Razor Mountain — Chapter 4.1

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

When Christopher woke, light was streaming from the slats in the ceiling. He felt as though he had slept for days, though he had no way of actually knowing. As far as he could tell, there were no clocks of any sort in the bunker.

The long rest felt necessary, but the uncomfortable bed had done nothing to ease his battered body. If anything, all of his aches and pains had settled in and gotten comfortable. In some places they were less acute, but deeper. It made Christopher worry that he was  damaged in ways that wouldn’t properly heal without medical attention. His right knee and ankle especially ached in the joints, and jolted him as he got to his feet.

He realized there was no proper place for bathing in the bunker, but he stripped down and ran enough water in the little sink to wash with a bar of soap from the store room. Once he was somewhat clean and had gingerly washed his various scrapes and the crusty gash down his calf, he started to get dressed again. Then he thought better of it and did his best to scrub his filthy clothes in the sink. He laid them over the backs of the steel chairs and sat down to wait for oatmeal to cook in the weird little oven. He felt awkward, sitting naked, even though he was completely alone. He wondered if there might be security cameras hidden around the place. If so, they had already seen all of him that there was to see.

Sitting with nothing to do for a few minutes, he suddenly began to remember bits and pieces of dreams from the night before. They were  faded and half-forgotten, but he remembered hiking through the snowy forests and mountains. He had the vague sense that there were others following, but he never turned around to see them.

When he remembered to check on the oatmeal, it had already boiled over and was in the process of burning. He did his best to clean the hot box, wiping with a rag and scraping with a spoon, slightly singeing his forearm. The entire bunker reeked of burnt oats. He ate the unburnt portion directly from the little saucepan. As he ate, he opened the notebook to a fresh page.

“Alright, what do you remember?”

He thought back to Anchorage. The flight from Minneapolis had been dull. He had a seat near the back of the plane, in the zone that combined the smell of the bathroom with the maximum possible engine noise. If he had ever had the hint of a thought that regional sales would be glamorous and exciting, he had been disabused of it.

He had a layover in Anchorage, just under two hours. Long enough to be tedious, but not enough to do anything or go anywhere beyond the dull beige-tiled corridors and uncomfortable seating of the airport. He had browsed emails and art websites while he waited.

Boarding the flight to Fairbanks had only been interesting because Christopher had never flown on such a small plane. He was used to taking the boarding bridge onto large planes, not scanning his ticket and walking out onto the tarmac. He had paid more attention to the plane itself than the passengers that boarded with him. He closed his eyes and tried to remember them in as much detail as possible.

There was a man, younger than him. He had been on the plane already, in one of the rear seats when Christopher stepped on. He remembered the back of the man’s head. Dark brown hair, almost black. Parted, and a little greasy. He remembered the elbow on the aisle armrest: a brown coat with leather patches on the elbows. An oddly old-fashioned look for somebody young.

There had been a woman, maybe a little older than Christopher, who came aboard after him and sat in a seat near the front. Her hair was platinum blond, a color that might have been natural or dyed, or perhaps a slightly darker shade naturally verging toward an elderly white. It had been wrapped in a bun.

Christopher wasn’t sure if he had seen either of their faces. If he had, he didn’t remember them. He remembered the pilot, who had helped him stow his luggage and get to his seat with as few words as possible. An older man with white hair mostly covered by a white pilot’s cap with a black plastic brim. The man’s face had been creased and grim; the sort of face that wanted to get things done with a minimum of fuss.

Since the small plane had been a new experience for Christopher, he hadn’t thought much of it. Looking back, it was a little odd. The plane seemed relatively new, especially compared to some of the other small planes at the airport. It seemed strange that they’d fly it with only three passengers. They couldn’t be making much money on a flight like that. The tickets had been dirt cheap, which he assumed was the reason his company travel site had recommended them. The name of the airline had been something generic: something like Fairbanks Air Taxi.

Christopher ran through his memories step by step, making small notes and sketches of the plane and what he remembered of the passengers. He wished he had paid more attention to his ticket, but he couldn’t remember his flight number or be sure he even had the name of the airline exactly right.

He had a flash of memory: the woman in the front seat had gotten up at some point. He specifically remembered her bumping into him as she moved down the aisle. A sharp pain in his arm. He still couldn’t envision her face. Had she gone to that awkward little toilet in the back, with nothing but a curtain to shield it? He thought he would remember if anyone had used that. He couldn’t remember anything more about the incident.

As he thought about it, he remembered feeling groggy and nauseous when he had awoken alone on the plane. He had felt off-balance and had a hard time focusing. He had felt sick. Or drugged.

The idea seemed absurd on its face, but everything after that moment had been so insane that it didn’t seem any more far-fetched than any other possible explanation.

He flipped to a new page and titled it “What is going on?” He began a bulleted list, then laughed aloud as he read it back to himself.

  • A crazy accident
  • Something supernatural
  • Someone trying to kill me
  • It’s all a dream

The insane thing was that he honestly wasn’t sure which option was the most likely.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.3

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

Christopher hauled himself to his feet as quickly as he could, heart pounding. He hobbled over to the desk and looked at the mess of  switches and knobs on the radio. He flipped the switch next to the circular mesh that looked like it might be a microphone. A tiny red light came on, then flickered.

“Hello? Hello, can anyone hear me? Please respond. Anyone?”

He stared at the flickering red light, then realized that he might not be able to hear any response while the microphone was still on. He flipped the switch again. The light stopped flickering.

After a few seconds of silence, he tried again.

“This is Christopher Lamarck, um, in an unknown structure in the Alaskan wilderness. I am stranded and injured. Uh…I was on flight…”

He realized he didn’t know his flight number. His boarding pass was probably at the bottom of the lake, with his wallet and cell phone.

“…on a flight from Anchorage to Homer. I think we may have been off-course. I need help. Over.”

He flipped the switch. He had the odd feeling that he should probably be using words like “over” and maybe the phonetic alphabet, if any mysterious voices on the other end of the line were going to take him seriously as the operator of this ridiculous antique radio.

He left the radio on its current settings, afraid that if he changed anything, he would miss the voice when it came back. He rifled through the desk drawers again. There was blank paper, a box of sharpened pencils, an old, dull pocket knife, a coil of wire tied tight with string, a jar of little metal pins, and two more blank notebooks, identical to the one he had been sketching in.

He took a pencil and one of the notebooks out, to write down anything else the mystery voice might say. The notebook slipped from his hand and fell to the floor. The leather strap wasn’t fastened, and it flopped open to a page in the middle, where a folded piece of paper had been stuffed.

Christopher gingerly bent over to pick up the notebook. He unfolded the piece of paper. It was thin and brittle, and yellowed around the edges and the folds. It was a black and white topographic map, showing a mountainous area with several small lakes and swaths of forest marked by tree symbols. In several places, there were little squares, but no labels to indicate what they might be.

He tried adjusting the largest dial on the radio. Unlike the other dials, the timbre of the static changed subtly when he turned this one, which made him suspect it was for adjusting the frequency. He clicked slowly through about a quarter turn when he found the voice again.

“Three. Two.” High tone. High tone. Low tone. Silence.

Christopher flipped the switch.

“Hello? Can you hear me? Please respond.”

Silence.

He turned the dial a few clicks further and found the voice again.

“Nineteen.” High tone. “One. One. One. Five.”

Christopher flipped the switch.

“What the hell is this?”

As expected, there was no response.

Christopher continued turning the dial. The voice seemed to be jumping frequencies every few seconds. Sometimes one click was enough to find it again, sometimes it jumped several clicks on the dial. After about ten adjustments, he lost it. He cranked through the entire dial, but there was no more voice.

Christopher looked at the notebook. He had written down some of the numbers as he heard them, but he was sure he had missed many of them as the voice jumped frequencies. There were also the different tones, which he had started writing as high or low lines.

A military code? If it was something like that, it was probably automated. He wouldn’t be able to decode something like that, especially from the pieces he had collected. And what good would it do him, even if he did? He remembered reading about numbers stations when he was younger, and speculation that they sent coded messages to spies. He had no idea if that was true, or if it was all just speculation.

He tore an empty page out of the notebook, folding and unfolding it without thinking. It was a shock to suddenly hear a voice in the silence, only to realize that it wasn’t real human contact. Just a facsimile. He was still alone out here. Wherever “here” was.

He stopped shredding the paper and picked up the map again. He hobbled over to the metal table. It was bolted to the stone floor, but the heavy steel chairs were not. He dragged one of the chairs noisily to the entry hatch. He pulled the lever from one side to the other, and it swung open, letting in cold air.

The night of the crash was a blur in his mind, but for some reason the numbers he had pressed on the keypad were clear in his memory. 122199. Still, he wanted to be sure he wasn’t going to lock himself out.

He placed the chair firmly in the hatchway, propping the heavy metal door open. As long as it was open, the lever was unmovable, locked in the open position. He looked at the side of the door, which was a good three or four inches thick. There were three rectangular bolts, currently retracted, and matching holes in the door frame.

He stepped outside. Beyond the rock overhang, the land sloped down gently to the lake where he had landed. It glinted orange in the sun that was already low over mountains beyond. There was a dusting of snow on the shore, but no ice at the edges of the water now. A swirling wind pelted him with snow that felt like sharp little hailstones.

He tapped the code into the number panel outside the door. A series of clunking noises came from the door, but the mechanism didn’t move, presumably because it was already open. He still had a little irrational fear that he would be outside and the code would suddenly no longer work, cutting him off from the one thing keeping him alive.

He unfolded the map and looked out at the landscape.

The lake was small enough that he could see the entire thing from his vantage point. It was roughly kidney shaped, although the lobe nearest him was skinnier and longer than the far end. There was an open band of rocky shore all the way around, but beyond that it was thick with evergreens. The forest rose away from the lake in every direction, smoothly on Christopher’s right, and rising in stepped cliffs to the left. The trees eventually gave way to steep, bare rock, decorated only by the occasional boulder or scraggly, determined pine.

Christopher studied the map. He had noted the three lakes, but he realized they might be larger than he had originally thought, and there were dozens of smaller lakes. There was no legend to tell him the scale of the map. Out here in the sunlight, he now saw that one edge of the map was rougher, as though it had been torn smoothly along the fold.

“Of course the part with all the useful info is missing.” he grumbled.

Several of the squares marked on the map were close to smaller lakes. There were fourteen squares in total. Four were near the shores of tiny lakes. Three of the lakes were more or less kidney-shaped.

Christopher looked at the orientation of the lake in front of him, then at the mountain peaks he could see from his vantage point. One far off to the right with a wide base and low slope, a much steeper peak almost straight ahead, and the largest to his left — an odd sort of sharp double-peak that almost looked like the mountain was cracked down the middle.

He looked at the lakes on the map, orienting each of them in turn to match the water in front of him, then looking for mountains in similar directions. The problem was that the map was full of mountains of varying heights. Christopher could only guess how far away the peaks might be. Each of the lakes had mountains that might fit.

Christopher stood, the cold already making his hands stiff, and looked out at the sun as it began to set. He sighed.

It was honestly a miracle that he was even alive. He had no right to survive. The bunker in the wilderness, the numbers station on the radio — it was all frustrating and strange — but he had found a place where he was safe for the moment. He had shelter and food. There were a lot of ways things could be worse. And he had to admit, the view was one of the most spectacular he had ever seen. He stopped to just look out at the water, trees, and mountains under the cold blue sky.

Before the sun set, he brought the notebook and pencil outside and sketched the outline of the landscape. When the light was behind the mountains he went back inside, marked several squares on the map that might show his location, and filled in a few more details in his sketch.

As the sky faded to pink and purple, the lights inside the bunker faded as well. Christopher decided there must be some clever skylights funneling the external light inside. However, that bright light was replaced by a cozier glow with a faint flicker to it. It looked like firelight, seen indirectly. He wondered if there was some sort of natural gas piped up from below.

With his map and landscape drawing in hand, he wrote out a paragraph in neat block letters, doing his best to describe what had happened to him and what his surroundings looked like. Then he flipped the switch on the radio, and read it aloud, over and over across a dozen channels. The radio only responded with faint static.

Christopher’s eyes watered and his head nodded. His bruised and battered body was dead weight. He left the radio on the frequency where he had last transmitted. He went to the supply room and found a jar of antibacterial cream among the medical supplies. He slathered his fingers, toes and face.

He stripped to his underwear. The bunker was warm, the stone radiating heat up into his bare feet. He picked the bed closest to the door, unfurled the sheet and blanket from the footlocker, and lay down carefully, wincing. Within seconds, he was asleep.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.2

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

Christopher sat at the little steel table, in the uncomfortable steel chair, and ate rice and beans. There was slightly tarnished silverware in one of the drawers of the little kitchen, and a selection of plates, bowls and pots in dull green-gray. One of the cabinets turned out to be a sort of oven. It had pipes running into it from the floor, and a single dial that opened and shut valves inside the box. There were little notches along the dial, but no numbers. Christopher had cranked it halfway, dumped in the rice and beans, and hoped for the best. It had worked out reasonably well.

The cans of food were strange and seamless, as though they had somehow been formed in a single piece around the food. The rice and other grains were all vacuum sealed in some sort of foil inside their boxes. It all appeared to be designed to last forever. The whole place was weirdly timeless. For all he could tell, it was equally possible that it had been abandoned for years, or that someone could walk in at any moment.

Despite his battered body, the simple hot food made him feel almost alive again. Next to the food, Christopher placed a leather-bound notebook and a pencil, both found in the drawers of the desk with the World War II radio.

The radio itself was in good shape. Christopher had flipped the large red switch on the front, and the box hummed to life with a crackle of static. However, no matter which switches he flipped or dials he turned, it picked up no signal. There was a mesh circle on the front of the device that looked suspiciously like a microphone, but he had no way of knowing if it was picking up his voice. The radio had a three-pronged cord that was plugged into a strange socket in the wall. It was the only electric appliance in the whole bunker.

As he finished his meal, he opened the notebook. It was unlined paper, completely blank. The paper felt brittle, but was in good shape otherwise. The leather cover was imprinted with a faint pattern of interlocking triangles. It was the sort of fancy notebook that had a built-in ribbon bookmark and a leather strap to hold the cover shut.

Christopher sketched a few of the objects from around the bunker: the hatch with its rotating handle, the radio, the strange boiler device from the back room. Between the sketches, he jotted phrases and words. It was a habit he had picked up in high school and college, when he still thought he might become an artist for a living and had been obsessed with da Vinci’s famous notebooks. The mixture of drawing and words helped him think.

The bunker was clearly outfitted to hold multiple people, with supplies that would probably last years. It felt a like a military installation, although Christopher wasn’t exactly sure what made him think that. What little he knew about guns all came from movies, and was undoubtedly questionable, but the guns in the storage room seemed like ordinary rifles and pistols. There were no explosives or anything that was clearly military issue. And it was all among other outdoors and camping supplies.

There were also the weird flourishes, like the Art Deco ornamentation around the door frames. It didn’t seem likely that some secret military bunker in the Alaskan wilderness would have extra decorations like that.

Maybe it belonged to some rich guy who wanted a place to hide away from business rivals or nuclear war. But wouldn’t someone rich enough to build a bunker like this stock it with more “rich people” amenities? There weren’t any golden toilets or big-screen TVs or freezers of filet mignon.

When he was done eating, Christopher had two pages of sketches and words, and had come no closer to understanding why the bunker existed. For a few minutes, he had been distracted from the pain in his body, but it all came roaring back as he slowly got up from the metal chair.

He went back to the supply room and searched the shelves, eventually coming to a corner that was stocked with first aid kits, gauze and iodine, rubbing alcohol and even some brown glass vials and hypodermic needles in cases of ten. There were several bottles of basic medicine cabinet stuff, including the pain medications he was looking for: acetaminophen and ibuprofen. It seemed likely that there might be some more serious pain medications in the vials, but Christopher decided it was better to be in pain than doped up on ancient morphine from the back shelf of the mystery bunker. Whoever had stocked the place seemed to know what would last, but relying on it might be a bad idea.

Christopher popped a pair of acetaminophen, then went back to the main room and stripped off his clothes. It was surprisingly difficult when everything hurt. He thought to check his pockets and found them empty. No wallet. No cell phone.

He imagined the owner of the bunker picking this moment to arrive. A naked stranger was not who you wanted to find in your secret bunker. Still, the light was better in this room than the others, and he thought he ought to at least try to check his injuries.

His fingertips and toes felt raw, and the flesh was red and scraped up, no doubt from crawling up the gravel-strewn beach. The skin of his knees was also covered in tiny scabs. He had probably sustained some frostbite in his fingers and toes as well, and judging from the numbness of his ears, cheeks and nose, that skin had been damaged as well. Christopher didn’t know if there was any treatment for serious frostbite. He had the vague impression that if it was bad enough it would just turn black and slough off. At which point it was like a burn and liable to get horribly infected.

He had to peel off his right sock, which was caked in dry blood. Underneath, his calf had a long, shallow gash running from knee to ankle. He thought back to the previous night, but couldn’t guess when exactly he had gotten it.

All over his body, bruises of varying sizes were beginning to darken. However, there were no bones sticking out, no limbs bending in directions they shouldn’t. No major new holes or leaks. He was relatively intact. The fact that his right leg hurt tremendously from ankle to hip was worrying, but hopefully it was a series of sprains and not fractured bones. 

When the radio crackled to life, Christopher jumped in surprise, which immediately sent a shock of pain arcing through his body. He sat hard, still naked, on the terrible couch, the pain so distracting that he barely heard the message.

“One. Seven. Seven. Nine,” said a matter-of-fact female voice. A low tone followed for several seconds, followed by a high tone. Then silence.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.1

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

Christopher woke up in pain. His head hurt. His fingers and toes and face felt as though they had been scraped across sandpaper. His legs hurt the most, especially the right one. His ankle throbbed. His hip ached. Cataloging his pains, he decided it would probably be faster to find the parts of his body that didn’t hurt.

Slowly, experimentally, he rolled himself onto his side. He paused in his movement every inch or two, as different parts of his body twinged and spasmed. After a minute or two, he managed to get himself onto his stomach, his forearms against the floor under his body.

“I should be dead,” he rasped. “Why am I not dead?”

His throat was so dry, it felt like it was sticking to itself when he tried to swallow.

The exertion and pain had him breathing heavily and beginning to sweat. His clothes, he realized, were still slightly damp, although they had dried quite a bit while he slept. How long had he slept? The floor beneath him looked like stone, gray with flecks of other colors. It felt like stone, but it was oddly warm, as though it was heated from within.

Christopher slid each knee up, pulling into a fetal crouch. He looked up to see the metal door set into the stone wall, recessed several inches. There was a short step down from the doorway to the floor of the room, a low lip that he used to begin pulling himself up. He imagined how he must look, like an old man in a dramatic commercial for one of those “I’ve fallen and broken my hip” devices.

Standing highlighted a whole new slew of pains, including a thumping headache. He was finally able to stand, so long as he kept most of his weight off of his right leg. He paused to breathe and take in his surroundings.

The low-ceilinged room was about fifteen feet wide and twice as long. A stainless steel table with four matching chairs sat in the corner across from him, in what appeared to be a tiny kitchen, with a sink, small cupboards, and a few feet of counter space. In the middle of the long wall was a drab green couch. Beyond, in the opposite corner, was a rectangular wooden desk. A large green box sat on it, covered in dials and switches. It looked like a World War II radio. Above the desk, a wide cork board was attached to the wall.

As far as Christopher could tell, the walls, floor and ceiling of the room were all carved directly out of the rock. It wasn’t polished to a shine, but it was uniformly smooth, every corner and seam perfectly straight. Bright light poured out of long, thin openings evenly spaced across the ceiling. Christopher looked up into the glow for a moment, but couldn’t tell if there were some sort of recessed light bulbs, or if the light was channeled from outside. The light from the tiny window in the outer hatch was certainly more muted.

Christopher hobbled slowly around the room, leaning on furniture and walls to stay steady. The surfaces all had a thin layer of dust. The place felt empty and disused, but wasn’t as filthy as he would have expected if it was some long-forgotten bunker from decades ago.

The couch seemed to be thick, tough fabric stretched over an oddly hard substrate. It felt like furniture built for sturdiness rather than comfort.

There were several open doorways leading out of the room. Each one had a stainless steel frame with fluting that had a distinctly Art Deco look to it. Christopher couldn’t quite remember when that style had been popular. The 1920s? Maybe earlier. Sometime between the  world wars?

The first doorway led to a much smaller room. It was crowded with shelves, all packed full of boxes, cans, bags and containers — all of it food. It was mostly simple staples: rice, beans, flour and so on. The cans held a little more variety, from vegetables to fruit to meat. The labels were incredibly generic: white text on a faded blue-gray background. There were no ingredients or nutrition facts. Just the name of the food in a slightly skinny font. However, he began to notice that each container had a little triangular symbol in the bottom left corner, like a simplified glyph of a snow-capped mountain.

He walked out past the couch, to the second doorway. This led into an almost identical small room. The shelves in this room were tighter against the walls. They were filled with outdoor gear. There were neatly tied bundles of canvas, probably tents; a camp stove; heavy wool coats; backpacks; lanterns; hatchets and knives; and a rack of pistols and rifles. Once again, everything bore the same dull green-gray, and many of the items had the little mountain symbol somewhere on them.

There was a slightly smaller doorway at the back that led to yet another, smaller room. A large closet, really. It was mostly filled by a machine that looked like some sort of boiler. The stone base melded seamlessly with the floor. It was composed of several stacked cylindrical sections, with thick pipes running between. More pipes ran out of the machine and into the floor around it, like stubby little legs. Others went into the ceiling. Apart from a couple of fluted steel flourishes, it was dull and gray, like everything else in the place.

The only other thing of note in the room was a steel toilet in the corner. It had no tank, just a pipe that came out of the wall. Christopher pulled the heavy metal lever on the side, and clear water quietly swirled down the bowl.

He returned to the main room and took the third and final doorway to what was clearly a sleeping area. There were three small, metal-framed bunk beds, with posts riveted to both floor and ceiling. The mattresses, if they could be called that, felt like the same uncomfortable material as the couch, covered with heavy fabric. A pair of small footlockers was bolted to the end of each bed. Christopher opened one and found a precisely folded sheet and blanket, and a dense, small pillow at the bottom.

He returned to the main room and looked around for a moment, utterly perplexed.

“Where the hell am I?”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 2.2

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

God-Speaker did not know what to do. The rare contact they had made with others had been hard. They spoke with different words and made confusing gestures. But he had never imagined that people, even these strangers who seemed so different, would hunt another of their kind. People worked together. They left their houses strong and clean when they traveled, for others who might find them. This was the way of their elders, and the elders before them. They did not hurt one another.

Far-Seeing, the strongest and fiercest hunter, approached the stranger with his spear in his hand, shouting. To God-Speaker, his words were quiet and far away. Was the stranger desperate for food? Why had he done this terrible thing?

God-Speaker didn’t hear if the stranger made any reply, but the hand-axe rose again. But the stranger could barely stand, and Far-Seeing was quick and strong. His spear plunged into the stranger’s chest. There was a cry from someone nearby.

The stranger must have been near death already. He did not move. The hand-axe fell to the ground with a thud, and the man fell onto it. God-Speaker approached cautiously, but the stranger’s wide eyes were dead.

God-Speaker fell to his knees next to Makes-Medicine. The rest of the people had come, and there was now a small crowd looking down, whispering among each other and trying to understand what had happened.

There was a sticky red furrow along Makes-Medicine’s hairline where the stone had struck. God-Speaker could see white bone. She struggled to breathe and reached out to him.

“You are God-Speaker and God-Carrier,” she croaked. She was trying to perform the ritual, even as she lay dying. He held her hand to comfort her.

“Listen to the stone god,” she said. “Only with the favor of the spirits of the earth will we find a new land to make our home.”

She pulled out of his grasp, made gestures of naming in the air between them, hands shaking. Then she lay still.

He could barely hear her dying words. “Give my spirit to the river. You must show the way to the people. The god will lead you.”

She slumped as her spirit left her body. He had not been training long, but he knew the words to speak over her, hands out-raised to ward off evil spirits. As a shaman and medicine-maker, her spirit would be strong. She would bring great power to the river.

When he had finished, he looked up. The others had waited in silence. Now, they looked to him, and to Braves-the-Storm, who was now the oldest of the people. God-Speaker was young to be shaman, an apprentice who would now have to do his best with what little he had learned from his mentor. Makes-Medicine had said that he heard the voices of the spirits more clearly than anyone she had known. This and the stone god gave him considerable clout, but he was young and inexperienced. The people revered their elders for their knowledge, and Braves-the-Storm was known to be wise and measured. With Makes-Medicine gone, the flexible social order of the tribe had been thrown into confusion.

God-Speaker thought he should want to lead the people, but all he wanted to do was to run into the trees where nobody could see him. He thought he would have years still to learn how to listen to the spirits, to make medicine and practice rituals. He knew he had a responsibility to the people. For the first time, he wished he couldn’t hear the spirits. He wanted to grieve without all of this added responsibility.

“Makes-Medicine wishes to be given to the river,” he said, looking to Braves-the-Storm. “We should prepare her.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded. God-Speaker let out his breath in relief.

“We must do as she said,” Braves-the-Storm confirmed. “We must give her to the river. Then, we will travel, as was planned.”

It was too much. He had lost his mentor. The whole tribe was in shock. And they had to still prepare to leave the valley today?

God-Speaker frowned. Braves-the-Storm was wise. They were nearly packed and prepared to leave. The death rituals would slow them, as would their sorrow, but it didn’t make sense to put off the journey for another day. For all they knew, there could be more of these strangers somewhere close.

After a moment of thought, God-Speaker nodded. Only as he looked up did he realize that many of the others were watching him. He could see relief on several faces. As long as the hierarchy of the tribe was unclear, there would be this cloud of uncertainty. As long as he and Braves-the-Storm were in agreement, it would be tense. As soon as they disagreed, however, that tension would need to be resolved. The people would be watching, deciding for themselves who was best-suited to make decisions for the group.

God-Speaker’s skin tingled, a sensation that had become familiar. The stone god called out to him. He had left it, unready, in the cave.

“I must finish getting ready for the journey,” he said. The others would know what he meant. He stood and hurried back to the crack in the cliff face, shoving his way through the narrow gap. He was lost in thought and again the narrow passage scraped his shoulders.

He found the god where he had left it, next to his pouches of color. He put everything into his personal bag, then spoke to the stone god. He knew he didn’t really need to speak — spirits understood feelings and actions as well as words — but he had enough trouble understanding his own thoughts right now. Putting them into words helped him to make sense of it all.

“Why did Makes-Medicine die?” he asked.

The voice of the god spoke to him, speaking from the earth itself.

“The people have traveled for a long time, but the journey is nearly over. The people will face great danger in the coming days. Evil spirits block your path. Makes-Medicine goes to the spirit world as an envoy for the people. Her strong spirit will speak to other good spirits on your behalf. Her spirit will make the evil spirits afraid to stand in your way.”

The spirit of earth chipped at his doubt. It seemed so unfair that Makes-Medicine be taken away from them. But when the spirits were considered, it made much more sense. If there were evil spirits blocking their way, they would need strong protection on their journey. Makes-Medicine could protect them far better in the spirit world. God-Speaker wished he had learned more about these matters of the spirits.

“Did she know that this would happen?” he asked.

The stony rumble was already fading. “She knew the journey would be dangerous. She protects the people.”

God-Speaker knew this was true, though it did not answer his question. Makes-Medicine had told him that it was always hard to know what to tell the people about the spirits, and what a shaman should keep to themselves. Even great shamans did not always understand.

God-Speaker carried the stone god and his personal bag out of the cave. He was careful to carry the god with the care it deserved. The last thing they needed was to turn the god against them.

As he came out, he found the others still standing where he had left them, talking among themselves.

“Why did the stranger attack her?”

“He does not look like us. He looks starved. Maybe he was hunting us.”

“What strangers could be so evil that they hunt their own kind?”

They looked to Braves-the-Storm.

“He was alone. Did you see his eyes? Those eyes did not see. I have seen eyes like that before. When we hunt, when we drive an animal away from its herd, when it knows it cannot flee our spears, you can see death in its eyes. This man had dead eyes.”

God-Speaker walked over to them.

“The god has spoken to me. There are many evil spirits in this land. We must pass them to reach a safe place again. It may be that this stranger was used by evil spirits, a spear thrown by hunters.”

God-Speaker looked at their faces. Some seemed to understand what he said. Others looked unsure. He wondered if he should pretend to be more certain about the strange and mysterious matters of spirits. Makes-Medicine always spoke with great authority.

“Makes-Medicine has a strong spirit. We must help her as she goes to the spirit world. She will watch over us and keep the evil spirits at bay. We will give her to the river, as she said.”

Braves-the-Storm nodded, as did several of the others. Even in death, her authority would not be questioned. Everyone set to work. Some finished preparing for the journey. Others wrapped her in fishing nets weighted with heavy rocks.

God-Speaker searched the small hide pouches and bags Makes-Medicine had prepared for the journey, finding the ingredients for the ritual. He laid her flat on her back, unable to look at her staring eyes. He marked her skin with color and placed herbs in a small pouch, tied round her neck by a leather cord.

He made a small fire, lighting it with coals from one of the still-smoldering morning fires, and set the stone god before it. Makes-Medicine was arranged, facing up with arms bound at her sides, between the fire and the river, head toward the water.

God-Speaker spoke the words, only faltering once. He had heard them only a few times, at other death ceremonies, and in bits and pieces from Makes-Medicine. The full ritual could not be practiced. It could only be performed when the tribe wanted the full attention of friendly spirits to guide one of their own to the spirit world.

God-Speaker moved to her head and disrobed. The four strongest hunters stepped forward and removed their furred wraps as well, taking positions at her bound arms and feet. They lifted her together, and slid her into the river, guiding her into the deepest waters. The rocks would weigh the corpse down, but it would still be pulled along by the current. Her body would sink into the river mud. It would bind her to the river.

They came out, shivering, and took places squatting around the fire. God-Speaker faced the stone god.

“Spirit of earth, god of the people, you have chosen us. Gather the other spirits and guide Makes-Medicine to the spirit world. Protect us on our journey. Makes-Medicine, spirit of the river, protect us.”

God-Speaker threw dried herbs on the fire. They crackled and popped, sending fierce sparks and smoke into the air with a cloying sweet smell.

God-Speaker and the hunters wrapped themselves in furs once more. He made a thick paste of ashes and water, closed the eyes of the dead stranger, and covered his face in the mixture, to close the eyes, mouth, nose and ears. Then all the people piled large rocks over the body to protect it from scavengers. Better that any evil remain there, sealed away.

Finally, God-Speaker placed the stone god inside its carrier and hauled it onto his back. He put his own bag over his other shoulder, along with the bag of smaller pouches that had belonged to Makes-Medicine.

God-Speaker studied the faces of the people around him. They were grim and determined.

In all the horror of the day, there was one thing for which he was grateful. Makes-Medicine had given him a path to follow. She was bound to the river. If they spoke of who she had been, she would be Makes-Medicine, but if they spoke of her now, she was River Spirit. They would follow her and trust in her protection as far as she would take them.

The people walked along the stream through the valley and down into the gravel-strewn gully that would take them to the roots of the mountains. The homes where they had wintered were behind them. An uncertain future lay ahead.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 2.1

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

The sky shimmered with green and blue light, but the spirits refused to speak. Once again, God-Speaker wondered if he was suited to his new name. He sat for most of the night, wrapped in seal furs outside his pit house, listening and watching the sky. He slept little. When the first pink light touched the peaks of the mountains, he stood, knees stiff.

The pit house had a roof of branches, dry grass, and moss, bent over a shallow hole in the hard earth. God-Speaker crawled through the entry tunnel — the dip and turn that stopped the wind — to the room inside. Old coals still glowed at its center, a thin line of smoke rising to a small hole in the ceiling.

God-Speaker’s house was small. He had no mate to share it with. His things all fit in one bag. It was similar to what the others would carry: a waterproof seal hide with a leather strap. Along with food, a spear, hides, and a few stone tools, he had herbs, paints, and other tools of magic.

He slung another, empty bag over the other shoulder. He would carry less of the tribe’s supplies than others, but he would carry a heavier weight: the stone god.

It took only a few minutes to pack everything and be ready to leave the winter settlement. When he came out into the cold morning air, it was brighter and others were awake. They ate dried fish, meat or berries; tended their fires; and packed their own things for the upcoming journey.

God-Speaker took a few small bites of smoked salmon as he walked among the pit houses. His stomach churned.

The valley followed a river running between two snowy peaks. The gurgling sound and clean smell of water permeated the little village. The river was deep, and though it had turned icy and shrunk during the winter, it had never frozen or dried up completely. The houses were dug into a flat area of hard earth that led down to the water. God-Speaker walked away from the river, toward a steep, gravel-strewn wall of striped rock on the far side of the houses.

At the end of the little cluster of houses was another house so small that only one person could live there. This was the house of Makes-Medicine, oldest and wisest of their people; shaman and herbalist. She had her own special pouches of herbs and tools to pack, but God-Speaker knew she had risen early as well. Whenever the group traveled, she would look for signs from the spirits, and prepare magic to aid them on their journey. She had built a fire in a shallow hole outside her house and was prodding it with a stick.

“Are you ready?” she asked him, without looking up.

He took a deep breath. He was proud to carry the god, but also nervous.

“Today, you will be God-Speaker and God-Carrier to the tribe,” she said. “I will name you to the spirits before we set out.”

Their people had many names as they grew older. Each person was named soon after birth, for a physical feature, a personality trait, or the hopes that the tribe had for them. As they grew, they acquired new names by their actions. Names were given by the other members of the tribe, but it was good to offer those names to the spirits of the world around them. The spirits were powerful and mysterious. If they recognized the people by their actions, friendly spirits might help them and keep them safe.

God-Speaker was unusual. While men were often hunters and protectors, it was not common for them to be shamans. Women seemed to be more adept with the herbs, potions, and paints. More importantly, they were more likely to hear the spirits. Makes-Medicine often heard the spirits in dreams, but she had told him that others witnessed the spirits in other ways.

God-Speaker had earned his name before the winter set in, by finding the stone god and the place for the village. A voice had called out to him, a voice that nobody else could hear, leading him to a shallow place in the river right before a waterfall. There, sitting on top the other rocks, was the stone god. After that he heard the voices of spirits almost daily.

God-Speaker still wasn’t used to the whispers he heard from the god, and from spirits he couldn’t yet name. They had led him past the waterfall, down to the green valley where his people had spent the winter, and to the cave.

God-Speaker left Makes-Medicine and walked to the sheer rock face. It looked as though a long line of earth had heaved up, making a wall of layered, crumbling stone. A jagged crack split the face from the ground to its upper ridge. God-Speaker squeezed himself sideways into the crack, into the cold darkness. The spring sun was warming the world outside, but it was still winter in the earth.

The crack bent and turned. God-Speaker took his bags off his shoulders, crouched, and pressed through. Beyond the tight entryway was a little chamber. The crack opened up into a low room with a shelf of broken rock at one end. Sharp shards crunched under his feet. On the shelf, surrounded by little offerings of flowers and food, was the god.

It was oblong, with a flat, neckless head. Thick arms and legs wrapped around the huge belly. He had accentuated its features by careful chipping, bringing out the eyes and clawed hands and feet. It was a strange form, a little like the people, and a little like the animals they hunted. Makes-Medicine told him this was how the spirits were: they took whatever forms suited them, and shaped the world in their image.

God-Speaker had to crawl on hands and knees to enter the space, carefully avoiding the sharp rocks. He bent his head low and spoke to the spirit of the rock, in the way that Makes-Medicine had shown him.

“The people must continue our journey today,” he said. “We ask the god of the earth to speak to us. Lead us to safe places. Lead us to food and shelter. The people will give you many good things.”

The god made no response. It was often silent, and would speak to him in its own, mysterious, time.

From his bag, he took several little pouches. Each pouch had a different color of powder prepared by Makes-Medicine. There were orange-red and white powders made by pounding certain river rocks, yellow and bluish-purple from dried flowers, and a dark green paste made from fresh grass and caribou fat.

God-Speaker rubbed the colors into the pitted surface of the stone god. The white of the eyes and the predatory claws. The green of the fertile earth on the body. The yellow of the life-giving sun on the head. The purple-blue of defeated winter ice on the soles of the feet.

With the god suitably honored and prepared, God-Speaker gently placed it into the bag that he had made for it and pulled the rawhide drawstring closed.

God-Speaker heard whispering from the bag, like the sound of leaves in the wind. He opened it. The god spoke to him, though he did not understand how he understood the meaning of the sound. It spoke to him of the journey, of crossing the river and leaving the valley, and of following the rising sun.

The tribe had followed the rising sun for years, searching for a place where the sun was strong enough to hold back the great ice. Searching for a place with more abundant plants and game, and fewer people to hunt the animals.

The whispers continued, and the cave became colder. The journey would be hard. Harder than it had been so far. The blood of the people would be poured out, and the earth would drink it. The people would be tested. God-Speaker would be tested.

The whispers faded, but God-Speaker heard another noise. There was shouting outside the cave.

God-Speaker left the god on the shelf. He squeezed his way back through the crack as quickly as he could. He came out of the cold earth, scraping his shoulder on a sharp edge as he did.

The people were coming out of their pit houses, running toward the noise, which was coming from Makes-Medicine’s house.

A stranger stood there. God-Speaker stopped in shock. It was once rare to meet other tribes, but they were more and more common. Others were also looking for warmer, more hospitable lands. They were not the only ones struggling to find the food to feed everyone.

Still, this stranger was alone, and that was unusual. Nobody could live very long on their own. His tangled hair was a reddish-brown that shone in the sun, unlike the black hair of God-Speaker’s people. He looked sick and starved, his skin taut over the bones of his arms and legs, his ribs showing and his belly round. His eyes were open too wide, bright against his dirty face.

In one hand, he held a stone hand-axe. Something wet hung from it, dripping onto a crumpled shape. It was Makes-Medicine on the ground.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 1.3

Blackness swallowed the orange light. It pulsed red with his heartbeat. The plane had crashed in a fiery cataclysm, and it had somehow engulfed him. He felt nothing. His muscles refused to respond. He was dead. A ghost. Or some remnant that soon would be.

A moment passed. Another. Feeling came back to him: pressure pushing from every direction, crushing inward. His vision was blurry and stinging. Recovering from the immediate shock that had forced the air from his lungs, he instinctively sucked in a breath and found himself choking.

It came to him, as he struggled for air, that the thunderous pain he had felt was his body hitting the water. The explosion of the plane only happened to coincide. The darkness lightened in faint increments. Christopher wondered how many miles he had plunged beneath the surface of the water.

Like everything else, breaching the surface came as a complete surprise to Christopher. The cold air needled his face. He coughed out an unbelievable amount of water, trying desperately to hold his mouth above the surface. Just as he thought he might have gotten most of it out, he went under again for a moment, sucking in a fresh mouthful that led to another round of gagging and coughing.

He finally managed a few quick, shuddering breaths of freezing air. It felt like breathing electricity. It arced down his limbs, into his fingers and toes. Everywhere it touched, fresh pain blossomed into his body. The pulsing black-redness encroached on his vision again and he had to fight it back.

His thoughts had been sluggish on the plane, even under the terror of his situation. The strange disassociation between body and mind had somehow gotten him this far. Now, with the impact of the water and the cold electricity suffusing him, he was fully awake for the first time.

He could breathe. He could swim. His body hurt all over, but there was an entirely different level of pain shooting up his right leg. With his newfound awareness, he knew that the water and the air were too cold. Though it was ostensibly early autumn, winter had clearly started seeping up into these Alaskan mountain valleys.

Whatever rational part of his brain had been guiding him up to this point, it was gone now. All that was left was the eerie sound of the water lapping all around him. Christopher didn’t need a guiding voice to tell him that he had to find shore as quickly as possible.

He pushed his leaden limbs through the water. It was like swimming through molasses. He was not a strong swimmer — God, how he knew he was not a strong swimmer — but he managed a fumbling breast stroke. Here and there, his hands shattered thin sheets of ice on the surface.

This wasn’t the first time he had found himself frantically swimming toward shore. As a child, he had once gone too far out, not fully understanding the differences between lake and ocean. In that case, he had been rescued. He had been a child, but uninjured. Now, he knew there would be no one bringing him to shore. He was grown, but might very well have broken the bones in his legs.

It took so much concentration to simply keep pushing forward that he didn’t notice the shore until it was close. He looked up, trying to muster the energy to continue, and saw a rocky shoreline. The sheets of millimeter-thin ice were smashed and piled up along the rocks under tufts of scrubby grass. Boulders loomed on the slopes beyond, which rose to a stone shelf some fifteen feet high.

Christopher redoubled his efforts, managing to cover more than half the distance before he had to pause again. Despite the intense exercise, he was shivering uncontrollably. He clenched his teeth to stop them chattering. He let his legs sink under him, stretching his toes and discovering that he could just barely touch the lake bottom. He took a few deep breaths and paddled forward.

His strength gave out with little warning, and he suddenly had trouble holding his head above the surface. As he went under, he scrabbled with his feet and found the bottom once more. It was shallower, enough that he could stand with his head tilted and barely keep his mouth above water.

His right leg was in bad shape. He had to push off the bottom with his left. Even a small amount of pressure on the right was excruciating. He fought the urge to reach down and check for protruding bone. He couldn’t pull his knee up anyway.

Pushing with his leg was faster than swimming, at least until the shallows where he had to stand. He took a moment to confirm that there were no jutting bones and nothing was horribly twisted. He tried to put all his weight on his left leg, but it was still too much strain on his right. He got halfway up before it gave out and he splashed down onto his right hip. The pain was a white sheet that covered him. He couldn’t see or feel anything beyond it. He couldn’t tell how much time passed before he was aware of himself again.

Unable to stand, he crawled through the shallows. This was no sandy beach. The lake bottom was covered in smooth-worn lake rocks, with occasional sharp bits that had tumbled down the slopes more recently. Christopher had little feeling in his fingers and suspected they would be torn up by the time he reached shore.

The final gauntlet the lake placed in front of him was five feet of rough gravel beach caked with razor shards of thin surface ice. He crunched through it painfully.

He looked up from his ground-level drama to find the nearest tree. It was a gnarled pine with clumps of finger-length needles. He set this as his target and continued crawling into the crispy, freeze-dried scrub grass. He was shaking with fatigue and pain now, as well as cold. Harsh wind sucked heat from his wet body. His clothes were already stiffening.

The lowest branches of the tree were five feet up the trunk. Christopher propped himself onto his left knee and grasped the deep crevices between chunks of bark. Finally hauling himself into a standing position, he kept his weight on one leg, hugging the trunk while he caught his breath.

It was incredible that he had survived all of this. The jump from the plane. The swim to the shore. The sort of thing they’d write about in world record books, or at least one of those “Strange, But True” articles. Really a shame then, that he would die of hypothermia after all that.

He thought he felt his shivering subsiding, though the creeping numbness made it difficult to tell. He knew that was the beginning of the end. Shivering meant the body was at least fighting for warmth. When it gave up the fight, you were really in trouble.

Now that he was on his feet, he wondered what good it would do him with one good leg. He probably wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. He probably hadn’t been thinking clearly at any point in this debacle.

He managed to move a few feet with a couple awkward hops, from the gnarled pine to the slanted rock face. He could see a deeper shadow among the rocks, an indentation in the side of the cliff that might offer some small shelter from the wind.

It was a little easier hopping along the wall, his left hand steadying him. The rock had fractured in fist-sized chunks, leaving plenty of handholds. He had to stop to breathe and recover from the pain between hops. Time was something theoretical to him now, not actually felt in any meaningful way. He had never been so exhausted. This, he thought, is what it feels like when all energy leaves the body. This is what it feels like to die.

The alcove in the rock, as it turned out, was deeper than he expected. It was more like a shallow cave. As he hopped inside, he found that he didn’t feel cold anymore. Probably the hypothermia, more than being out of the wind.

The little cave was the size and rough shape of a doorway, but it still came as a surprise to Christopher when he found a door set into the rock a couple feet inside. It was a very sturdy-looking gray metal door with dime-sized rivets around its perimeter. A thin strip of glass was embedded at eye-level, but it was covered with grime and frost. Christopher could see nothing but darkness behind it.

The door had a large handle embedded near the center, clearly intended to rotate. It was not dissimilar to the one Christopher had used to open the airplane door. A perfectly flat strip of rock had been cut away along the right side of the door, and embedded into this was a small box with little metal buttons bearing numbers from zero to nine.

“This must be the hallucination part,” Christopher whispered to himself. He normally made an effort not to talk to himself, but it hardly seemed worth it at this point. He jabbed a finger at the keypad, firmly pressing the “5” key in the middle. It depressed with a satisfying click, a bit like dialing an old pay phone. There was no readout or any other indication of the key he had pressed.
“The password isn’t ‘five’ then,” he muttered.

He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Even leaning against the door, he was barely able to stay upright on his one decent leg. Still, it felt right to make at least one attempt at the code before sliding into oblivion.

He decided that the code to his garage keypad was as good a guess as any. It was his birthday.

111183.

That was what he decided. Apparently his fingers had different plans. He was wavering. He observed that the code he entered was not the code to his garage keypad. It was not his birthday.

122, he observed.

199 followed.

There was the deep hiss of oiled metal on metal, followed by a surprisingly loud thunk behind the door. Christopher grasped the long handle with both hands and pulled. It held firm.

Good attempt, Christopher thought. “A” for effort.

A thick crust of dirt or ice broke free at the point where the handle connected to its axle, embedded in the door. The resistance gave way, and Christopher’s shoulder slid. The handle groaned, shedding the last of the caked-on gunk, and the handle rotated home, landing at the opposite end of its arc with another solid thump.

The door immediately swung open on huge, silent hinges. Christopher followed it, sliding, then falling. He landed, again, on his injured hip, but the pain was muffled in his fading consciousness. It was happening, but so far away. He rolled to his final resting position, on his back on some sort of smooth, warm floor.

The doorway was embedded a half-step up the wall, so that the door banged fully open, then ponderously swung over him, back the way it came. It blocked the faint light of the stars and moon beyond.

On the floor, in the utter blackness, there was nothing left to do. No more shore to find, no more tree to crawl to, no more strange doors or number pads. Christopher could stop. He could rest. He let go, and sank down, deep into the darkness.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 1.2

Christopher sat in the pilot’s seat. He still felt like a passenger, panic-stricken and helpless while his body seemed to act of its own accord. There was some part of him that knew what it was doing. A part he wasn’t familiar with. A part that took in the situation without emotion and formulated a plan.

The lights and screens in front of Christopher flickered and died. He had touched nothing. The noise of the engines changed timbre, then cut out entirely, leaving only the roar of the wind.

He looked for landmarks through the windows. If he was anywhere close to his original destination, the only human habitation this far north would be small towns and villages. He didn’t see any lights on the ground.

Tentatively, he gripped the flight stick. This felt like a point of no return. He knew nothing about the plane, but it had apparently been flying itself. Was there an autopilot? In any case, he was introducing his own control into the equation. Whatever happened next, good or bad, would be his own fault.

The plane was going to crash. That was an inescapable fact. He probably couldn’t land a plane under the best conditions. Were there parachutes? He didn’t know where they would be.

A crash would almost certainly kill him. People survived plane crashes sometimes, but it was all down to luck. Would it be better to jump? Avoid the crash altogether? Without a parachute, he’d be splattered across some mountainside.

People jumped out of planes in action movies. They’d jump an absurdly long distance, land in water, and be running and gunning a scene later. Of course, that wasn’t real life. Still, real people jumped long distances into water. Cliff divers. Olympic divers.

He tried turning the plane, ever so slightly to the left. His instinct told him that he would have to really muscle the yoke, but it was actually a lot like driving a car. The plane slowly banked to the left. The nose nudged forward as well, and Christopher had to pull back to keep it level.

It was eerily quiet without the sound of the engines, leaving only the noise of the wind across the outside of the craft.
Christopher continued to bank gradually left, afraid that any attempt at a tighter turn would send the craft spinning out of control. He squinted into the dark landscape below, looking for the telltale glint of moonlight on water. All he saw was a shadowy mix of pines and rocky ridges.

When he finally saw water, he immediately realized he had two major problems. First, it was difficult to tell exactly where the water was. A glint here or there didn’t tell him how big the body of water was, or where the shore was. Second, he was very high, moving very fast. He didn’t know how big the waves on a placid mountain lake might be, but they were barely pinpricks of light from his vantage.

He tried to hold the plane in a wide, lazy spiral, in hopes of slowly descending while keeping the lake in view. The plane felt sluggish, and Christopher quickly discovered that his own internal sense of balance was fighting him up in the air. There was no flat horizon for reference. He was surrounded by jagged peaks, indistinct against the clouded sky. He felt the plane accelerating, nose too far forward, but when he pulled back to compensate, he had the sudden sensation that the nose was far too high, headed toward a catastrophic stall.

Christopher felt panic reaching up from his stomach into his chest. He he had been holding his breath, and his teeth hurt from clenching. He had no training. There was no way he could keep the plane level, and it was even more far-fetched that he’d be able to manage a nice spiral down to the water.

Instead, he turned the plane until the moon was more or less behind him, then tipped the nose down. He thought the water was beneath and perhaps behind him now. The plane was descending fast. The trees below, still indistinct, felt uncomfortably close. Facing the nearby mountains, snow-dusted ridges aglow in the moonlight, he realized that he was now below the tops of the larger peaks. If he kept going, he would crash head-on.

He continued in the same direction as long as he dared, feeling like he could vomit at any moment. He could only guess at the distances. Finally, he began to turn. He kept the nose of the plane slightly down, and felt the pressure of the g-forces before he realized he was in a much tighter turn than before. The entire airplane shook.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” Christopher said under his breath, yanking the control back the other direction. Now the nose was too high. Christopher could see stars peaking through the clouds, directly ahead. He couldn’t see the ground.

His mind was blank with fear. He had no idea how to control this thing. He was going to die.

At that moment, an overwhelming sense of detachment hit him. He felt his adrenaline-soaked body, but it was like a machine he was driving — one step removed from him. Likewise, his panicked thoughts were muffled, like someone was shouting in a room down the hall.

That other part of Christopher, detached from the emotion and the bodily chemicals, guided him. Look for the moon. Aim toward it. Find the moonlight on the water as you approach.

It wasn’t like talking to himself, where he was really carrying both sides of a conversation. This felt more like some internal filter had shut down. Like a door had opened in his chest, allowing these instructions in his guts to make their way up to his brain.

Wherever the instructions came from, they had a better grip on the situation than he did, so he did his best to follow them. With the nose of the aircraft already too high in the sky, it wasn’t hard to find the moon, still some 45 degrees to his left. He stopped fighting the controls and let the plane continue its too-tight bank toward the moonlight. He did his best to tip the nose back toward the earth.

The moon moved toward the center of the windshield, then continued past, still accelerating. Christopher pulled back slowly, still keeping the nose down. He nearly fell out of the seat. The plane shook so hard he thought it might break in half. The moon was high and at an angle now, but coming back in the right direction.

The clouds around the moon parted, imparting fresh light on the landscape, and Christopher became aware of a ridge as the plane was passing over it. It could have been five feet below, or fifty.

He didn’t see the glint of the moon on the water until it was already beneath the plane. How big was the lake? Was it too late now? Wasn’t he still too high up?

It doesn’t matter, the internal voice told him. There was no way he could bring the plane around again, and even if he could, the moon would be behind him and it would be nearly impossible to see the water. It wouldn’t matter how high he was.
Jump now, and there’s a chance. Wait, and there isn’t.

Christopher forced himself to let go of the controls, jumped out of the seat and tried to run down the narrow aisle between seats. He misjudged how tilted the plane was, and veered hard into a seat, knocking the breath out of him.

He continued down the aisle, struggling to breathe, grabbing the chair backs and pulling himself more than walking. The nose of the plane was plunging now. He reached the back of the plane, the rearmost seat quickly becoming a ledge that held him on a steepening slope. His backpack and the other luggage strained at the netting that held them. There would be no time to extricate anything.

Christopher half-crawled, half-climbed the rear seat to reach the doorway. It had a lever slightly inset, with a helpful red arrow painted beneath. He pulled it in the indicated direction with a satisfying “thunk.” It barely opened, thrumming in the wind.

Christopher had expected it to slam open or even be torn off, but the door faced the wrong direction — the airflow was holding it closed. He gave it a shove, but was only able to move it an inch or two before it slammed back.

He found a foothold in the metal connections between the seat and the floor, pressed his back and shoulder against the door, and pushed. The handle dug into his back. The door gave a few inches, and he held it, trying to push hard enough to lock his knees. The gap was wide enough to force an arm through. He took a deep breath and shoved again, trying to force his upper body through. As the roaring wind whipped at his hair, he tried not to imagine what would happen if the door slammed shut with his head in it.

Squirming and shoving, Christopher forced his upper body through the door and became intensely aware that he was hanging out of a plane. The clawing fear in his chest tried to reassert itself, but the calm calculation that was driving him left no room for doubt.

What he was doing was insane. He would probably die. But the alternative was to definitely die. There was no time, and there was no room for argument.

He pushed with arms and legs, the metal door scraping his back and stomach and tearing the hem of his shirt. He felt a button pop, and then, as though that were the last thing holding him in, he slid out of the aircraft and into the night sky.

He tumbled violently end-over-end, first screaming and then vomiting into the cold night air. He wanted to curl into a ball, to hide from the wind that tore at him, but that quiet internal voice told him he needed to stabilize and orient himself. He flung his arms and legs out wide, centrifugal force aiding him against the wind, his tumble slowing to a ponderous pirouette.

A shoe tumbled past. It was his own, pulled off his foot as he slid through the plane door.

There was a sudden flash of light, an instant sunrise, followed a fraction of a second later by a shockwave of heat and noise. Christopher had just enough time to register a fireball outlining trees and rocks in searing light, and pull his limbs in before he was engulfed in pain.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 1.1

The cave was night-dark and claustrophobic, crowded with indistinct shapes. Christopher struggled to identify his surroundings through eyes bleary with sleep. All around him was loud buzzing; it permeated his body. He pressed his palms to his eyes and breathed deep, trying to clear his head.

His surroundings were shadowy, but Christopher could make more sense of the shapes around him as he blinked away his grogginess. The hunched shapes were seats. He fumbled around, felt the thin padding beneath and behind him, felt the armrests.

Christopher’s perception shifted and he understood what he was seeing. Not a cave; an airplane cabin. Why had he thought it was a cave? Moonlight illuminated the small, round windows. The prop engines buzzed. Now that he was paying attention, Christopher could feel their vibration through his seat.

He tried again to blink away the sleepiness that clung like cobwebs. Even when he had pulled all-nighters in college, he hadn’t felt this brain-dead. This was worse than a hangover.

The other salespeople had warned him against sleeping on planes. Better to hold out and hit a new time zone running. They all had their little rituals and superstitions for effective travel. He had rolled his eyes, but it all seemed less absurd now, as his brain pounded against his skull.

He tried to stand and found himself still seat-belted. He fumbled the clasp open and got to his feet, immediately banging his head on the sloped ceiling above. For a moment, pain cut through the fog of his thoughts.

It was too dark in the passenger section of the little plane. Before he had dozed off, Christopher recalled little LEDs along the aisle floor between the seats, and recessed lights hidden in the seam between wall and ceiling. This little plane had pairs of seats back-to-back, and he was facing the tail. He had to turn around to face the front of the plane. There were only eight pairs of seats in the passenger area, and Christopher’s was in the middle.

The seats were all empty.

Christopher took a few tentative steps forward, sidling up the narrow aisle. Nobody was slouching or sleeping against the window. The seats were definitely empty. Hadn’t there been passengers on the plane with him?

He struggled to remember, stepping back toward his own seat. There were two pairs of seats ahead of him, and one pair behind. Beyond that was the tiny toilet that faced the boarding door, the privacy curtain open, the toilet unoccupied. What little space was left in the tail end was taken up by the luggage area, separated from the passengers by netting that attached to hooks along the walls, floor and ceiling. The netting was detached from several of the floor hooks. Christopher’s travel backpack lay on the other side, next to a black duffel bag and a large travel suitcase with a blue and green floral pattern. Those other bags weren’t his. They had to belong to someone.

He tried to think back to boarding the little plane in Anchorage. It felt like a long time ago. Christopher had never tried any drugs stronger than alcohol or coffee, but he wondered if this was what it might feel like. Like there was a gauzy separation between his sense of self and the thinking part of his brain.

There had been a person, a man, who had stepped onto the plane before him. Younger, Christopher thought. Dark hair, parted. Jeans and a brown sport coat. The coat stood out vividly. It was a very “70s TV professor” look that reminded Christopher vaguely of the suit his father had worn in old wedding photos.

There had been a middle-aged woman too. Older than Christopher, maybe in her forties? She had boarded after him and gone to one of the front seats. All he could picture of her was a tight bun of blond hair, loose wisps of gray at her temples.

Had they landed and taken off again, all while he slept? Wasn’t it a direct flight? He found his boarding pass in his pocket, but it was impossible to read the smudged text on the low-res picture of Alaskan mountains and forests. Why was it so dark?

In the curve where ceiling met wall above each seat, there were shapes and depressions. Christopher ran a hand along them, trying to find some button or control for the lights. He found what felt like a vent, and what might be a light in a sort of ball socket that allowed it to rotate. There was no control for the light, as far as he could tell.

The plane shuddered and lurched, forcing Christopher to grab on to the seat back. He froze as a thought meandered through the maze of his brain. He looked toward the front of the plane.

He had only ever flown on large commercial flights. He was used to thinking of the passenger area of the plane being a separate universe from the pilot’s cabin. He had vague memories of a time before 9/11 when kids could meet the pilot in the middle of a flight and the cockpit was wide open and friendly, but all of his adult life, the doors to the front of any passenger plane had been locked like a vault.

On this little plane, however, there was only a curtain between the eight passenger seats and the two-seat cockpit of the plane. Christopher could ask the pilot to turn on the interior lights. He could ask what had happened to the other two passengers. He’d probably feel like a fool when the pilot explained the flight plan that was no doubt printed on his boarding pass.

He felt a heart-thumping trepidation sidling up the aisle toward the cockpit. He tried to think exactly what he wanted to ask the pilot. The plane lurched again, and Christopher fell forward. He tried to grab the faux-wooden partition that bordered the curtain, but missed and got tangled in the curtain itself.

The curtain was attached to a rail with metal rings, and there was a series of snaps as they tore away. The curtain slid to the side, and Christopher stumbled awkwardly against the partition, halfway into the cockpit, left arm still wrapped in the curtain.
The only light in the cockpit came from the glow of the instruments: panels of LEDs, switches, buttons, dials and levers, and three small monitors. They illuminated two empty seats.

Christopher stared at the myriad instruments for a moment. The monitors showed a little representation of the plane superimposed over lines that must be altitude or angle or something, and a crawling topographic map of mountainous terrain, overlaid with dozens of readouts, numbers, dials and graphs.

Christopher knew there were reasonable explanations for the missing passengers. He had no trouble coming up with potential explanations for that. When he saw the pilot’s seat empty, however, his mind stopped working for a moment. There was no explanation for Christopher being on a plane with no pilot.

He looked through the front windshield. They were definitely in the air. The moon was visible among wispy clouds, off to the left. The darkness below was rough and textured: pine forest and snowy rock. Glints of moonlight on water. The ground appeared worryingly close, but it was difficult to tell by the moonlight.

Christopher could feel his own heart, beating too fast in his chest. He heard his breathing over the buzz of the prop engines. He looked past the curtain, down the aisle to the luggage area at the back of the plane. He was incredibly alone.

The mental fog that had surrounded him since he woke now threatened to envelop him completely. He was numb. He was aware of his own hands shaking, but he couldn’t feel them. His body was something entirely disconnected from him.

He felt something else: a wordless voice, a stream of dispassionate information at the back of his head. It told him, with neither interest or judgment, that he needed to act immediately or he was going to die.

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The Blank Page

Every writer knows the daunting feeling of staring at the blank page. There’s promise and possibility. There’s a perfect story in your head, in that hazy wonderland where all characters are rounded and all plots are hole-free, and your brilliant, subtle themes give future literature professors whole semesters of discussion topics.

Unfortunately, as soon as it’s on the page, all the imperfections become obvious. Writing gets hard when you get down to the actual words. Like any other story, this blog is going to be one thing in my head, and another thing entirely when it’s on the page.

Bloggery

I’m going to talk about techniques and experiences. I’m going to point to things that I think are great, and do my best to explain why. I may review books or other media, but I’m more interested in what we can learn from it than any opinions on how “good” something is.

Serialized Fiction

Following in the footsteps of Dickens and Dumas, I’m going to be publishing free, (eventually) novel-length fiction here, hopefully weekly. This will be a fun experiment; I’ve never put work out into the world this way.

Writing…Live!

Another experiment I’d like to try is live-streaming writing sessions. The act of writing is oddly intimate, and while writers love to talk about writing, we rarely have an opportunity to see the first drafts or the editing as they happen. It may be a great way to start discussions. It might be a disaster. If nothing else, it should be interesting.

And More?

Of course, now that this post is nearly done, I find that it’s much worse than what I thought it would be, when the page was still blank. I’m sure there will be other things we do here. Other ideas. Other inspirations. We’ll keep some characters and kill off others. We’ll find the plot eventually. There will be a glorious arc. It’ll all work out.

At the very least, I’ll get it out of my head and onto the page.