Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.3

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

When the sun was above the horizon, they continued walking. Harold took some jerky from his pack and gave a piece to Christopher and another to Garrett. They walked in silence.

Christopher noticed that Garrett seemed to be scanning the ground as they went, and he finally stopped and picked up a straight stick about three feet long, with all the bark missing. He paused to take a plain white tee-shirt from his pack, and using his pocket knife he cut a square of fabric from the torso with two extra strips hanging off. Then he used the strips to tie the fabric to the stick. Finally, he tied the flag to his backpack so that it stuck up just above his head, hanging like a dead thing in the still air.

He also unloaded the rifle and slotted it onto the opposite side of the pack, through a series of straps that seemed to be designed for it. He pointed to Christopher and looked at Harold.

“Keep an eye on him.”

It didn’t seem to matter much whether Harold kept an eye on Christopher or not, because Garrett also made Christopher take the lead while the brothers walked behind. That meant Christopher would be the the first thing any sharp-eyed resident of the mountain would see, and the first thing they’d be likely to shoot at. Christopher thought about asking if he could wear the flag, but he already knew what Garrett’s answer would be.

“It won’t be long now,” Garrett said to Christopher. “We’ll either run into a patrol or be seen by a spotter. If you want to stay alive, don’t do anything that could be construed as remotely threatening.”

“That’s actually my standard operating procedure,” Christopher replied.

“Cute. If you’ve got any info that we could use to negotiate, now’s the time.”

Christopher shrugged. “Even if I did, wouldn’t it be better for me to hold onto it? Why would you do anything to help me? All you’ve done so far is kidnap and insult me.”

“What helps us helps you,” Garrett replied. “If they have reason to believe you’ve been cooperative, it might make you look a little better.”

“You think they’ll be lenient on the supposed spy who collaborated with the traitorous deserters?”

Christopher glanced back in time to see Garrett’s irritated frown. Harold looked oddly unperturbed for a man who had very recently suggested they might all be murdered before they had a chance to realize what was happening.

Christopher sighed.

“You want real truth? The truth is that, as far as I can tell, all of you have been wildly misinformed about what the outside world is like. Nobody has been very eager to share much with me, but it seems like you think it’s a lot worse out there than it really is. You’re all worried about Russia and I can’t tell if you think the Cold War is still going. I suppose it makes sense, being right next door to them, but you all still seem way too concerned.

“I realize it doesn’t really matter what I say. I’m an outsider, and everyone here has a lot of trust issues. I don’t know whether that’s justified or not, but the fact that your people are on the run from the military and might just go to prison or get shot makes me think at least some of the fear is reasonable. Meanwhile, I’m stuck out here, having been dropped down the shittiest rabbit hole this side of wonderland, and I’m more and more of the belief that I’m going to end up dead because of you. So thanks for that.”

“Just walk.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

They kept walking, a thin, hard layer of snow crunching beneath their feet. Despite the talk of being shot, Christopher couldn’t stop his mind from wandering. The human brain could only keep up the tension for so long in the face of sheer boredom.

“So what’s it like up there?” Christopher asked, pointing at the mountain that now dominated the sky in front of them.

“More like down there,” Harold said.

“What, underground, like that office where your friends were?”

“They’re not our friends,” Garrett said, “and we’re not here to play tour guide.”

“I was friends with a couple of them,” Harold muttered.

“What’s the point of all the secrecy anyway?” Christopher said. “Your people already told me that there’s this base here, and there are certainly enough other buildings littered around here to make even someone as clueless as me start to wonder what’s going on. Other countries must have satellite cameras. These places must be visible in infra-red or something.

“Knowing there’s something is a lot different from knowing what that something is,” Harold said. “You’ve heard of Area 51, right? Everyone has.”

“Sure.”

“What exactly do they do there?”

“Okay, that’s a pretty good point.”

Christopher gave up his questioning and marched in silence for a while.

The trees began to thin out. The land rose in fits and starts, hills piled upon hills, with unexpected little dips and gullies hidden by scrub bushes. They had to find narrow places to jump across or scrabble down and up. A few of these low places had ice at the bottom, and one had a thin trickle of dirty water. Christopher imagined them flooding with snow melt in the summer, the water carving up the land into little puzzle pieces, the inexorable pull of gravity doing its work over hundreds of years. Once again he was captivated by the beauty of this lonely landscape. It felt like a place outside of time, like he could walk these paths a thousand years before or after and see the same things in only slightly different arrangements.

They came up a slope and found themselves on the edge of a wide open, treeless expanse with a clear view of Razor Mountain. Perception was tricky: the roots of the mountain might only be a few hundred meters away, or still miles distant. For the first time, Christopher could see the entire vast mass of rock in all of its glorious crenulations and textures. The sunlight glinted here and there on facets of the rock and gilded the deeper ridges with liquid gold. There was very little foliage visible among the shattered boulders and jutting rock, and the nearly vertical faces made the mountain look almost as though it had burst from the ground in a single violent incident. It was a mingling of dull reds, grays and blacks. The broken twin peak was dusted with snow, but even in the bright sunlight the dull black rock looked as though it had been scorched from above by heavenly fire or some unruly dragon.

Garrett stopped and adjusted his makeshift flag. Christopher saw a meaningful look pass between the brothers before Garrett looked to him and motioned him forward. They stepped out into the open space, completely devoid of cover.

A stiff breeze blew through, whipping and cracking the flag dramatically, then everything went quiet. Christopher felt the tension hang between them. He stepped carefully; his footsteps in the gravel seemed loud. Off to the side, somewhere in the low brush, unseen birds chirped and chattered at one another. The breeze blew over the rough grass in uneven waves.

Christopher felt certain that something was coming, the crack of a gunshot or a shout from some hidden spy. His muscles were tight, vibrating with nervous anticipation. He glanced back and saw the fear in Garrett’s eyes. Harold studied the landscape around them, but he still looked calm. Whatever he thought would happen, he appeared to have made peace with it. Christopher felt a faint pang of envy.

Christopher didn’t see where the soldiers came from. He only saw the sudden change in the brothers’ expressions. He turned, and found himself facing six men in gray-green camouflage, helmets and body armor. They shouted orders as they surrounded Christopher and the brothers, though Christopher didn’t process exactly what they were saying. Something about not moving and getting on the ground, he supposed, because they immediately pressed their captives face-down to the earth. Christopher heard a thud near his head as Garrett’s backpack was removed and tossed aside. The tee-shirt flag lay on the ground nearby.

More voices and footsteps joined the others. Christopher kept his face in the rough, sharp grass, adjusting his position only to avoid getting jabbed in the eyes. He half-expected to hear the sound of gunfire or Garrett making some desperate excuses. But the guns and the brothers remained silent.

After a quick, whispered conversation among the captors, Christopher felt hands firmly grasp his arms and haul him upright. The soldiers weren’t rough or cruel; they exuded an aura of professionalism. This was what they did, and they’d do it efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Christopher saw that Garrett and Harold now had their hands behind their backs as well, bound with black zip-ties. Two soldiers held their backpacks.

The soldiers gathered in a loose formation around the captives, weapons held ready, and they began to march, once again, toward the mountain.

Though he still had a tight knot of fear and worry lodged just below his heart, Christopher couldn’t help a slight smirk at his situation. He had swapped captors three times in as many days, but he was still headed toward the mountain. In opposition to the seasonal flow of water, pulled by gravity toward distant lakes and oceans, Razor Mountain had its own gravity, and no matter what he did, Christopher couldn’t escape its pull.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.2

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

Christopher guessed that they walked for at least an hour after coming outside, though he was sure he was slowing them down. It was harder than he would have guessed to hike without being able to see or use his hands, even with someone else guiding him. His captors must have felt the same way. After another muffled disagreement, they stopped, sat him down on an uncomfortable rock, and unceremoniously pulled the bag off of his head.

The light was so bright after the forced darkness that he couldn’t see anything clearly for a moment. It wasn’t sunlight though, it was the full moon high above them. Christopher was still blinking and squinting away the blurriness when the gag was pulled down and he could breathe the icy air.

“Please don’t shout,” Harold said, “or we’ll have to put it back on.”

Christopher felt something prod him in the side, and saw the indistinct shape of Garrett next to him, holding a rifle.

“Be good, like you have been, and we won’t have any problems. You’re slow with the hood on, and I’d like to go faster.”

It was apparent now that it was just the two men with him. They were stopped next to a cluster of boulders on a lightly-forested low hill. Far to the right, half-hidden by trees, Christopher thought he could see an escarpment, perhaps the foothills of the mountain. It was the same sort of terrain he had come through with Amaranth just a day or two ago, but he didn’t see any specific landmarks that he recognized.

“Where are we going?” Christopher asked. “Why are you doing this?”

Garrett smiled grimly. “We’re turning you in.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that nobody comes here by accident. I don’t know exactly where you’re from or what you think you’re going to accomplish up here, but I’m sure that people on base will be very interested to find out.”

“Well, you’re wrong,” Christopher said. “I’m either incredibly lucky to be alive, or incredibly unlucky to be alive here, but I definitely did not end up here by choice. I don’t know what I can tell you to make you believe me.”

“Nothing,” Garrett said. “Don’t bother.”

“What about the others?” Christopher asked.

“What about them? They still think Ema is going to come up with some brilliant plan to get out of here. She doesn’t know any more than the rest of them. They’ll either be stuck out here, starving until they get picked up by patrols, or they’ll die out in the wilderness.”

“So you’re abandoning them?” Christopher asked.

“They made their choices. Now I’m making mine.”

“No choices for me, huh?” Christopher said.

“’Fraid not,” Garrett said. “Now let’s keep walking.”

They made their way through the forest, the long shadows of the trees slowly shrinking as the sun rose higher in the sky. The two men had packs, and Harold gave Christopher a few bites from a granola bar, but it was just enough to make Christopher acutely aware of his own hunger.

“What’s the point of bringing me with you if you’re just going back,” Christopher said. “You really think I’m that dangerous?”

“You don’t seem that competent to me, but somehow you had everyone else fooled,” Garrett said.

Suddenly, Harold held up a hand. They all stopped, silent, and listened. Harold and Garrett’s heads swiveled as they squinted into the trees.

There was the snap of a branch breaking to their left, and Garrett brought the rifle to bear. After a few seconds there was another sound, like a small animal scrabbling up a tree with sharp claws. The pair let their breath out slowly.

“Maybe we should find someplace without snow,” Harold said. “Throw her off the track.”

Christopher frowned. “You’re worried about Amaranth.”

Harold nodded. “You’ve traveled with her right?”

Garrett shook his head irritably. “Even if feral girl figures out where we left the compound, she’s not going to have time to catch up. We don’t have that far to go.”

They kept walking. They were traveling steadily upward, and Christopher caught glimpses of the mountain through the trees. From this angle, he could clearly see the black crack that split the peak in half, one side slumped, the other tall and sharp like a blade.

It was hard going, and not just because his hands were still bound and his shoulders ached. Christopher realized that when he had walked with Amaranth, she had been navigating the easier paths up the slopes, avoiding the areas of woods with tangled undergrowth, avoiding the areas with rough, rocky ground. Garrett kept them going in more or less a straight line toward Razor Mountain, regardless of minor obstacles.

“You know,” Garrett said, “you’d be better off telling us what you’re really up to. We’re a lot more pleasant to deal with than the professional interrogators on base will be.”

“I told you what I know,” Christopher said. “You didn’t seem like you wanted to hear it.”

“Hmph.”

Christopher thought for a minute. “You know, I think you should be the one who’s worried about interrogators. It sounded to me like all of you are going to be branded as traitors, and I’m guessing they’re going to expect you to tell them all about the others and where they’re hiding.”

“Not a problem,” Garrett said. “I’ll tell them whatever they want to know.”

“Just going to sell out your friends? That seems shitty.”

“Friends?” Garrett asked. “You think we were just out on a camping trip? Ema convinced everyone that the chain of command was lying to us, and that she knew how to get out. She’s a liar. I don’t owe anything to any of them.”

“That’s not what it was like,” Harold murmured, “and you know it.”

“Shut up,” Garrett said. “You’re just like the rest of them.”

Harold sighed. “This is going to go badly.”

“I said, shut up.”

They walked in silence for a while. Garrett was clearly in his own head, getting worked up and irritated. Christopher could see his shoulders hunch as he stalked ahead. He wondered how much he dared to push the man.

“Why are you doing this?” Christopher said quietly, hoping that only Harold could hear.

Harold shrugged. “He’s my brother.”

“Huh. I’m sorry.”

Garrett stopped and turned. “You think you’re going to turn us against each other? You pretend you’re just a bumbling idiot, but I see you trying to get information out of everyone, trying to manipulate them. I don’t know if you think you’re clever, but it’s obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.”

Garrett grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him forward. Christopher stumbled and narrowly avoided falling on his face. He walked in front now, with the brothers a few feet behind, whispering irritably to each other.

Christopher knew that every conversation he had been in with these people, he was, in fact, trying to get information out of them. It wasn’t nefarious. He just wanted to know what was going on. On the other hand, he realized that he had been searching for ways to manipulate the two brothers without really thinking it through. It just seemed natural. They were so different, Christopher thought he might be able to get them to turn on each other. He had never thought of himself as manipulative. Where had that inclination come from?

The next time they stopped to rest, the faint pink light of dawn was beginning to color the sky and lend texture to the mountain ridges. They sat and ate from an unlabeled foil bag of mixed nuts. Harold shared his with Christopher. Garrett, unsurprisingly, did not.

After staring into the sky thoughtfully, Harold looked at Christopher, then at Garrett.

“I think there’s a pretty good chance that the 550th will just shoot us all on sight.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 17.1

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

Christopher woke as someone was pulling something tight over his mouth. A moment later, more fabric slid down over his face. He felt himself choking, unable to get enough air, and he clawed frantically at the cloth, trying to breathe. Hands grabbed his wrists and pulled them behind his back, where they were tied together with rough rope. Without thinking, he bent his neck and rammed his body, shoulder-first, toward the assailant he couldn’t see. He struck a glancing blow and heard a grunt, then lost his balance and fell forward and to the right, landing hard and banging his forehead.

A violent static filled his vision and hearing. He felt like he was plunging into the lake again, sinking into the darkness.

He was being captured, or kidnapped. But that didn’t make any sense. Wasn’t he already captured, already a prisoner among this strange group? Once again, he was overwhelmed by the frustration of not knowing. There was more going on among these people than he had been told. They were obviously afraid of the Razor Mountain people. Maybe they had been found?

The sparks and waves that filled his vision began to fade into more ordinary darkness. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see anything. He realized that he had been pulled to his feet while still dazed, and he was stumbling forward with an unseen hand pushing between his shoulder blades. Another clamped his left arm, guiding him.

He took slow, shaky breaths through the fabric and found that he could still breathe reasonably well. It was only the animal fear of being smothered in his sleep that had made him think he was being suffocated. He could hardly enunciate with the fabric bunched in his mouth, but he tried to shout, to make some noise. It sounded muffled, even in his own head.

“Quiet,” said a familiar voice on his left, and the hand on his back shoved harder.

Next, the hand pushed down on his shoulder, forcing him to bend. He tried to straighten up, only to scrape his head on something above. He bent forward, letting himself be guided and propelled. He thought about the collapsed section of the building and wondered if he was being pushed beneath that low ceiling.

He walked, half-crouched, listening to the scrape of feet and the faint sound of breathing nearby. The guiding hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled back. He found he could stand at full height again. For a moment, there was no hand gripping him. The idea of running or flinging himself away from his captors flashed through his head, but it was nonsense. Where could he go when he couldn’t see or use his hands? He had no idea how many people were with him, although it didn’t sound like more than two or three.

He took another deep breath and tried to calm down. He didn’t understand what was going on. He didn’t have enough information to guess. He had to just accept that. He also couldn’t escape at this point. He had to wait, try to be patient, and look for opportunities.

Although his heart was still beating loudly in his ears (and pulsing in the lump he could feel rising on his forehead), when he stopped to listen he found that he could make out a quiet conversation going on behind him to the left.

There were two voices, both familiar, but one that he recognized right away. It was the low, slow voice of the big man who had been assigned as his guard, or at least his observer. Harold. So he was still with the same people as before. Probably.

Before Christopher could really parse anything they were saying, a hand grabbed the rope binding his hands behind his back and ushered him forward once again. They turned to the left and there was the sound of a door opening in front of him, then closing gently behind him. He felt cooler air on his face, though not as cold as the outside air.

The sound was different here too, the scrape of footsteps echoing as though they were in a bigger space. The voices were whispering again, and this time he could hear snatches of the conversation. The low voice, Harold, sounded like he was arguing with the other voice.

“…bad idea…choice…won’t help…”

Christopher thought he recognized the other voice too. It wasn’t as deep. It was a voice that was irritatingly self-righteous. A voice that knew everything it needed to know, and expected everyone else to come around to its viewpoint. Christopher was pretty sure it was Garrett, the argumentative man from the mess hall who had even managed to get Amaranth riled up.

A gust of wind hit him, and now it was brutally cold. Now it felt like they were facing the outside. He was shoved forward again. As he walked, he was forced to rely on the hand on his shoulder or arm to guide him.

He felt the crunch of snow underfoot, and the subtle rise and fall of the rough ground. He had to concentrate on his steps to make sure he didn’t slip on slick spots or trip on the rocks and grass and whatever else he trod over.

His world of darkness lightened a little, to a deep gray, and he thought that the sun must be rising.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 16

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

God-Speaker woke in the near-darkness of the cave and tasted the cool air of spring. His body was stiff and sore, despite the mat of soft reeds and layers of furs that made his bed. He sat for a moment and studied his hands. He remembered when they had been young and strong. Now they were gnarled. He felt the years sapping his strength. His skin was thinner and looser. Soon he would need to address that problem, but this morning he had more immediate matters to attend.

A fresh group of migrants had arrived with one of his scouts last night. They had spent the night in the woods at the base of the mountain, as was customary, and they would come up today.

He prepared himself and put on his usual clothes, a finely woven robe dyed in a pattern of deep reds and browns, and trimmed in bright yellow.

The mountain was riddled with caves, and God-Speaker could navigate most of them by touch. Only he and his acolytes were permitted in the deeper areas of the mountain. God-Speaker made his way through a series of chambers until he came to a tall, narrow crack that led to the outside world. He stood for a moment and let the morning sun warm his old bones while his eyes adjusted.

From each of the many cave entrances came a path, maintained by the acolytes. They  were cleared of tree branches and the densest brush, but were no more obvious than any natural game trails or gaps in the foliage, unless you knew where to look. Only secret symbols, carved subtly into the trees, marked the different ways. One of these paths took God-Speaker down to the village.

He knew how the voices in the mountain would look at the village: simple, quaint, and unimpressive. Beneath them. But when he looked with his own eyes, it was a small miracle. It was like a much-expanded version of the winter villages of his youth. The pit houses were larger and sturdier. Already, there was a bustle of activity as people ate their morning meals and got about the business of the day. It smelled of woodfire and roasted fish and the rich pine of the surrounding forest.

When God-Speaker walked through the village, the people paid attention. There were no overt signs, but he felt their glances, and the sound of conversation grew slightly more subdued as he approached. How different from his tribe, his people, who had known him since he was a squalling baby and had witnessed his every weakness and indignity. Those people had gone on, he hoped, to those distant snowless lands he had once glimpsed. At least his scouts had never found them.

No, he thought, this was his tribe now. These were his people. They knew him only as the man who spoke to the gods of the mountain, the man who knew things nobody else knew, the secret knowledge of the spirits. He had brought this community together and created a place where everyone was safe and well-fed.

God-Speaker met his scout and the newcomers in the forest, in a place where the sounds and smells of the village were perceptible, but it could not yet be seen. He always insisted on being the one to bring newcomers into the community.

“God-Speaker!” the scout exclaimed. He was called Swift-Over-Snow,  named because he was small, light, and fast, even in deep winter snow: one of God-Speaker’s best scouts.

“Swift-Over-Snow,” God-Speaker replied, nodding. “I hear you have brought us newcomers.”

“Yes, these are our guests,” Swift-Over-Snow said.

God-Speaker and his scout knew that such guests would almost always accept the invitation to stay, but it was better not to presume. The guests would understand that they brought a food-burden to God-Speaker’s people, in addition to the smoked fish and other gifts that the scouts carried and gave to traveling peoples to entice them to make the journey to the village. The village was daunting to newcomers, and God-Speaker made sure to give them good reasons to stay and see everything he wanted them to see.

“Welcome, honored guests,” God-Speaker said to the newcomers as he looked them over. There were ten of them: five adult men, three women, a baby and a child just old enough to stand on his own feet. They were thin and had no doubt felt hunger this winter, but their eyes were bright and curious. One of them, a young man, showed a hint of defiance in his expression, a refusal to be impressed despite the stories that Swift-Over-Snow had no doubt already imparted.

“I know you have not yet eaten a morning meal,” God-Speaker said. “Come, I want you to eat with us. I will tell you about my people.”

He led them through the trees to the village. Ten more people. He needed more people for his plans. He was eager for everything to move faster, but he would need to temper the growth of the community to ensure that it was stable and strong.

The entrance to the village was carefully prepared—a dense wall of pines with a narrow pathway through. It led into the wide clearing where the pit-houses clustered.

God-Speaker stepped out through the gap and indicated everything with a sweeping gesture.

“This is our home.”

He watched each of the newcomers as they stepped out. Their eyes widened in surprise or narrowed with worry. The young child clung to his mother’s leg. It would be far more houses and people than they had ever seen in one place.

To the left of the houses was the lumber workshop. To the right were the stone-workers and other craftspeople. The faint crack of rock-on-rock came from somewhere higher up the slope, where his people searched for metal-bearing ores, flint, and other useful resources.

God-Speaker led the newcomers on a path around the pit-houses. The village of strangers was too overwhelming for some when they first arrived. This path let them look without feeling surrounded or trapped.

The people of the village who passed close knew to nod and politely welcome the guests without lingering or staring. God-Speaker had carefully prepared everything about this first experience.

“How do so many people live here?” asked one of the guests. “Do all of these people travel together in the warm season?”

“This will be our home forever,” God-Speaker said. “Some of us may go out a long ways to hunt or fish or find plants for food and medicine, but we always come back to the mountain. The gods of the mountain watch over us. I have learned great wisdom from them. We have all we need here.”

On the far side of the village, the path led to a long row of steps—flat stones set into the steep mountainside. They wound their way up to a wide plateau that had been cleared of debris and edged neatly with rocks. At the center of the space was a long, flat boulder set as a table and already covered with a feast. There were berries, mushrooms, seeds, nuts and edible roots. There was smoked fish, fresh roasted fish, and venison stew. And there was a sort of flatbread made from ground seeds and baked in a simple stone oven.

“Please, sit and eat,” God-Speaker said, indicating simple log seats set around the stone table.

They sat, some still looking uncertain, but enticed by the food. God-Speaker and Swift-Over-Snow sat at one end of the stone table. God-Speaker tore off a chunk of the flatbread.

“This is bread made from seeds, a food my people love. Many like to dip it in the stew, or fill it with meat and vegetables. Do as you like.”

He ate, again watching the newcomers closely as they tried some of the unfamiliar foods. The voices had shown God-Speaker new ways of cooking and processing foods, including this bread, but it would take many years of careful cultivation to grow crops that would be ideal for flour. Still, this was something the newcomers would have never experienced before.

The plateau was built to offer a perfect view of the village and surrounding forest. The smoke of the fires wafted up from the pit-houses, and they could see beyond, over the trees and down into the valley where the river glinted.

The young man looked out over the village as he ate, and God-Speaker could see he was still looking for reasons to be unhappy. It was amazing what God-Speaker could read from eyes and faces by combining what he knew about people with the things he learned from the voices inside the mountain.

“Why are there gods in the mountain?” the young man asked, as though he had heard God-Speaker’s thoughts, “and why do they speak only to you?”

God-Speaker interlaced his fingers.

“Everything in the world has a spirit. Every rock, every tree, every river. But some spirits are stronger than others. The spirits of these mountains are very strong. They shouted out into the world for many seasons, but nobody listened to them. I am strange. I hear the voices of some spirits. When I came this way, long ago, I heard them calling and they guided  me here. I have searched for others who can hear them, but there are very few others, and even they can hear the spirits only faintly.”

“How do you have so much?” asked one of the others. “This was a bad winter. It is hard to feed a few people, but you have so many. And you say you do not travel to hunt in new places.”

“We have not forgotten our old ways, but we have learned new ways too,” God-Speaker said. “I will show you when we are done eating.”

When they had eaten their fill, God-Speaker asked them about themselves.

“You are guests, and welcome to stay for a time before continuing your journey. You will have a place at our fires. If you are tired of walking long paths, know that you are also welcome to stay. You can join us and become

part of our people.

“With so many of us, we find things for everyone to do that match their skills. You may find something new that you are drawn to among the many crafts and skills we practice in the village. Some even become my acolytes and learn to listen to the spirits. For now, though, I want to know what you are good at. What are you named for?”

The young man spoke first.

“I am a hunter. I am called Outruns-the-Deer and Far-Thrown-Spear. But we are our own people. We live as our elders lived. We will not become part of your people.”

God-Speaker kept his expression friendly. “You show the strength of your ancestors.”

Some of the other newcomers looked less certain about how they felt than Outruns-the-Deer. They told God-Speaker of their skill in fishing, knapping flint, and identifying herbs.

Next, God-Speaker led them around the other areas of the village. They saw the weavers making simple cloth and soaking it in dyes. They saw the gardens with young grain grasses, and where root vegetables and raspberry bushes would grow as the weather grew warmer. They saw the cave filled with a thick loam of rotten wood where mushrooms were grown. They even saw the experimental forge where God-Speaker’s people were working to get their fires ever hotter. God-Speaker showed them a handful of little golden nodules coaxed from rock.

Lastly, God-Speaker showed them the caves where his people stored dried meat and berries, smoked fish, firewood, and all the supplies that would see them safely through hard winters.

Outside the storeroom, some of the hunters were meeting, preparing their spears and knives and slings while discussing where in the area to hunt. God-Speaker told them that Outruns-the-Deer was a guest and an expert hunter, and they took the hint, immediately asking for his opinions on hunting in the area. He talked with the hunters while God-Speaker told the others about the foods his people preserved and stored for winter.

When they left the storehouse and the hunters, Outruns-the-Deer was still quiet and kept his expression neutral, but he held himself differently after being consulted as an equal.

“Will you take us to these spirits of the mountain?” Outruns-the-Deer asked.

The other newcomers looked shocked and worried. These were spiritual matters, and not to be trivialized. Even Swift-Over-Snow looked at God-Speaker uncertainly.

God-Speaker only smiled.

“That is a place where only my people may go. Even among us, it is a holy place, not to be entered without care and understanding.”

There was a moment where God-Speaker and Outruns-the-Deer locked eyes. God-Speaker sensed that the young man might be looking for some sort of confrontation. Discomfort rippled through the rest of the group.

Outruns-the-Deer was the one to waver and look away. The tension dissipated.

“Still,” God-Speaker said, “It is not for me to say who might be close to the spirits. If any of you choose to stay, you may find that you come to hear them, in time.”

With the tour of the village concluded, God-Speaker left Swift-Over-Snow to show the guests to the pit-houses reserved for them while they decided to leave or join the village. God-Speaker thought it was likely that this group would stay, even Outruns-the-Deer. He was the sort who had to make a show of being convinced, but God-Speaker saw his interest in the spirits, and the change in his disposition after talking to the hunters. Besides, he wouldn’t leave if most of the others wanted to stay.

Whether this group stayed or went, the village would continue to grow. There would be other weary travelers making the hard journey through the mountains.

As he left the village, God-Speaker took a different path through the trees and up the slope. His knees ached. He felt death as a lurking presence, always close at hand. Ever since Makes-Medicine had died in his arms, he had felt it, but it was closer than ever now.

He entered the mountain by another opening in the rock and made his way deeper inside. The whisper of the voices was faint at first, but it grew as he went deeper.

He knew what needed to be done. The voices spoke to him of their empires and their endless rule. They told him how to overcome the specter of death and be reborn into immortality. He knew how. The only question was whether he could do it.

Soon, he thought. Soon he could show his people something truly amazing: his own rebirth.

He just had to do it before his body gave out.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 15.2

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

As the day progressed, Christopher realized that all of his conversations would be like this. Some of these people seemed leery or even a little afraid of him. Others overcame it enough to talk with him, but the conversations were all short and focused on what he could tell them about the outside world. They avoided answering his questions.

There were more people than he had initially realized. He guessed that there might be as many as fifty of them. They all wore the same uniform, but there were no markings to tell him what branch of the service they might belong to. 

They didn’t have a lot to do, either. Christopher saw a few people preparing  food, and a few others cleaning the inhabited areas. He saw one man sitting cross-legged on a cot, reading a very dirty and tattered little paperback. Everyone else was talking, or playing cards, or sleeping.

The man named Garrett worried Christopher. He clearly thought that Christopher was a problem, and while he didn’t exactly follow Christopher around, he kept turning up in whatever room Christopher happened to be in. Whenever Christopher looked at him, he was staring. He made no effort to hide it.

When evening came, Amaranth eventually led Christopher to a small room with a single cot.

This is your room.

“All by myself, huh?”

They don’t exactly trust you. You’re not dumb, you see that, right?

“Yeah, I noticed.”

In truth, a room of his own didn’t sound too bad. He felt exhausted from all the interaction. He had spent weeks completely alone, talking to himself. He had rehashed memories of conversations from years ago, and thought through all the things he might say to family and friends when he got back home. Now that he had real people to talk to, the effort of it drained him. It didn’t help that every conversation felt like a confrontation.

“Is it just me, or does Garrett really dislike me?”

Amaranth smiled and let out a half-cough, half-sigh of laughter. Christopher suddenly wondered what injury had stolen her voice. She flipped a page and wrote for quite a while in her book.

Garrett is an idiot. He decided to come with us, and now he regrets it. But he doesn’t have enough brainpower to do any introspection, so he just takes it out on everyone else. 

“And I’m the new punching bag?”

I think everyone was hoping you’d know some things that you don’t know.

“Yeah, I feel the same way. I had this idea that if I found people, that would solve all my problems. I’d be on my way back home within hours. Now I’m surrounded by people, and I know even less about what’s going on.”

Amaranth shrugged.

“If I ask you some questions, will you answer? Or are all of you under orders not to tell me anything?”

No orders. They’re just scared and confused. I’ll answer if I can.

“Okay. Are you all in the military?”

No, but most are.

“So, this place, Razor Mountain, is like an Army base?”

Army base and a city.

“Am I a prisoner?”

She sighed.

No. But I don’t think you can leave.

“How is that any different.”

I guess it isn’t.

“You said they’re scared and confused. What is everyone scared about?”

They’re scared that we’ll get caught.

Christopher thought about this.

“You’re not supposed to be here. They asked me about the plane, about the ‘outside world.’ You’re all trying to get out of here too?”

I’m not. Everyone else is.

“Why not you?”

I like being out here. I like living out in the woods. I can take care of myself.

“You’d just live in the forest?”

Why not?

“I don’t know. It seems hard. And lonely.”

I don’t mind being alone. And I’m good at living in the woods. My dad taught me. I hunt. I fish. I know the plants.

“Wouldn’t you miss anyone?”

Everyone I’d miss is already dead. 

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

It’s fine. It was years ago.

“So why are you here instead of out in the woods?”

I’m trying to help them. I like to be alone, but I’m not going to just ignore people who need help.

“I appreciate that,” Christopher said. “You probably saved my life.”

She shrugged again. They sat in silence for a minute.

“Look, maybe you won’t want to answer, but why are they afraid they’ll get caught? Why did they run away? Is it like treason, or desertion or whatever?”

Desertion. They didn’t think they were being told the truth. They stopped trusting the leadership. But all information comes down from them.

“You don’t have TV or radio? Newspaper? Anything?”

Everything gets vetted by command first.

“What about people coming in from other places?”

Very rare.

“Wait, people must get transferred in and out.”

That’s not how Razor Mountain works.

“So nobody comes or goes and you don’t get any information about the outside world?”

Only through command. A lot of people don’t trust it.

“How can they do that? You can’t just keep people there indefinitely. Even if they’re in the Army, their contracts must end eventually.”

She flipped back a page and tapped the words she had already written.

That’s not how Razor Mountain works.

“And all these people decided to become deserters and leave? Without a plan to actually get to a town or something?”

Amaranth nodded.

Ema was working on a plan, but command found out. They had to leave before they were ready. Or probably face a court-martial.

“And now people like Garrett are thinking the court-martial might have been the better choice?”

Maybe. Maybe he’s just a whiner.

Christopher sat on his cot, back against the wall, and tried to process. Amaranth took out a pocket knife and a chunk of wood that had already been partly whittled. The carving vaguely resembled a person.

“You were the one leaving carvings in the woods?”

She nodded.

“Why?”

She flicked a few shavings off the piece before picking up the notebook and pen.

Just something to do. Decorating my space, I guess.

“Do you know how creepy it is to find something like that out in the woods, when you think you’re alone?”

Sorry.

They sat for a while. The small sounds of knife on wood were peaceful. A pile of shavings started to accumulate on the floor.

“What about me?” Christopher asked. “They shot at me. But I’m not a soldier. I haven’t deserted. If I got into Razor Mountain, would I be a prisoner there too? Would your people let me go?”

Amaranth pressed the knife against a knot in the wood. There was a small ping, and a little piece went sailing across the room to bounce off the far wall. She picked up the notebook.

They won’t want you to go. They don’t want you telling command where to find them.

“What if I promise not to say anything?”

That’s not a promise you can make.

“Why not?”

What if they say you don’t get to go home unless you talk.

“Ah.”

There are plenty of worse things they could do, too.

Christopher took a deep breath.

“So I’m screwed.”

If we find a way to get out, you can go with them.

“Yeah, but you said there was no plan. I don’t know where we are. We could be hundreds of miles from the nearest town.”

Amaranth closed her book.

“Done talking then?”

She tilted her head toward the door. A man was standing there, the same man who had stood guard when Christopher was waiting for his interview with Ema.

“I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced,” he said. “My name is Harold.”

He held out a hand, and Christopher stood to shake it. Amaranth stood as well.

“Am I under lockdown again?” Christopher asked.

“Sorry,” Harold said. “I know it’s unpleasant. People just need some reassurance.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Christopher said. 

Amaranth headed toward the door.

“Talk more tomorrow?” Christopher asked.

She nodded without turning, and raised a hand in a half-wave goodbye.

“If you’d prefer, I could stay outside the room,” Harold said.

“Makes no difference to me,” Christopher replied.

There was a muffled voice from the hall, and Harold stepped out, returning with a second cot. He set it down next to the door.

Christopher considered asking Harold more questions, maybe seeing if he had different answers than Amaranth. However, he already felt overwhelmed, and he decided it would be better to try tomorrow. Maybe, given some time, these people could start to trust him. Maybe they’d figure out how to get to the nearest town. After all, with a whole group working together, they ought to have a much better chance than Christopher all by himself. 

Still, no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he would have been better off alone in the woods.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 15.1

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

It didn’t take long before Christopher began to feel like a zoo animal. He was allowed some freedom, and once he had rested, Amaranth showed him a hallway full of rooms where these people rested, some normal-looking office bathrooms, the room that served as a makeshift mess hall, and an area where the floors above had partially collapsed down to their level. The ceiling in that area was at Christopher’s shoulder height, and it looked as though there might be ways through the rubble, but it certainly didn’t look safe.

Although he had supposedly been vetted, and he no longer had guns trained on him wherever he went, he was never alone. It was hard to tell if people were just curious or keeping an eye on him. Despite their interest in him, none of them immediately tried to make conversation.

The makeshift mess hall was really just more office space that had been filled with tables and chairs. Christopher ate rice, beans, and some tasteless canned chicken. It was like being back home in the bunker. He tried to get information out of Amaranth, but it was slow going.

“What is this place?”

She set her fork down to write a note.

Building F

“What does that mean? Are there buildings “A” through “E” around here? Letters beyond that?”

She nodded. After another bite she wrote.

There are others. Not sure how many.

“Why is all this out here?”

 It’s all part of Razor Mountain.

“What’s Razor Mountain?”

It’s a mountain. But also a city.

“So it’s all connected?”

She shook her head and wrote, It’s all over the mountain.

While they went through this slow process of question and answer, Christopher became aware that several of the others were watching and listening from nearby tables. They all wore the same camouflage fatigues.

“Is everyone here in the military then? Is that why there’s all this secrecy?

Something like that.

One of the men in the watching group said, “You’d better be careful what you tell him, Amaranth.”

Christopher saw a clear look of irritation flicker over Amaranth’s face before she suppressed it. She wrote quickly on the paper and flashed it at him. Christopher couldn’t make out what it said.

“Hmph,” was his only reply.

As though this small interaction had opened the floodgates, several others moved over to Christopher’s table as a group. They congregated on the other side, with Amaranth, and left a gap on either side of him.

“Where are you from?” one woman asked. “Why are you here?”

Christopher sighed. “I’m from Minneapolis. I was on a trip and my plane crashed.”

“You survived a plane crash?”

“Well, I jumped, and I landed in water. I guess I was just incredibly lucky.”

“Incredibly lucky,” said the man who had warned Amaranth. He was still sitting back at the other table.

Christopher shrugged.

“I found a bunker. It must be one of these Razor Mountain buildings, but I didn’t know that. It’s the only reason I survived. Gave me a warm place to stay, food and supplies.”

“What are things like out there, these days?” the woman asked.

“What do you mean, ‘out there?’” Christopher asked.

“Out in the world. In Minnesota.”

“Fine, I guess. The weather isn’t that different from up here, honestly.”

“But what about the war?”

“What war? Afghanistan? Iraq?”

Christopher looked around. The faces were oddly expressionless, like they weren’t sure how to react.

 “I’m honestly not entirely sure which of those was an official war,” Christopher continued. “I’m sorry, I don’t know. You all must know more about it than I do.”

“What about Russia?” one of the men asked.

“What about it?”

“People aren’t worried about war with Russia?”

Christopher shrugged. “I don’t think so. I guess there are always some people who think the Cold War never ended.”

There was another moment of awkward silence around the table.

“Why is everyone asking me about geopolitics? Why Russia?” Christopher asked. “I feel like there’s something you’re trying to get at, and nobody wants to say it.”

The man sitting at the other table stood up and walked over.

“They’re having a hard time believing that things are going well out there,” he said.

Christopher laughed. “I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘going well.’ Better than the Cold War?”

Again, silence stretched.

“Do you not get the news up here?”

“What’s your name?” The man asked.

“Christopher.”

“What if I told you that I don’t think you’re who you say you are.”

“I’ve been getting a lot of that lately,” Christopher said.

The man nodded. “It’s probably because your story sounds made up. And you somehow got here, into this highly secure area, just by chance.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Christopher asked. “I don’t have anything to prove who I am. I lost my luggage, I lost my wallet, hell, I lost my shoes. I’ve just been trying to stay alive and get back home.”

“And what do you think someone would say, if they came here with other intentions?” the man asked.

“They’d probably have a more believable story than jumping out of an airplane. What intentions are they going to have?” Christopher countered. “To find your secret base here, which kind of looks like it should have been condemned fifty years ago?”

Amaranth wrote furiously on her paper again and held it up to the man. He glanced at it and then casually slapped it aside, out of her hand.

“I don’t care how long you were spying on him,” the man said. “I know you think you’re a real commando, and for some reason Ema thinks so too, but you’re just a fucking kid. You’ve got a lot to learn.”

Amaranth scooped up her notebook and stood facing the man, jaw and hands clenched. Christopher saw several of the others glaring at him. One of the women said, “Garrett…” 

“What? You all get excited over a stranger who just shows up out of the blue, and take him at his word that he’s here entirely by accident? Besides, even if he is exactly what he says, how does that help us? We have bigger problems to deal with.”

“Maybe he knows something that can help,” the woman said.

“What could he possibly know?” Garrett countered. “Either he’s telling the truth and he doesn’t know shit, or he’s lying and he’s not going to tell you anything useful anyway.”

The eyes of the group turned back to Christopher.

“He’s probably right,” Christopher said. “I don’t even know what the problem is. I could point you to that bunker I found, but that’s about it.”

“You said your plane crashed,” one of the men said. “How bad was the crash?”

“Fireball bad?” Christopher said. “I never found the crash site, I think it was pretty high up the slope from the bunker, but I doubt there would be much left to salvage.”

“See?” Garrett said. “He’s stuck. He’s either hoping that we can help him, or trying to get whatever info he can out of you.”

Amaranth wrote in her notebook. 

He’s not a spy!

“It doesn’t matter,” Garrett said. “We can’t help him, and he can’t help us.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 14.2

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

“Tell me, Christopher, how do you like living in Minneapolis?”

“What?”

“Do you like Minneapolis?”

Christopher shrugged.

“I guess so.  It’s too cold in the winter and usually pretty miserable in the summer too. But I wouldn’t want to live somewhere like California or Nevada where they don’t have real seasons.”

“That’s it?”

“Fuck, I don’t know!” Christopher said, getting to his feet and knocking the chair back. “Why does it matter how I feel about Minneapolis? I’ve been lost in the woods for weeks. I just want to go home and drink a Coke and buy a big steak and, I don’t know, call my parents and friends and tell them I didn’t die in a horrible plane wreck a week into my new job.”

“Sit down, Chris.”

He stared at her.

“It’s Christopher.”

“Sit down, Christopher.”

He sat.

“How do you feel about America?”

“Jesus. I love it. It’s worked out pretty well for me.”

“That’s it?”

He picked at his lips where they were chapped and flaking.

“What do you want me to say? I grew up in America, and it seems like a better option than a lot of other places. I have a good job, when it doesn’t almost kill me. All my friends are here. The politics gets worse and worse every year, but my day-to-day is pretty good. At least it was before this all happened.”

“Christopher, what do you know about the U.S.S.R.?”

He stared into her eyes. Her face was blank.

“Probably not as much as my history teachers would like? I think it was the United Soviet Socialist Republic. Russia and a bunch of countries around Russia. Communist. A lot of people died when they changed their whole economic system. They helped us win World War II, then we had a few decades of the Cold War where we hated each other. Everyone piled up nukes on both sides, once or twice there was almost a global atomic war. We had a space race and America got to the moon. Eventually the U.S.S.R. fell apart. Now it’s just Russia trying to recapture their faded glory.”

“To your knowledge, have there ever been any nuclear strikes against America?”

Christopher blinked.

“No. Not unless you count the tests where we did it ourselves, out in the desert or on islands. Something like that.”

She leaned back in her chair.

“Alright, I think that’s enough. Let’s start over. Who do you really work for?”

Christopher put his face in his hands.

“I already told you, I work for Peak Electric Solutions. In Minneapolis. Look it up. Call them and ask them about me.”

She pulled her gun from its holster and set it gently on the table, resting her hand on it.

“I don’t have a lot of patience right now, Christopher, and I don’t think anything you’ve said so far sounds very believable.”

He leaned back in his chair.

“I don’t know what you want from me or why everyone here is so worried about me, but everything I’ve told you is the truth. It sounds crazy to me too, and I lived through it.”

“You tell me the truth,” she said, “and you tell me about your extraction point. I’m willing to make a deal.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Christopher said. “I was hoping this would be my extraction point. I just want to go home.”

“If you don’t cooperate, you could spend the rest of your life in that closet across the hall,” she said, “although that might not be very long.”

“Do you want me to make something up? I told you the truth, about everything. If you want more details, I can give you as much detail as you want. Or at least as much as I remember. I’m not lying.”

“Alright,” she said. “Let’s get into details. Back on the plane, when did you know you were going to crash? Were there other passengers?”

“Ah,” Christopher said. “Yeah. Sure. I guess I should probably just start every sentence with ‘I know this sounds crazy, but…’”

There was no clock in the room, but Christopher felt like he had been talking for hours. He repeated his story twice more, including all the details that came to mind. He explained the empty plane and missing passengers. He gave her the seemingly random code that gave him access to the bunker. He thought that talking through his story might give him some sort of epiphany, but it still didn’t make sense to him. It didn’t sound any more believable to him with the additional details.

The corporal listened with her unreadable expression, occasionally interjecting to ask questions. Halfway through the second telling, she took out a canteen and poured two glasses. Christopher half-expected alcohol, but it was just water.

When Christopher had finished his second retelling, the room fell silent. Ema had stood and was pacing along one side of the room. She came back to the desk and sat down. She sighed deeply.

“I hate to admit it, but I don’t think you’re lying. I don’t have the slightest idea what the hell happened to you or why you ended up here. And unfortunately for you, I doubt you’re any better off with us than you were before.”

They sat and looked at each other. Ema yawned.

“Can you please tell me something about where we are and what’s going on here?” Christopher asked.

“I suppose,” she said, “but I’m exhausted. You can ask the others. I need to think.”

She led him out of the room, back down the hall to the central area. There were still several others still there—two at the table, playing cards, and several more sitting or laying on cots that had been set up.

“I don’t think he’s a threat,” Ema announced to the group at large, “but I don’t think he’s going to be much help to us either. Feel free to make your own assessments.”

Christopher stifled the urge to groan, imagining a dozen more of these people interrogating him. However, he saw Amaranth sitting in the corner, and she gestured to him. He walked over, trying not to look over his shoulder. He felt the eyes of the others on him.

She scribbled in her notebook and held it up to him.

Sleep?

He nodded gratefully, and she gestured to one of the cots. He lay down with his back to the room. He knew they were watching him.

He really was exhausted. The cot wasn’t particularly comfortable, but it was no worse than sleeping in the tent had been, or the hard bunks in the bunker. Christopher felt his mind still racing with everything he had relayed to Ema, and everything he had seen here, but he was too worn down. The ideas were fractured and disorganized, like glassware shattering in his brain. He couldn’t hold on to any idea for more than a few seconds.

Despite feeling frantic and frustrated only moments before, he soon  found himself falling into feverish, hallucinatory dreams.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 14.1

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

Christopher had never had a gun pointed at him before, but within seconds of entering the maintenance room several of the people in fatigues had guns drawn and aimed near his feet. Amaranth immediately interposed herself between Christopher and the others and began gesturing vigorously in some sort of sign language. It was clear by their blank looks that some of the people didn’t understand her, but two or three of them seemed to be following along.

The people whispered to each other in their little cliques, and one man broke off from the card game and disappeared through the door on the far side of the room. Christopher stood, hands up, and waited for someone to decide what was to be done with him. Eventually, Amaranth directed him to an old wooden chair against the wall near the group playing cards.

After a few minutes of awkward silence where Christopher felt like some sort of zoo exhibit, the man who had gone out came back through a side door. Behind him was a woman with her black hair in a tight braid that fell to her waist. She had chevrons on her shoulder, and a few of the others saluted when she came into the room. Christopher wondered what the circumstances were where people in the military were allowed to have long hair. He had a vague sense that everyone got their head shaved in boot camp, and he thought it had to remain short after that, but several of these people had longer hair or beards.

Where everyone else in the room had been content to watch him from a distance and whisper amongst themselves, this new woman walked directly up to him. She had a jingling ring of keys hanging from her belt, and a sidearm holstered at her other hip.

He stood as she approached, slowly and with his hands clearly visible. He wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Should he salute?

She looked him over without speaking, the muscles around her mouth twitching. Then she turned to Amaranth and motioned in sign language. The gestured conversation went back and forth, and Christopher was unable to follow. He tried to stay calm and be patient, knowing that his safety probably depended on it. Finally, the woman held up her hands to Amaranth, as though asking her to pause. She turned back to Christopher.

“Come with me.”

She pointed to Amaranth, then to the man who had brought her. She led the way back through the side door. Christopher followed, with Amaranth and the man following behind.

The door led to a short hallway. There were several doors, some of them open. They had labels etched into the wood: B5, B4, B3. Some of the doors were left ajar, and Christopher could see what looked like dark, disused offices.

Christopher suddenly wondered about the lights. They were simple circles of frosted glass, set into the ceiling every few feet. The color of the light reminded him of sunlight, but he thought it would be impossible to somehow reflect sunlight this far down underground.

The woman with the long black hair stopped in front of one of the doors, “B2C,”  and located a key on the keyring to unlock it. She opened it up and gestured for him to step inside.

It was a closet. The floor was dirty, and the discolored and scraped olive paint on the walls showed where furniture or something else had once rubbed against the walls. Now it was a just a bare room, barely larger than an elevator.

He stepped inside, and the man stepped in after him. As the man shut the door, Christopher caught a glimpse of Amaranth and the woman going into an office across the hall.

“Sit,” the man said. His tone was more a suggestion than an order.

Christopher sat in the corner, facing the door. The man stood next to the door, arms crossed over his chest. He had no weapon, at least that Christopher could see.

Minutes went by. The man seemed content to just sit and watch Christopher.

Christopher began to wonder if he had made a mistake by not speaking up. These people were treating him like he was some kind of danger, when he clearly wasn’t.

“Can you tell me what’s going on?” he asked.

The man shook his head sadly.

“Just try to be patient. They’re going to talk for a bit, then the corporal will talk with you.”

Christopher sighed.

“I’m just a guy who got lost. I’m a sales person. My plane crashed. I was never meant to be here. I’m just trying to find a way to get back home.”

The man held up a hand.

“You need  to be quiet and wait patiently, understood?”

Christopher nodded. He rubbed his palms against his closed eyes. He was so tired. Even here, after all this, he could fall asleep. He let his head tilt back against the wall.

He wasn’t sure if he had dozed off when he heard a knock on the door and it opened again. The woman stood there. He saw Amaranth pass by behind her.

“Stand up, come on,” she said.

Christopher got up, and she gestured that he should go through the door across the hall.

“Thanks, Harold,” she said to the man as he came out behind. “And try to keep the gossip to a minimum until we get this sorted.”

“Sure,” he said.

Christopher realized as he stepped into the room that it wasn’t really an office. It was just another, bigger storage room masquerading as an office. A long folding table had been set up at one end, with an office chair behind it. A pair of beat-up metal folding chairs were set in front of the “desk,” and a pair of wooden benches had been set up in the opposite corner.

She closed the door behind them, then walked past him to sit in the office chair while Christopher looked around. After a moment, she gestured to the folding chairs.

“Take a seat.”

Christopher sat.

“What is your name?”

“Christopher Lamarck.”

“Christopher, my name is Ema. I’m the boss here. I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer.”

“Sure..”

“You should know that I have no reason to trust you, and my goodwill is going to depend entirely on how honest I think you are.”

Christopher shook his head.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m just trying…”

Ema held up a finger.

“What did I say?”

Christopher sighed. “You’re asking the questions and I’m answering.”

“Good. Now who are you, what is your job, and where are you from?”

“I’m Christopher Lamarck,” he said. “I’m a salesperson for Peak Electric Solutions. I’m from Minneapolis. Well, the suburbs.”

“And why are you here?” she asked.

“I was on a sales trip. Visiting three of the power companies we work with up here.”

He paused to think. It felt like such a long time ago.

“I…I flew into Anchorage, then down to Homer. I spent a day there, and then I was supposed to fly to Fairbanks. But the plane…the plane crashed.”

“What kind of plane was it?” Ema asked.

“I don’t know. It was small, maybe ten passenger seats?”

“How did you survive the crash?”

“I jumped.”

“You jumped out of a plane? While it was flying?”

“Well, I think it had slowed down, and it was low, and I landed in the water. And even then it hurt like hell. I almost blacked out when I hit the water.”

She looked unimpressed.

“So you somehow managed to survive jumping out of a plane by landing in freezing cold water?”

Christopher took a deep breath.

“Yeah, I remember thinking how ironic it was that I would survive the jump and die of hypothermia. I got to the shore and I was freezing. But there was this…door I found,. It opened into some kind of bunker. It was heated. I just kind of collapsed inside.”

Ema’s index finger tapped quietly on the edge of the table. Christopher looked up from his hands to her face.

“Look, I know it sounds crazy. Well, it sounds crazy to me. Maybe it makes sense to you, since you’re out here in…whatever this place is. I found the bunker and I was able to avoid freezing to death. There was food and water and heat. I was there for weeks. I made a signal fire. There was some kind of old military radio that didn’t seem to work properly.”

She held up a hand again.

“And how did you get here?”

“There was a map. It had different points marked on it. I figured nobody was coming to find me, so I had to go try to find someone. So I hiked toward the points on the map. It honestly didn’t go that well. Then I was camped out one night and someone started shooting at me. Amaranth found me. I guess she had been following me?”

“Who was shooting at you?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

Ema rubbed her temple.

“What happened after that?”

“I left all my supplies at that camp and she marched me through the forest all night to get to this place.”

“And here we are,” Ema said.

“Here we are.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 13.2

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

He buried the pieces of the stone god as well as he could with the snow. He knew that the spirit had left the stone when it broke. It would not favor God-Speaker after he had failed to keep it safe.

Deep in the canyon of ice, there was only one way to go. The sides were steep and slick, and he was tired and hurt. He found his way down to solid ground, though he could not tell if it was ice or earth or rock. He stood and limped forward. He did not know what direction he was going. He did not know if he was walking toward his people or away. He could only hope that there was a way up to the surface somewhere ahead.

Instead, the crack grew deeper. It split, again and again, but each path looked the same: dark walls of ice and rock and a dull sky above, filled with snow.

The world took on an unreal quality. Faint reflections stared back at him, and shadowy shapes loomed in the ice. He felt again that he was on the edge between his world and the world of spirits. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he was dying.

As he limped onward, he began to feel the truth. He was walking toward the mountain. Just as it had called down the storm, it shaped the ice. It pulled him to it. The deep, unreal blue of the ice dulled until it was black. Along the sharp edges, where it caught the light, it glowed deep purple.

The air took on a sharp, foul scent. It felt heavy and thick. God-Speaker held out a hand, and along with the snowflakes, black dust began to collect on his palm. A gust of wind from high above swept over him, blowing his hand clean. Black smoke swirled in the air ahead.

Finally, he reached a place where the sky above went dark. He didn’t know if it was night at last, or if he had gone completely under the ice. The snow and wind fell away, so he supposed the ice must have closed over him. He kept limping forward. There was nothing else left for him to do.

When he had gone down into almost complete darkness, he heard voices once again. They were stronger, clearer. He felt that he should understand them, but the words were always just beyond his reach. The path took him toward the voices, into complete darkness. He felt the walls on either side, and they no longer felt like ice. They were warm stone.

As he continued, his eyes adjusted. Faint purple light came from the stone itself. It was just barely enough to see the twists and turns by variations in darkness. Even so, he nearly stepped into a crack that cut across his path.

He stopped at the last moment and tried to look down. Nothing but pure blackness, a gash across the purple-black of the cave. A gentle breath of air came up from somewhere far below. God-Speaker held on to the rough walls on either side and reached a foot across to find the far side. He didn’t have to jump, he just took a long, careful step across the gap.

The walls came together, pressing in on either side. God-Speaker had to get down onto hands and knees and crawl to fit through. He no longer thought about getting up and out. He would never be above the ground again. Those voices still called to him.

He came to another gap and reached out across it, finding a ledge on the other side, a little higher up. He forced himself over and through, squirming into a gap in the rock. On the other side, the cave opened up.

The purple light was stronger here, but it didn’t help him see. It made his eyes hurt. It throbbed in unison with his heart, in time to the pounding pain in his forehead. He could see it even with his eyes closed. The rock walls of the room were too smooth, too perfectly curved. The room had no ceiling that he could see. It rose forever into blackness, but tiny lights appeared above as he stared upward. The voices came down from those lights.

They fell upon him like a torrent, like a rushing river of whispers. He lost track of his body, and even the pain fell away. He knew now that they could hear him. They could understand him. He could hide nothing from them.

What surprised him was that they, too, were completely exposed. The voices were as open to him as he was to them. So close together, there were no barriers between them.

The voices were old, so old he couldn’t imagine it except by the context they gave him. The idea of Braves-the-Storm or Makes-Medicine being old was laughable in comparison. The lifetimes of the biggest, most ancient trees God-Speaker had ever seen were mere seasons to the voices. They were true gods. They were like the mountain, built up slowly over ages.

They dove into the shallow pool of his memories: the few places he had been, the little group of people he had spent his entire tiny life with.

They were witness to things he could not imagine. He saw landscapes stretching out and out and out, until they curved back into each other. He saw tribes growing into peoples, into societies and cultures and nations and beyond.

They delved into his knowledge, into the worlds of people and spirits, into magic and medicine, into the ways of napping flint into tools, of curing hides and weaving nets and cutting spears into a fine, fire-hardened point.

They knew that these simple (so simple!) tools could grow with the people who fashioned them: tools to make tools, more people specializing into smaller and deeper wells of knowledge.

The voices saw the vast span of time and space and knowledge. They lived lives beyond anything he could comprehend. But even they did not know everything. Even they were subject to great catastrophes. Just as he and his people had journeyed in their small way, the voices had journeyed.

Once, they had a home. They were comfortable. They lived endless lives, minds passed down generations, living endlessly. Then they passed through the void, to find a new home. They would continue, as they had always continued. They would continue in God-Speaker.

They were laid bare to him. He could see, just as they could see, how they had continued endlessly for so long without dying. He could feel, just as they could feel, that something was wrong. God-Speaker’s thoughts were close (so close!) to the shape of their thoughts. More than any of the others. Still, they couldn’t quite fit. They wanted to wash over him, subsume him into themselves, but they couldn’t. They wanted to live as they had lived before, but they couldn’t. They were trapped, at their journey’s end, deep inside the mountain, unable to accept death but unable to live.

God-Speaker could see into them. They knew so much. In mere moments, he felt the world expand around him. It was so much more and so much less than he had thought it was. He could feel his own mind expanding. It was a chaotic blur of images and ideas.

He lay on his back in the center of the chamber, exhausted, broken, unable to move. The purple light washed over him. He was so utterly different from them, yet there was one thing that bound them tightly together.

Like them, he did not want to die.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 13.1

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

Beyond the ice cave was a world of snow. It filled the air. It covered the ground. The few trees appeared like spirits in front of them and faded as they passed. Travel down this gentle slope would be easy, were it not for the snow.

This kind of storm was strange so late into spring. They would not normally travel in such weather, but they were driven to keep moving. The supply of smoked fish was dwindling, and this land was barren. They had to hope that there would be better weather and more to eat somewhere beyond the snowstorm. Nobody mentioned the mountain. Although they could rarely see it, they walked in the shadow of the broken peak. It loomed over them. They felt it watching.

God-Speaker was certain it was the mountain itself pouring snow down onto them. It buzzed like the stone god, with voices that could not be understood. These voices felt different. They wanted. They hungered. He kept imagining the voices as wolves in the distance, beyond the white walls of snow.

They took shelter where they could, among small groups of trees or against boulders. They gathered dry wood when they found it, but there were few places sheltered enough for a fire. After two days of this misery, they came to a shallow overhang shaped in such a way that the wind kept the snow out. Dry grass prickled from the hard ground. They squatted and sat, huddled together, gathering their energy to move onward. Strikes-Flint collected the wood the others had gathered to try to light a fire.

Finds-the-Trail had been quiet and thoughtful since the river crossing. He reminded God-Speaker more and more of Braves-the-Storm. The two men, young and old, often walked side-by-side now. God-Speaker thought that this, at least, was a good thing. They could all see that Braves-the-Storm grew weaker every day. Perhaps this more thoughtful Finds-the-Trail could begin to fill his role when he was gone. If God-Speaker could fill the role of Makes-Medicine, they might serve their people together.

Far-Seeing, who was used to walking by Finds-the-Trail’s side, now walked alone most of the time. Even now, he squatted by himself, back against the rock face, scowling and gouging at the frozen earth with the butt of his spear. He had also become quiet, but it was not a peaceful silence. His face showed his dark moods, and God-Speaker often looked over to see his lips moving without voice. God-Speaker knew that kind of silence, and it usually ended with a fight. He knew he was a likely recipient of that anger when it came out.

As they rested, the wind calmed and the snow lessened. The blowing white powder snow turned into heavy, clumped flakes. They could see some of the world around them, bleak as it was. A few withered trees appeared. The clouds even broke, letting out dim sunlight.

God-Speaker could see some small relief spread among the people. They opened up from their hunched positions. Shoulders relaxed. But now they could see further and the shadow of the mountain grew more distinct. God-Speaker felt as though they had been approaching it for days, but the distance was hard to judge. They were beside it now. Its presence was still uncomfortable, but he had hope that they could begin to pass it by.

In the opposite direction, above the little wall of stone that sheltered them, he could now see that there was another rise. It looked climbable, although still dangerous-looking. While the storm was quiet, it might offer them a view of the path ahead.

God-Speaker stood and walked to the place where Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm sat together. Braves-the-Storm sat with eyes closed, his breath wheezing. God-Speaker and Finds-the-Trail both glanced at the old man, then back to each other. God-Speaker thought he saw in the other man’s eyes that he too had been thinking about the future.

“There is a high place,” God-Speaker said, pointing up through the rock wall. “It may be a hard climb, but it could show us a good path, if we can climb while the storm is quiet.”

Finds-the-Trail nodded and stood. “I will go with you.”

Braves-the-Storm opened his eyes to acknowledge them, then leaned back to rest. He would not be making any more dangerous climbs.

Finds-the-Trail, true to his name, found a place where the rock face had cracked and crumbled and they could climb up to the lip that hung out over their resting place. From there, they picked their way up the rough slopes between flat places. Sometimes they could walk carefully. More often they had to find handholds to pull themselves up. The stone god was heavy in God-Speaker’s pack, and his shoulders began to ache. Finds-the-Trail stayed close, though God-Speaker knew he could easily move ahead.

Despite the difficult climb, the high place seemed less high when they reached it than it had from the ground. Even with the storm quieted for the moment, their sight was limited. What they saw did not make God-Speaker happy. Not far ahead, the ground was once again lost in a sheet of cracked and broken ice. Opposite the face they had climbed, the high place jutted out, sending out rocky feet that went down into canyons of ice, their edges glowing blue in the dull sunlight.

God-Speaker knew the snowless lands they had seen in the distance must still be out there, somewhere in the distance, but they were hidden by the walls of snow that he had yet to pass through.

“We are not free of it yet,” Finds-the-Trail said, looking up at the mountain.

“Let me speak to the stone god,” God-Speaker said, “and see if I can learn anything of use.”

“I will wait for you,” Finds-the-Trail said, “but do not take too long. It would be bad to get caught up here if the storm gets worse again.”

Finds-the-Trail descended to a wide ledge just below the high place to wait. God-Speaker gently slid the stone god from its bag and sat with it in his lap, looking out over the ice. The stone chilled him more than the wind.

God-Speaker sat and listened. He had strained to hear the voice of the stone god as they traveled through the storm, and heard nothing. Now, he just sat, leaving himself open to whatever might come to him. He felt his own tiredness now, as he hadn’t let himself feel it in days.

The stone god whispered, but it was drowned in voices, waves crashing over them. The voices from the mountain fell on him like wild animals. They knew he could hear them. They sensed his weakness. Instinctively, God-Speaker pushed back against them. He did not understand what he was doing or how he was doing it. He sensed the spirit world, unseen all around them. Whatever was happening in this struggle, it happened there, beyond what others could see.

The voices were used to being obeyed. God-Speaker sensed the shock, the uncertainty as he pushed them back. He was suddenly reminded of young children demanding food or comfort and being told “no,” for the first time. God-Speaker pushed harder, taking advantage of their timidness. They fell silent.

In the silence, he heard the faint whispers of the stone god. It said the people were nearly through their hardship. They had to pass across the ice one final time. They would escape the shadow of the mountain. There would be better lands beyond the storm. They only had to be strong and keep going.

God-Speaker felt his body flooded with relief. He discovered that he was still sitting in the same place, now soaked with sweat and shivering, but the stone god was warm against his skin.

Finds-the-Trail’s voice came up to him. “Have you seen something? I think the storm is getting worse again.”

God-Speaker began the process of putting the stone god back into its pack. His hands shook.

“I heard the voices of evil spirits from the mountain. They are angry. They attacked me, and I pushed them back.”

Finds-the-Trail was silent for a moment. “How?”

God-Speaker said, honestly, “I do not know.”

“Are we safe then? I still feel the mountain watching us.”

“The stone god spoke,” God-Speaker said, closing the pack. “We must cross the ice again, but beyond that, our way will be easier.”

“Then we should hurry down and tell the others.”

God-Speaker backed carefully down toward the ledge where Finds-the-Trail was waiting, trying to summon strength into his weakened limbs. The spiritual battle seemed to have taken barely any time at all, but it had drained him of the little strength he had been holding on to.

The rock under his foot broke, and he slid the rest of the way to the ledge. Finds-the-Trail reached out a hand to steady him.

The voices from the mountain landed on him like rocks, without warning. He didn’t know if it was the weight of the stone god on his back, or the blows of the spirits, but he stumbled back; one step, then another.

Finds-the-Trail’s fingers brushed his arm, but he couldn’t grab hold. There was nothing beneath his back foot. The weight of the stone god carried him over backwards. Finds-the-Trail’s face appeared over the edge, watching in shock from above. God-Speaker was spun and thrown to the side, tumbling not back to the place where the people were sheltered, but to the other side of the hill, down toward the ice.

The outcrops and thorny bushes grasped and tore at him as he fell, slowing him, but not enough. He could no longer tell where he was or where the sky and ground were. He was lost in a storm of rock and snow and earth and pain, and he could only hope that it would end soon.

He landed hard on his back, knocking the breath out of him, and while he stopped tumbling he continued to slide. His vision swam dizzily, but the cloudy sky was above him again, blotched with sunlight. He reached out instinctively to grab onto something, but everything beneath him was slick and cold. Then he was in free-fall again, with nothing but cold air around him. This time, he landed in snow and was still.

Pain blossomed across his body. For a time, he could only lay where he had fallen and try to breathe.

He realized, laying on his back, that the pack and the stone god must have come off in the fall. This, more than anything else, gave him the strength to sit up. The snow was deep: he found himself sinking up to his thighs. If he was careful and spread his weight, he found that the crusty snow below would support him, and he only sank a few inches into the topmost layer of powder.

Crawling slowly and carefully on his hands and knees, God-Speaker saw that he was back under the ice. Walls of it jutted up on either side. A jagged strip of sky showed through the opening above.

A few feet away, he found two more holes in the crust of snow: the two pieces of the stone god. The hide bag was nowhere to be seen, lost somewhere on the hill above. He kneeled over the pieces, grieving.

He shouted. He shouted for Finds-the-Trail and Braves-the-Storm. He shouted all the names of the people, one after another. The snow came down heavily through the jagged hole above, muffling his voice.

When he couldn’t scream any more, he lay in the snow and wept.

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