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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Storytelling Class — Mysteries

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was mysteries.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side collections, and started on the first book of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading collections of short stories, including some of the anthologies that I got from the Martian Kickstarter. I also checked out the first three volumes of Locke and Key from the library, and I’m working through those.

What Did We Write?

Freya continues to work on her chapter book, Amber and Floria. She recently felt the downsides of exploratory writing as she had to rewrite her first two chapters to match the way the later parts evolved.

I’ve been working on Razor Mountain, and spending a little time here and there working on short stories.

Mysteries

Our topic for this class was crafting satisfying mysteries.

The first thing to note is that there are “big mysteries” that drive the whole plot of a story, as in murder mysteries and police procedurals. There are also “little mysteries” that can serve a few different purposes in a story, but all boil down to reasons for the reader to keep reading.

Little mysteries don’t have to be long and drawn out like big mysteries. They can be posed and resolved in the same chapter, or even a single conversation.

Many mysteries are just questions the reader asks the story, like:

  • What happened?
  • What happens next?
  • Why is this thing like that?
  • Who is this person and why did they do that?

Mysteries can also be just for a character, while the reader can see all the answers. Then the question for the reader becomes “how will the character find the answer I already know?” A lot of tension can be added to a story by letting the reader get information that a character doesn’t have. The character, using the limited information at their disposal, may make reasonable choices that the reader knows are bad. Few things are more harrowing for a reader than watching a character make bad choices that they think are good choices.

Driving a Story With Mysteries

Mysteries are a great way to define a section of a story, or an arc. Each mystery naturally has a beginning (when the mystery is first posed), a middle (when the characters work through the clues and overcome obstacles) and an ending (when the answer to the mystery is revealed).

To drive a story with mysteries though, you’ll need multiple mysteries being created and resolved over the course of the plot. This can be done in two basic ways, which I’ll call overlapping mysteries and feeding mysteries.

Overlapping mysteries are not necessarily directly related to each other. A character might have a personal mystery that affects themselves, and a larger mystery they’re working on that ties into the big plot. For example, a police detective who is trying to solve a murder, but spends his off-hours trying to find his long-lost child, hidden from him by his late ex-wife.

Feeding mysteries are arranged so that the solution to one mystery provides clues or ties into another mystery. A common type of plot twist is when two mysteries that appear to just be overlapping may turn out to actually be feeding into one another. In our example, maybe the detective discovers that he did have a child, and the picture he found looks suspiciously similar to the killer he’s tracking.

Feeding a personal mystery into the bigger plot mystery is a great way to set up personal stakes for a character, and then make those stakes affect the outcome of the story.

Making a Mystery

I won’t claim there is a single formula for creating mysteries, but I’ll provide a few steps you can run through to get started.

  1. Come up with a question. This is your mystery.
  2. Answer the question. This is the payoff.
  3. Add an obscuring complication.
  4. Find a way for the character(s) to overcome that complication.
  5. Repeat and nest as necessary.

When you’re first coming up with your question and answer, don’t worry if the answer seems obvious. The key is to start by having something to ask and knowing the answer.

Once you have a question and answer, you can add an obscuring complication. This can be anything that makes it harder for the characters to discover the answer. This is how you can adjust the difficulty of the mystery.

Will the mystery be more difficult for the characters if some piece of critical information is missing? They could solve it easily if only the murder weapon wasn’t missing! Perhaps a character flaw would make it harder for them to solve. Too bad the character is an antisocial lone wolf, because the person they never get along with would be able to see exactly what’s going on. You can add multiple obstacles if you want the character to go through several steps to solve the mystery.

Then, for each obstacle, you must determine the way that the character(s) will ultimately overcome it and move the plot forward.

Once you have a complete arc—question, obstacle, overcoming, and solution—you can begin to overlap or feed one mystery into another.

A Mystery Is Only as Good as Its Payoff

A final warning: one of the most dangerous things you can do as a writer is to create lots of mysteries without knowing the answers or how to resolve them.

Episodic TV shows fall into this trap all the time, because creating big mysteries gets viewers excited. However, as the show carries on, they either fail to provide solutions to the mysteries or create such tangled, nonsensical plot webs to justify their solutions that the whole thing falls apart.

Nobody will remember or appreciate how well you built up that tantalizing mystery if the payoff turns out to be garbage.

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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Razor Mountain — Chapter 12.3

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

They walked. A sliver of moon rose, giving them a little more light to see by, and the girl slowed her pace. Her head still swiveled constantly, watching the shadows.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

She scrawled in the notebook and held it up to the light, still walking.

Amaranth

“Who was shooting at me, Amaranth?” Christopher asked.

She turned to look at him, then closed the notebook and kept walking.

He stopped.

“Look, I’ve had a lot happen to me out here, and none of it makes any sense. Yesterday I didn’t know if anyone even lived out here. Now I’ve apparently got someone trying to kill me. You’ve got to tell me something about what’s going on.”

She wrote in the book.

Be patient. Answers when we get there.

“Where is there?”

She started walking again.

“Look,” Christopher said. “I need you to give me something here, or I’m not going.”

Amaranth turned to face him. He tried to look determined, despite holding the thin blanket wrapped around him and shivering. She half-smiled sadly at him, raised a hand in farewell, and walked backward a few paces before turning and continuing on her way.

Christopher sighed and followed.

“What a skill, to be sarcastic without even speaking.”

They walked for hours, Christopher in sullen silence, Amaranth seemingly in her element. She exuded a confidence and grace moving through the woods.  After a while, he realized that she was leading him through the thickest parts of the forest, keeping them well-hidden from distant eyes.

“Did you leave that rabbit for me?” he asked.

She nodded.

“How long have you been watching me?”

She didn’t reply.

Christopher felt himself beginning to slow. He stumbled. He hadn’t gotten a proper meal or a rest after he set up camp, and the blanket wasn’t an adequate replacement for his coat, especially as the night grew colder. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

Amaranth glanced back at him, and he thought he caught a hint of concern behind the serious expression.

Finally, she stopped and took out the notebook again.

Wait here.

Christopher looked around. They were still in the middle of the forest, in a place that looked the same as anywhere else they had hiked that night.

“What do you mean, ‘wait here?’” he hissed. “You’re the first person I’ve seen since my plane crashed. I’d rather not be alone in the woods again.”

I’ll come back.

He nodded. There wasn’t much point in arguing. She could run off into the woods if she wanted to, and he would never be able to keep up.

She crept off, and he found a dry patch of soft forest detritus under a big pine. He sat with his back to the tree, the blanket wrapped tightly around him. He instinctively faced south, away from the broken mountain peak and the source of the shooting.

Christopher tried not to nod off, his fingers going numb, wondering if he was cold enough now that he might not wake up again. He could no longer keep his teeth from chattering. He vaguely remembered reading that it was only when the body gave up on shivering that you really knew you were in trouble.

The tiny patches of black sky between the branches were just starting to turn morning gray when Amaranth returned. He didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until she shook his shoulder.

The notebook raised into his field of view as he blinked away the bleariness and tried to focus.

Let’s go. There’s a place up ahead where you can warm up.

She grabbed his hand and helped him to his feet. They trekked onward. The ground grew more uneven and rocky. There were boulders among the trees.

Then they came to a gully that descended into the earth, twisting and turning. It widened and led to a broad depression in front of a wall of rock, a ridge about ten feet high. The depression had become a little pond of dirty, frozen water. Set into the rock face a row of three drainage pipes, each a few inches in diameter and covered with rusted metal grating. They were half-visible, half-buried in the ice. Next to them was a metal hatch with a lever set into it. The design was similar to the door of the bunker, but twice as wide and slightly taller. The bottom of the door was also beneath the level of the ice. Christopher saw chunks had been chipped and cracked away along the frame.

Amaranth led him across the dirty ice, which was slippery in spots and rough in others. There was a number pad in the wall next to this door, just like the bunker, and she shielded it from view with one hand while she punched in numbers. There was a thud from within the door. She pulled the lever, then pointed to Christopher and mimed pushing.

“Teamwork?” he asked, and she nodded. They both put a shoulder against the door and did their best to find purchase on the ice. The door groaned and scraped, and eventually slid about a quarter of the way open. Amaranth slipped inside, and Christopher followed.

Beyond the door was a hallway, perhaps fifty feet long, that looked as though it was cut through solid stone. It was fairly smooth, but not as smooth as the walls of the bunker. It had faint circular scoring, like the marks of some high-powered drill or saw. There were webs of cracks running across the floor, some barely visible, others wide enough that he could stick a finger in. Most of them glistened with cold moisture.

Christopher looked back at Amaranth as she shoved the door closed and pulled the lever back into place. The hatch was keeping out most of the moisture, for now. Surely it would be an issue when the summer thaw came.

“What happened here?” he asked. “The bunker was in great shape. This place looks like it was hit with an earthquake.”

Amaranth shrugged and scribbled in the notebook in the half-light. Circular holes in the hallway ceiling provided diverted sunlight, but it was dim.

Problem with the geothermal. Before my time.

She led him to a similar hatch at the far end of the hallway. This one had no keypad, just a lever. It was in good shape, opening easily. A wave of warmer air washed over them as they entered.

On the other side was a huge space. It was outfitted like an old-fashioned office, with rows upon rows of identical desks. There were filing cabinets here and there. Much of it was knocked over or broken or shoved out of the neat and orderly rows. He found himself in a space near the door that looked like a sort of waiting area, with coat hooks on the wall and two rows of metal chairs all bolted together. The ceiling was higher here, but the light was still dim. A section of the room on his right actually tilted at a disconcerting angle, as if it had sunk a foot or two from the rest of the floor. It was eerie, deserted, and quiet. The air was stale and musty. Christopher felt like he was stepping into a scene from a horror movie.

Amaranth led him on a path through the sea of desks and fallen filing cabinets. She navigated the maze of furniture with the ease of familiarity, and she seemed less guarded and wary than she had been in the woods.

There were papers scattered here and there, occasional coffee mugs, pens and pencils. Christopher was hardly knowledgeable about architecture and design, but it all had a very post-war look to it, maybe the 40s or 50s. A few things, like a winged figure in stained-glass and chrome decorating one wall, seemed older.

They reached the far wall of the huge room and began to follow it to the left. They passed an opening, an empty metal door-frame with broken hinges still attached, but no door. It was a stairwell, but unnavigable because it had been crammed completely full of desks, chairs and filing cabinets, all the way to the ceiling. It was clearly a barricade, and it did not make Christopher feel any more at ease.

A little way further down, they came to a pair of elevators with steel doors, a rainbow of oxidation creeping across them like lichen. Amaranth took a short piece of metal out of her backpack. It looked like it had been broken off some piece of machinery for use as a makeshift crowbar. She wedged it between the doors and pulled them open far enough to put an arm through. After that, they gave way with little effort. The girl banged a syncopated rhythm on the metal door before putting the bar back into her backpack.

She gestured to Christopher, then pointed to the side wall of the empty elevator shaft. Christopher leaned forward and peered into the abyss. There was a ladder along the indicated wall, leading up and down into darkness.

“Up or down?”

Amaranth pointed down.

Christopher took a deep breath and fought back a little vertigo. It was perilous stretching out an arm and a leg to the ladder while clinging to the edge of the opening. Once he had hands and feet firmly planted, he felt a little more at ease. He wasn’t particularly scared of heights, but he was not comfortable hanging in the dark shaft, gripping a rusty ladder.

Amaranth illuminated the shaft with her flashlight while he got onto the ladder and began to descend, but she turned it off and stowed it before she followed. Christopher found himself in nearly complete darkness, with the sound of their feet on the ladder echoing dully around them. When his foot hit the bottom of the shaft, it was a shock.

He stepped out of the way, giving her space to come down. The bottom of the shaft was bare except for what looked like a big shock absorber made of thick rubber, dry and cracked. There was no elevator car, which made Christopher wonder if it was hanging suspended, high above them.

Amaranth reached the bottom of the ladder and stepped past him. She turned on the flashlight again, illuminating a low metal door in the concrete sides of the pit. She banged on it, the same odd rhythm she had used at the top of the shaft. Christopher realized it was a code, or a password. After a moment, the door opened, letting in too-bright light. Amaranth ushered him through.

He had to bend to fit through the door, squinting and half-blind. When he came up, he found himself in a small utility room. Discolored stripes on the walls indicated where shelves had been removed. A man in camouflage fatigues with a bushy beard and wild hair stood in front of him, holding a rifle. It wasn’t pointed directly at Christopher, and the man had his finger on the side of the trigger guard, but his bearing and his stare told Christopher that the gun could be brought to bear quickly, if that proved necessary.

Christopher held his open hands out at his sides as Amaranth stepped out next to him and closed the little door.

Christopher was unceremoniously ushered out of the room, his two armed companions behind him. They walked down another nondescript hallway to another room. This looked like a central area with more hallways and doors leading off in every direction. It felt more like a custodial or maintenance area than the offices above. There were a few chairs and tables crammed into the space, and a group of people. Two were playing cards at a table. Others leaned against the wall, resting or sleeping. Two men stood in one corner, talking quietly. All of them wore the same camouflage fatigues with no insignia. They all stopped what they were doing to silently watch Christopher as he entered.

He glanced back at Amaranth. She tilted her head slightly and raised her eyebrows. He took a deep breath.

“Um. Hi,” he said, addressing the group. “My name is Christopher, and I have no idea what is going on.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 12.2

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

Christopher jumped up from the fallen log that he had rolled up next to the campfire. He dove into the shadows of the surrounding trees, out of the firelight.

From the sound of gunfire in the distance, the shots had come from the direction of the broken mountain peak. That was the one direction where there was a clear view into the clearing where he had set up his tent.

Silent seconds ticked by. The fire still crackled merrily. The tantalizing smell of the half-cooked rabbit still hung in the air. It lay across the makeshift scaffold of sticks and twine, just above the tips of the flames. Without Christopher to rotate the spit, it would soon begin to burn.

A speculative shot hit the base of a birch just a foot to the right of Christopher’s head, leaving a flap of papery bark hanging loose. Christopher rolled again, further from the fire and the clearing.

He tried to think. He had packed a rifle, but it was on the sled and he had no idea how to find a target. The idea of shooting at someone, even someone who was shooting at him, turned his stomach.

Everything he had brought with him was in the clearing, in the tent or backpack or sled. He had even taken off his coat while he sat by the fire. It lay on the fallen log. If the shooter really was as far away as they seemed, he could easily escape under the cover of the thick forest in the dark. But how far would he get without the coat or his supplies?

A whistle cut through the air. It sounded close. Christopher scanned the shadows at the opposite edge of the clearing. There was a crouched shape there. As his eyes focused on it, a tiny white light flashed at him three times. In those momentary flashes, he could see the faint outline of a person.

It was too much. After weeks alone in the woods, it felt like the world was crashing down on him all at once.

He saw the shadow flit around the outer edge of the clearing, moving toward him quickly and soundlessly. He instinctively scuttled backward into the woods, too frantic to make it onto his feet. The shape crouched next to him, and the light came on again. It was a flashlight, one of those big, serious, black metal flashlights that police sometimes used, probably because they could be used as a weapon in a pinch. It had a hand cupped over the illuminated end, glowing pink and letting only a sliver of light out.

In that sliver of light, Christopher saw a girl in green and brown camouflage fatigues. Her brown hair was pulled back in a tight, short pony tail. She looked young, maybe a teenager. A rifle was slung over her shoulder, the barrel poking up behind her left ear.

She said nothing, but motioned toward the clearing, the fire and his supplies. Then she slashed a hand horizontally in two quick chops and shook her head.

Don’t go that way. Got it, Christopher thought.

She pointed to him, then to herself, then swept a down-pointed finger in a half-circle, pointing across the clearing. She was saying they should both go around the clearing, outside the firelight, and continue to the east. She turned off the light and motioned for him to follow her, both of them just shadows in the trees again.

Christopher was grateful for the direction, the opportunity to not have to make a decision for himself. He clearly didn’t have enough information. It hurt to think about leaving all of his supplies behind, but the idea of going back into the clearing to get them was absurd.

The girl moved much faster than Christopher. She ran ahead silently, then waited for him to catch up before taking off again. When he caught up to her a second time, she put a single vertical finger to her lips. He was obviously being too loud for her.

He raised his eyebrows, shrugged and put his hands out, palms up, in the universal silent gesture for, What the hell am I supposed to do? I’m not a ninja like you.

The whites of her eyes flashed in the darkness as she rolled them and kept going.

They continued for what felt like only a few minutes. Christopher had a hard time guessing how much time had passed. It was long enough that the adrenaline started to fade and he began to shiver without his coat. She stopped and took off a backpack, much smaller than his. She pulled out a thin blanket and handed it to him. He wrapped it around his body. He saw a sizable sheathed knife and a handgun in the bag. The girl took out a dirty, bent, pocket-sized notebook and a pencil.

She turned the light on again, setting the illuminated end into the snow to limit the light it gave off.

She scribbled on the notebook, then held it close to the light.

Who are you?

He reached out for the pencil, but she pulled it to herself as if it was a precious thing. She wrote again.

You can talk. I can’t.

She raised the light a little, then tilted her chin and pointed to her neck. Several vertical scars ran along her trachea.

“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

She shrugged and pointed at her original question on the page.

“My name is Christopher,” he said. “I…I was in a plane crash a few weeks ago. I’ve been trying to find people. Trying to find a way to get home.”

How did you survive?

“The crash, or afterward?” he asked.

She nodded.

He thought for a moment, trying to figure out how to put it all into words.

She wrote again.

Don’t lie.

He blinked. “I’m not. I’m just not sure how to describe it. It all sounds ridiculous to me. I can’t imagine how it sounds to someone else.”

She waited.

“I jumped out of the plane, before it crashed. I landed in water. Somehow, I didn’t break myself in half, although my knee has been pretty screwed up since then. I think I was probably pretty close to hypothermia, but I found…a door, a hatch in the side of a cliff. And inside, it was warm. There were supplies and beds and running water.”

She stared into his eyes for a moment, then nodded as though satisfied. She wrote in the notebook.

Come with me.

“Where are we going?”

Her pencil hovered over the page for a few seconds.

Maybe we can help each other.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 12.1

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

Christopher shivered, despite the bright mid-morning sun. He squatted and studied the skinned and skewered rabbit as though it were a bomb he had to diffuse. He shaded his eyes and squinted into the surrounding trees. A pair of small birds flitted in the shade, but there was no other movement.

“Why don’t you just come out and talk?” he said, partly to himself and partly to the woods.

Who would be hiding out here in the wilderness, and afraid of Christopher of all people? Sasquatch? Some crazed hermit playing tricks on him?

He stood and shouted into the surrounding woods, trying to sound reasonable.

“I don’t suppose you want to have a conversation? I’m alone out here, and I’d really like to get home.”

The trees absorbed his words, only a hint of his own voice echoing back to him from distant rocks. He waited for a few beats, just in case a mysterious stranger was going to appear. As expected, nobody did.

He sighed, then pulled the stick out of the ground, rabbit and all. There were a few smooth footprints in the snow, leading to and from some nearby trees, and there, they vanished. He didn’t wander around looking to pick up the trail somewhere else. He doubted he would find much.

Someone was out there. They were watching him, but they weren’t too keen on being seen themselves. The rabbit felt like a peace offering, left for this clearly untrained explorer who would no doubt be running out of food at any moment now. Or it could be a trap.

Christopher looked over the rabbit carefully. Could it be poisoned somehow? Full of sharp things?

It didn’t make any sense to think that way. It would be a needlessly complicated way to kill him. After all, there was a good chance that whoever it was could just wait a few days and he’d run out of supplies and freeze to death.

He put the rabbit into a small canvas bag that had previously held the strange jerky bars. He packed a little clean snow alongside it and hung the bag on the outside of his pack, to keep it refrigerated and make sure it didn’t leak rabbit juice on anything. Then he re-situated his gear and continued the way he had been traveling, hauling the makeshift sled behind him.

The snow was shallower under the trees, allowing him to walk comfortably without snowshoes. The branches blocked most of the sun, but they also blocked the wind that gusted periodically through the upper branches, setting the trunks swaying.

If the mystery rabbit-giver wanted to reveal themselves, they would. If they didn’t, all he could do was continue with his plan. There was another dot on the map, another bunker or some kind of structure, and he was going to find it. That was the thing he had some control over.

The day passed in the monotony of hiking that he had become used to. The rhythm of one boot in front of another. The pause to rest, to drink, to take a bite or two of the second-to-last jerky bar. They rhythm of boots again. The wind and the creak of swaying trees.

Christopher had never been the sort of person who was interested in becoming one with nature, but he was starting to feel the odd sensation that all these little rhythms of his life fit neatly into the larger rhythms around him: the cycles of the sun and the moon, the weather, the seasons. He wasn’t sure if that was a sign of personal growth, or if the stress of the situation was getting to him.

That night, he set up his tent in a small clearing surrounded by birch. It felt pleasantly secluded from the surrounding forest, with a view of the sky like a natural skylight, and a parting in the branches that perfectly framed the broken mountain peak to the north.

He built a small fire, then tied together a few sticks with spare twine, forming a slightly uneven scaffold that he could use to spit-roast the rabbit on a stick. It wasn’t exactly fine engineering, but it worked. The meat dripped and sizzled and smelled delicious. The thin limbs began to crisp while the body was still rare, so he cut them off and ate the little morsels of meat off them while he turned the body on the spit. It was delicious, even by his pre-falling-out-of-a-plane standards.

A sharp crack of wood startled him out of his greasy reverie. It sounded like a sizable branch snapping on one of the trees behind him. As he turned to look for falling deadwood, an echoing crack answered it from the direction of the broken mountain.

There was a whump next to him, and a puff of snow a few feet to his right. Another crack in the distance.

A thud accompanied the spray of splintered bark that exploded out of a tree to his left, at head-height.

As the distant crack reached him a second later, he realized someone was shooting at him.

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