Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.
Morning came. Once again, Christopher remembered snatches of dreams. Snow and mountains and a dark, maze-like cave. He ate without tasting his oatmeal. He stretched, feeling only the slightest twinge in his knee. Two packs and the makeshift sled were re-packed and ready by the hatch.
He sat at the table and stared at the map, then at the copied section in his notebook. He jumped as the monotone female voice came onto the radio, spoke a dozen numbers, then disappeared to another channel. There was nothing left to do, but something kept him from stepping outside.
He folded up the map and notebook and stowed them in one of the packs. Then he stood facing the hatch.
It was the feeling that he was leaving for good. This strange place had started to feel comfortable. It was hardly an ideal home, but it was an anchor in this foreign place; this insane, illogical situation that he found himself in.
He might find something better or something worse. He might get lost and die in the wilderness. He was used to a simple, uncomplicated life, as devoid of risk as he could make it. Stepping outside felt like it might be the riskiest thing he had ever done.
The hatch handle rotated smoothly under his hand. It fell into place with a thunk, and the hatch swung open. Cold air and a swirl of fine snow blew inside. The sky was a uniform gray, but it was bright outside. The sled slid out onto the snow, the second pack secured to it. The weight of his main pack settled on his slightly stiff shoulders. Without any sense of having made the choice to, Christopher found himself standing outside the closed hatch, ready to depart.
He took a deep breath and began to walk.
The footprints and sled tracks from his test run were still visible, if a little muddled by the blowing snow. It was cooler and less sunny, although he still had to shield his eyes from the snow glare after the shade of the bunker.
He had found a red burlap sack in the storage room of the bunker, and cut it into strips. One of his pockets was stuffed with them. Once he was far enough away that he could no longer see the bunker entrance, he stopped at a nearby tree and tied one of these ribbons to a low branch. This would be his trail of breadcrumbs in case he needed to find his way back.
The blank overcast turned the sun into a vaguely brighter splotch of sky, so it was difficult to tell how much time was passing, or if he was making good progress. He tried to take it easy, but his stomach felt heavy with the knowledge that it’d be a good two-day hike to the next dot on the map. Every time he stopped to tie another ribbon, he also sat for a minute and drank some water. Every other stop, he ate a bite or two from one of the strange jerky bars and consulted the map. It became a hypnotizing rhythm, and the time passed.
His test excursion had veered further south than the route he had plotted to the dot on the map. This meant that he had to eventually veer away from the familiar and head in a new direction. He wouldn’t walk through his previous campsite, although he could guess when he had reached a new record distance from the bunker and the safety it represented. That was the point where it would soon become infeasible to turn around and make it back before sunset.
He planned his route to take him past a shoulder of rock that jutted out from a much larger hill to the north-east. It was hard to tell from the map, but he hoped that it would give him a good view of his surroundings if he could climb it without too much trouble. As it turned out, the side he approached it from was one long slope, and not too steep. It seemed worth a slight detour from the ideal path for the potential view.
Christopher hiked for half an hour to reach the ridge at the top. Despite what his father had jokingly said about his own childhood, Christopher found that hiking uphill in the snow did not, in fact, seem to build character. It just made his calves burn with exertion. He wondered what his dad might be doing right now, but quickly pushed that thought out of his mind.
The other side of the ridge was not a nice slope. It was a collapsed mess of narrow shelves, sheer drops, and steep rocky inclines. The view was also less than he had hoped for. The main bulk of the hill blocked his line of sight to the north-east, which was to be expected. But the land also rose slowly upward in the direction he was headed, toward the mountain with the split peak. He could see that the area immediately ahead was a rich carpet of dark green: dense pine forest with handfuls of straight white aspen jutting up in their midst. The forest ran uphill before flattening for a while, nearly at Christopher’s eye level up on the hill. It was hard to see beyond that, until his eyes reached the distant mountainsides.
He paused, ate a little and drank, and looked at the map. Despite being more methodical and keeping his pace carefully measured, he was making good progress. Maybe even better progress than his test run. His regimen of regular food, water and rest seemed to be paying off.
He was forced to backtrack the way he had come, down the gentler slope, and then around the shoulder, to the place where the trees began to grow closer together. The air under the trees was still, and he had to open his coat collar to stay cool as he hiked in the dappled shade. The snow clung to the branches above, and that meant the needle-strewn paths beneath were easier to traverse.
He didn’t walk far before he realized that the forest posed a serious danger to him. He had very little visibility within the trees. It was hard to even see the closest mountain peaks for basic navigation, let alone see the nearby contours of the land that he could compare to the map. He could maintain his direction fairly well with the compass as long as he didn’t run into terrain that forced a detour, but he would need to get out of the trees and into open spaces again as quickly as possible to make sure he didn’t slowly veer off-course. He didn’t particularly trust his own survival skills.
The massive alien face came leering at him around a tree trunk before his brain could register it. Huge, liquid eyes above an elongated snout, framed by a shaggy beard and broad antlers. Christopher stumbled back, tripping on the crusty snow and falling backwards over the sled and his pack. The pack on his back naturally rolled him onto his side as he tried to frantically disentangle himself.
The creature was a moose. It peered at him, showing its irritation with a groan and a snuffle. It nuzzled into the decaying needles at the roots of the tree, sniffing for something, then raised its head and gave him another sideways glance before meandering away into the woods.
Christopher, finally managing to get his pack off and his feet disentangled, stared at the creature until it was out of sight, waiting for his heartbeat to slow. He had always thought of moose as cute, often soggy, totally harmless creatures. It had turned out to be harmless, but it certainly seemed huge and dangerous when it was suddenly looming over him.
From his awkward position on the forest floor, Christopher noticed something odd hanging from the lowest branches of a nearby tree. It was a shape suspended on a piece of string. He stood and looked around, just to make sure there were no more giant animals lurking nearby. Satisfied that he was alone, he walked over and stood under the thing.
The object was a little bundle with bits sticking out of it. It was definitely tied to one end of a piece of rough twine, the other end tied to the tree branch. It did not look like something that could have come to be there naturally.
Christopher jumped, then jumped again, just managing to grab hold of the thing. The twine was tied to the thin end of a healthy pine bough, and it bent under the pull, but neither the twine nor the branch broke. Christopher held the thing tight above his head while he fumbled with his left hand to find the jacket pocket where he had his pocket knife. Then he fumbled further, eventually using his teeth, to flip the blade out. He reached up and sawed at the twine until it sprung away, leaving the object and an inch or two of string in his hand.
The object was wrapped in twigs and fibers whose source Christopher didn’t recognize. The twine wrapped round it all, holding it together in a sort of pod. Within the pod was a piece of wood, clearly carved into a crude but smooth human figure. It was, without a doubt, something made by a person. Hanging from a tree. In the wilderness.
Christopher looked around again. The trees seemed darker, closer together. He half expected people to suddenly jump from the shadows. Nobody did.
He wasn’t sure how to judge how old the carving might be. Surely the sticks and twine would wear out and fall apart after some amount of time out in the elements. Surely the figurine would dry and crack. It seemed relatively new, but did that mean it was a week old? A year? Five years? He wasn’t sure.
While it felt like some monumental finding to Christopher, it did nothing to change his plans. He still only had one place to go, and standing in the woods staring at the thing wasn’t going to get him there. He checked both of the packs to make sure that nothing had been damaged when he fell. Then he secured the sled, hoisted the other pack onto his back, and set out again, looking for a good place to set up camp before it got dark.