Razor Mountain — Chapter 11.1

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

Christopher awoke, aching and feeling like he hadn’t slept at all. Light was just beginning to suffuse the sky. The world was blanketed in knee-deep snow that had settled in layers: dense near the ground, fluffier and lighter above that, with a hard crust on top that broke apart under his feet. The net result was exhausting to wade through. He was grateful to have his snowshoes. He wouldn’t get anywhere trying to trudge around in boots.

He packed his things, eating one of the jerky bars as he worked. His brain shifted into planning mode. He had packed extra supplies, but he had also expected to be at his destination by now. The storm and his detour chasing shadows in the forest had not helped him stay on schedule. He knew it was foolish to expect anything to go to plan when he was alone in the wilderness and so inexperienced, but his general sense was that everything was going poorly. If he didn’t find anything of value, his return would take longer than the outgoing journey. If he really wanted to plan for the unexpected, he was well past the point when he should turn around and go back.

However, he was close, perhaps only a couple hours away from the dot on the map, assuming he was correct in interpreting his surroundings. He could see that the land rose to the north. There was a hill there that looked like it rose above the treeline. He would make that his first destination.

He broke camp while the sun was still hovering at the horizon. His snow shoes distributed his weight enough that he mostly didn’t crack the crust of the snow, and he made good progress until he got to the steeper, rockier crown of the hill, where he had to take them off and scrabble his way up. At the top, he found that he did have a fantastic view of his surroundings. The low sun splashed rosy color across the snow-covered landscape.

The forest grew sparse on the other side of the hill to the north-east, which was the direction he wanted to travel. It opened up into the familiar flat, boulder-strewn terrain he knew from the area around the bunker. Further afield, a pair of small lakes flashed in the light. They looked to be iced over, but the snow had blown over them in drifts, and there was bare ice in the middle. They matched a place on the map that was further east than Christopher had expected, but that put him even closer to his destination than he had thought.

He descended with more confidence in his location, if not in his choices. He traveled over slight rises and descents, with only occasional trees and rocks to break up the monotony. He chose a path around the lakes. It would be a gamble to test the ice, and the edge of the water was hidden by the snow. If he took the path between them, he might very well not know he was out on the ice until he fell through.

The sun still showed late morning when he began to think he was close to his destination. Now came the tricky part. There were no particular landmarks close to the dot on the map. The contour lines were unlabeled, but Christopher thought they probably showed either twenty-five or fifty feet of elevation difference. If the second dot was a bunker like the one he came from, it could be hidden in a fifteen-foot-high escarpment and not show up on the map.

He began to walk slower and meander back and forth. The terrain looked about the same as it had all morning. A small entrance might only be visible from a specific angle or vantage point. His bunker door hadn’t exactly been hidden, but it would certainly be easy for a traveler to overlook.

When the sun reached its zenith, he stopped to eat and drink. His life consisted now of the study of trees and rocks. Nothing else interesting presented itself. His supply of homemade red ribbons was running low, but he decided to use them to demarcate his search area.

He tied them as high as he could on half a dozen trees, to create a rough perimeter. He found himself glancing skyward more and more, all too aware of the passage of time. He hiked to a large rock that stood somewhat close to the center of the area he had marked off. The land was flat. He could see each of the trees with ribbons in the branches from this vantage point. There was no structure. No big cliffs or changes in elevation. If there was something to find here, it was hidden under the snow.

Christopher imagined hatches set flat into the ground, or in some narrow crack that wouldn’t be visible until you came right up to the edge. He knew it was time to turn around and start going back. It was time to give up this ill-conceived plan, do his best to get back to safety, and try to come up with a better one. But he kept searching.

It was mid-afternoon when he slipped and fell hard onto his left side. As he rubbed his bruised elbow, he was thankful that at least he hadn’t landed on his injured leg. Then he felt the ground beneath him. At first, it felt like yet another boulder, picked up thousands of years ago by some glacier, and then placed back down in the long, slow retreat northward. But the flat surface of this rock was oddly pitted. When he scraped away the snow, he saw that it was an aggregate of fine rocks embedded in rough gray substrate. Worn and buried, but easily identifiable as concrete. He used his collapsible shovel to clear more snow.

This had clearly been one large slab at some point, but it was now broken into several pieces, each one meters long. They weren’t flat, they were embedded in the ground at slight angles. In many places, they were blackened or large pieces appeared to be missing.

Once he knew what he was looking for, he began to find more pieces scattered further out from the broken slabs. He went back to his viewing rock, not too far distant, and looked at the area he had excavated from the snow. There was a slight depression there, perhaps only a foot or two lower than its surroundings, although it was hard to tell beneath the snow. There had definitely been a structure here. Perhaps a doorway to something underground, with an angled descent to a hidden entrance?

For a few minutes, Christopher was lost in the exhilaration of the find. It felt like he had accomplished something entirely by his own wits and effort, and in spite of conditions that were far from ideal. That feeling faded quickly as he thought about the implications.

It was a ruin. Whatever had been here was now destroyed. By the looks of the charred concrete, it had been done thoroughly and on purpose. The damage didn’t look recent. But who would put these structures out here, and who would go to the trouble of destroying them? Some sort of military testing ground? Rich people building fallout shelters in the wilderness, and then changing their minds? It only added more confusion to his vague ideas about the intact and well-stocked bunker he had come from.

He sat on the central rock and unfurled his map. He marked an X over the dot with his pencil. Equidistant from him now were the bunker (the dot furthest south), and another dot to the north.

He thought he ought to feel something; anger or disappointment. He felt numb. There was some daylight left, but he unpacked the tent and set it up next to the big rock at the center of his search zone. He opened his pack and took out supplies. It was clear that he had been lying to himself. He had less food than he thought. At the rate he had been consuming it, it wouldn’t last the entire trip back to the bunker. Less than half of the rice and beans remained, and he had only five more jerky bars.

He made a fire and cooked a smaller portion of rice and beans. He refilled his water bottle, cleaned his utensils and packed it all up. It was routine now.

As the sky darkened, he got into the tent and tried to go to sleep, but sleep wouldn’t come.

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