back out.

There was a tall, lonely birch among the pines that he had used for his fire, and he found a thick, sturdy branch to use as a walking stick. He began trekking down the shoreline.

The beach was mostly gravel — sharp little shards of rock — and Christopher found it easier to walk further back from the water, where the rocks gave way to hard ground, scrubby grass, and occasional shrubs and boulders.

Once again, Christopher was struck by the desolate beauty of the landscape around him. There were no planes overhead; no signs of people whatsoever. He barely even saw animals. Occasionally, a sparrow or chickadee would hop between nearby branches or be visible picking at half-frozen berries in a bush. Christopher saw a flash of movement in the needled carpet beneath some pines, but couldn’t identify the animal. Otherwise, the only sound was the wind and the faint lapping of the water.

Time passed. He had no way to measure it exactly, but the sun was descending. With mountains all around, the horizon was high, and the sun set quickly. He felt himself slowing down, and his right knee was tightening up. He knew he was pushing his body more than was smart, but there was some sort of freedom in moving, in being outside instead of trapped in the stone-walled bunker.

He wouldn’t be able to make it around the lake before sunset, so he decided to take a break. He found a small boulder with a flat top and took a seat. He took out one of the sealed bars and opened it. It had a faintly salty smell, not unlike bacon, with a fruity tang. It didn’t smell rotten, but it was a little musty.

He took a tentative nibble. It was greasy and a little meaty, like a sort of ground-up jerky. The brighter bits turned out to be some kind of fruit, maybe dried cranberry. If someone had asked Christopher whether he wanted to eat ground jerky with berries a few days earlier, he would have replied with an emphatic no, but now that he tasted it, it wasn’t awful. Not exactly a treat, but after a morning of exercise in the cold, it was energizing.

The sun dimmed behind a fluffy pile of cumulonimbus clouds, and Christopher could feel the temperature drop a few degrees as he finished the strange bar. The living landscape painting surrounding him was drained of its color, leaving a world of the same gray-green that was so prominent inside the bunker. Heavy flakes of snow began to fall.

Christopher had already been thinking about turning back, and the snow immediately confirmed that decision. The food reinvigorated him, but his injuries ached more after the brief pause. The snow fell thicker, and soon the world was reduced to a bubble around him as the blowing flakes reduced visibility. The snow accumulated, and the ground grew slippery. Several times his foot slid, and he was grateful for the walking stick to help prop him up and avoid twisting any of his already damaged limbs.

He began to worry that the snow would alter the landscape enough that he would lose track of the bunker. It would be ridiculous to find this safe haven against astronomical odds, only to lose it after a short hike. However, he recognized the trees he had chopped when he came upon them, and the remains of his fire were still a black smudge in the fresh snow.

From there, it was easy to find his way back to the cliff and the embedded hatch. He tapped the code into the keypad and went inside, where the air felt over-hot after the stinging wind and sweating in his overcoat. He stripped off his outer layers and set about making another dinner of rice and beans. If he wasn’t rescued soon, he would have to do a proper inventory of the available food.

He sat, and the uncomfortable couch was blissful. He ate, and the simple food was amazing. He jotted a few notes in the notebook and unfurled the map again, but he had little more to add to his knowledge of the surrounding landscape. Tired and full, he sank into a daze. He thought he ought to do something useful, perhaps try to determine if the radio signal jumped frequencies in a predictable pattern. But he didn’t want to. He was worn out. He was in pain. It was warm in the bunker.

Half-dozing, he felt as though he were drifting outside his own body. In this dreamy state, he watched himself laying back on the couch, doing nothing. He could see backward and forward in time. He glimpsed the insane jump from the plane and the fall into the lake. He saw a smear of future moments, hiking around the lake, lighting signal fires, tuning the radio for meaningless signals.

He felt his heart constricting in his chest. This place was safe and warm, yes. There was food, perhaps for years. There was no immediate danger, no impetus to push him. He saw further back into his life. When had there ever been any impetus? He drifted along the path of least resistance. He was boring and safe. When had he ever taken chances?

He fell into his own body again, waking with sudden adrenaline. He heard his own breathing, shallow and fast. His chest was tight. He clung to the couch. He had the frantic feeling that the stone walls were pressing close. The bunker was a safe, secure prison. It would be easy to stay here, to wait on others to find and rescue him. But his plane had gone down under strange circumstances. They might not be looking.

The easy path would be to wait for whatever would come. Maybe he would be rescued within a week. Maybe he would be trapped for months or years, and eventually run out of food. He knew himself. If he let his guard down, it would go that way. He needed to plan. He needed to do something.

He got up and tried to slow his breathing, still feeling like he might be having a panic attack. He brought the notebook to the radio and scanned the channels. Frustratingly, he couldn’t find the signal at all. Either it wasn’t transmitting, or he was missing it. It was dark outside now, and the overhead lights dimmed to a flickering lamplight glow.

He gave up on the radio and stood, wincing as pain flashed through his right leg. The wood chopping, the hike, and the cold had been too much. Or perhaps it had been the dream-induced panic attack that had tensed his whole body like a single muscle. In any case, his body would limit what he could do for days or weeks to come. He would have to be more careful or risk slowing himself further.

He limped to the bunks and lay gingerly in the bed, still fully clothed. He felt nearly as tired as he had when he had first collapsed in the bunker. He was dirty and sweaty and smelled of fire and pine needles.

He lay there, his eyes too heavy to open, his limbs too heavy to move. But he couldn’t sleep.

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