Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 26

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Q & A

My intent with Razor Mountain was always to write a “mystery box” story that actually resolved in a satisfying way. To do that, I created a starting premise with a lot of mysteries, and then made sure that I knew the answers—why everything was happening. In the first half of the book, most of my time was spent building up those mysteries. Now, as I approach the final act, it’s all about answering those mysteries.

I’ve long believed that it’s easier to create interesting mysteries than it is to resolve them, which is why so many mystery-centric stories fall flat at the end. However, in my hubris, I assumed that the hard work was in figuring out all the answers. Some of the feedback on early drafts of recent chapters has shown me that it’s not enough to just know the answer. The resolution has to come out in the story, while being clear enough that the reader doesn’t miss it, and organic enough that it doesn’t feel shoved-in just to make the story work.

So, one of the things I did while writing this chapter is to go back through my outline and review all of the things I set up early in the story, and make sure that I have plans for resolving them in the next few chapters. This chapter and the next one are important to some of these revelations, so it was a good exercise to do at this point in the story.

More Rearranging

I initially left out the third scene in this chapter. It was squeezed into the start of the next chapter because I was worried that it might reveal too much before the next chapter. This is part of the ongoing rearranging of the outline that I’ve been doing for the past few chapters.

However, when I began to write this journal I realized that the chapter felt purposeless without that third scene. Seeing Cain is interesting, because it’s a big link between the two narratives, but it’s not exactly a shocking stinger at the end of the chapter, and I would have had to be a little more coy in Christopher’s conversation with Speares to try to make it more of a revelation. The first two scenes are mostly the characters walking from A to B and talking, which is the same as Christopher’s previous chapter. Without the additional revelations and action at the end, it falls flat.

So once again I adjusted my chapters and pulled in that third scene.  I also decided that I can write it without quite giving up certain big secrets. But this scene combined with the next chapter will serve as the climax for Act II and set up Act III.

The Value of Journaling

Despite the power of ego, when I sit down to write one of these chapter journals I sometimes wonder how worthwhile it actually is. There are certainly times when feel that I don’t have much interesting to say about a given chapter. However, when I look back, it’s often when I’m working on a journal that I realize I’ve missed something or need to do some rearranging (as I did this week).

As it turns out, when I force myself to think about process enough to be able to articulate a journal entry, it helps me better understand the story I’m telling. Maybe that seems like it should be obvious, but it’s a lesson that I keep learning.

That’s partly because I originally intended these journals to be a sort of documentary—a way for other writers to peek inside my head and see what I was thinking, alongside the actual product. Not because I thought it would be a breakout bestseller and everyone would be interested, but because I can only speak for myself, and it seemed like a fun hook for the blog. I think there’s a real tendency among authors to want to keep the secret sauce secret, or to be so deep in the impostor syndrome that we don’t want to risk the potential embarrassment of opening up to others.

Now that I’ve been doing this for most of a book, I’m beginning to think that journaling through a big project will often be worthwhile for a lot of writers, even if nobody else ever sees that journal. As writers, we are used to thinking through a lot of things in text, and keeping up that meta-narrative has really helped me to understand the story I’m writing, and probably do a better job than I otherwise would.

It also occasionally serves as a record that I can return to, if I forget a decision I made, or an idea that I set aside that turns out to be important.

Next Time

The next chapter is a big one. Things are happening now.  It’s been a few minutes since Christopher’s life got worse, so I’m going to remedy that with some existential dread. It’s the end of Act II and the start of Act III. See you there.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 26.3

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

The man stared at Christopher long enough for it to become uncomfortable.

“I was told you wanted to talk to me,” Christopher said.

Cain smiled. “I did, indeed.”

Christopher waited for more, but once again the silence dragged on.

“I’m sorry,” Christopher said, “I’m not sure what’s going on here.”

“Forgive me,” Cain said. “I’m afraid I was not quite prepared. You see, there’s a project I’ve been working on for a very long time. It’s a rather…emotional thing for me. It started years ago, and I have to admit I thought there was no hope of finishing it. Every time I thought I had solved it, there was a catastrophe. Recently, I thought I had finally seen it over and done with. The work of half my life, wasted. And for Razor Mountain, far more than that.”

Christopher frowned. “I don’t understand. What does this have to do with me?”

“I’m sure it will sound a little absurd, but you are vitally important to this project. You, here in Razor Mountain, have renewed my hope that I can finally succeed.”

“I…I don’t want to get your hopes up,” Christopher said. “I don’t really understand what this project could be that I somehow have to be involved to make it work.”

Cain nodded. He stepped forward and put a hand on Christopher’s shoulder.

“I understand. It sounds absurd. It’s difficult for me to explain. I think we had better take a walk, so you can see it for yourself. Then it will all make sense.”

“Lead the way, then,” Christopher said.

Cain walked past him, back to the elevator. Christopher followed him in, and the doors closed. Christopher watched as Cain took out a little key and unlocked the metal panel he had noticed on the ride up. Behind it was a ten-digit number pad. Cain tapped in a long sequence of numbers, and there was a prolonged beep. Then Christopher felt the elevator begin to gently descend.

Christopher counted silently to himself again. It had taken about thirty seconds for the ride up. Now, he gave up after hitting one hundred on the way down. They were clearly descending deeper into the mountain than he had before. The old man seemed content to stand side-by-side in silence, but Christopher felt increasingly awkward. Despite his companion’s apparent frailty, Christopher was acutely aware of the imbalance of power between them. Cain looked utterly self-assured, and as usual, Christopher had no idea what was going on.

The elevator doors opened onto a hallway of polished, unadorned black stone. Cain stepped out without looking back to see if Christopher was following. He looked as though he were just out for a stroll. Christopher exited the elevator, and the doors closed behind him. He reached out a hand and let his fingers trail over the slick, glassy surface of the black stone. He had expected it to be cold, but it was not.

“It’s surprisingly warm down here,” Christopher said, as much to break the silence as to suss out any information from the strange old man. “I suppose that’s part of what you do?”

Cain nodded. “I make sure the temperatures are comfortable in the city proper,” he said. “We love to pump up geothermal heat wherever we can. But down here, it stays warm with no effort on my part.”

The light in the hallway came from narrow slits in the ceiling every twenty feet or so, creating a pattern of alternating darkness and light that reminded Christopher of night driving on the highway, street lights passing by. It was almost hypnotic. The effect also made it difficult to judge how far the hallway stretched ahead, although Christopher could tell that it eventually curved to the left, out of sight.

“What is this place?”

“This is one of the oldest parts of the city, or so I’m told,” Cain replied, chuckling. “Much older than me, and that’s saying something.”

“How old is Razor Mountain?” It seemed like a potentially sensitive question, but Christopher sensed a guileless openness from his guide.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Cain said. “Maybe better.”

The walls, the ceiling, the floor were all perfectly smooth and seamless. As far as Christopher could tell, it was precisely square and the dimensions didn’t vary, although it was hard to tell with light reflecting off the polished surfaces.

As they made their way around the curve, Christopher began to realize that the path formed a spiral. It started gently, but steadily tightened. The light also began to change. The narrow slits grew further and further apart, and the gaps of darkness between deepened. Then, there were no more lights. But even as they walked away from the faint reflections, Christopher could still see the path forward.

For a moment, a memory asserted itself: waking on the dark plane, groggy and confused. The sensation of a lightless cave; looming shapes and smothering darkness.

At first, he thought he might be imagining the blue glow. Then he decided it must be a translucency in the surrounding rock. It was so faint that he had a hard time seeing it, except in his peripheral vision. But it had an electric energy that made him feel like he had been shuffling in his socks on carpet. He blinked, and the glow intensified. He could see it through his eyelids.

When the spiral could get no tighter, the hallway opened onto a cylindrical room.

The walls here were different, metallic and dull.. The blue was searing, and for a moment Christopher held up his hands to cover his eyes. It did nothing to it out. He realized he was still holding the tattered paperback, and felt momentarily silly, hauling it around for the sake of a brief joke.

He couldn’t help but take a step into the room. He looked up, and saw darkness. The room extended upward beyond his sight. The blue glow pulsed deep in the center of that darkness, like the iris of a distant, giant eye trying to focus on him.

“This is your project?” he muttered.

Cain came up slightly behind him and made a small gesture that seemed to encompass both the room and the two of them. “This. This is my project.”

“What exactly do you expect me to do?”

“Just look around and tell me what you see,” Cain said.

Christopher took another step toward the center of the room. The book slipped from his hand, his limbs far away and oddly disconnected.

“I see…symbols and shapes on the walls. Incredibly delicate. There’s some kind of pattern there, but I can’t quite tell what it is. It’s all in that blue light. What is that light?”

Cain sighed. “I’m afraid I don’t know. I can only ever see it out of the corner of my eye. I’ve spent so many nights pacing around this room, but I can never quite see it.”

There was a distant thud that reverberated through Christopher’s body. Somehow, he had fallen to his knees, but he didn’t feel it. He was numb. He could hear someone whispering, many voices whispering. It was a crowd speaking over one another, many languages that he couldn’t understand.

And then he could.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 26.2

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

She opened the door, and he followed her out and down the stairs. They walked down the street toward the big cavern crowded with buildings that Christopher had come to think of as “downtown” Razor Mountain. The few people they passed ignored them. It felt strange to be even slightly anonymous.

“So what’s this Secretary of Energy’s name?” Christopher asked. “What should I know about him? Or her?”

“His name is Cain Dolus,” Speares said. “I’d suggest you call him Mr. Dolus though. As far as important government officials go, I think he’s pretty laid back, but it wouldn’t hurt to be polite in your situation.”

Christopher almost replied with, “Thanks, Mom,” then thought better of it. It was probably best to not irritate one of only two people who had shown kindness to him since his rough landing. He realized he had begun to think of Speares as a friend, but he suspected his calibration for social interactions was a little broken thanks to all the loneliness and torture.

“I’m honestly not sure what else to tell you,” Speares said. “I don’t know why he’s taken an interest in you.”

“Have you talked with him before?”

“Sure,” she said. “I do work for the cabinet from time to time. But I don’t know him particularly well. It’s a relatively small circle of people who interact with them on a regular basis.”

“Sounds like a lonely job for them,” Christopher said. “Kings and queens of a tiny little kingdom.”

“Not even. They have bosses just like the rest of us. Only my boss isn’t the president of the United States.”

They followed the road into the big cavern, but this time Speares led Christopher down side streets, around the outer edge where other avenues led back into the smaller caves. The underground complex already seemed impossible to Christopher, but he began to realize it was even larger than he had initially thought. He wondered how far out all those caverns went, and what was required to maintain the structural integrity with a million tons of stone above their heads.

They took one of these side streets, and something about it struck Christopher as more bland than the others he had seen. This wasn’t one of the odd little neighborhoods with its own transplanted style. It was more like a warehouse district, a road lined with low gray stone rectangles in the shape of buildings. Some of them had wide roll-up garage doors that looked like loading docks, although Christopher wondered what the purpose was when he had seen no vehicles to load and unload.

“Are we meeting in a warehouse?” Christopher asked.

“No. But the higher-ups have their own private areas of the city, and the entrances tend to be in…nondescript areas.”

“I see.”

They stopped at one of the loading docks, and Speares banged on the metal door three times. For a moment, there was silence, then the door rattled and rolled up, revealing two men in uniform with submachine guns, lit from behind by bright fluorescent lights.

“This is where I leave you,” Speares said.

Christopher looked into the impassive faces of the soldiers, then back at Speares. He suddenly felt like a kid being dropped off at the first day of school.

“Thanks for treating me like an actual human being.”

She nodded. “I hope this works out for you.”

“If not, maybe I’ll see you around.”

Christopher stepped through, and the door clattered back down behind him, locking out the outside world. One of the soldiers waved him down the hall. The other followed behind as he went.

The hallway was similar to the maze of corridors outside his old prison cell. Their footsteps echoed ahead and behind. It led to a heavy metal door that retracted into the wall when the soldier swiped his hand over the reader. Beyond that was another door, and this one turned out to be an elevator. The soldier stayed outside while Christopher entered.

“Where do I go?” Christopher asked.

“Only one way to go, when you get up there, sir,” the soldier replied. He gave Christopher a slight nod as the doors slid closed.

Christopher counted to himself as the elevator went up. It didn’t feel like it was going particularly fast. There was no floor indicator and no buttons, although there was a locked metal panel in the wall that Christopher thought might hide some controls.

He stopped counting at thirty-three as the doors opened. On the other side was a short hallway, but this felt completely different. The walls were painted a soft cream color here, and adorned with little landscape paintings. The floor was carpeted, a pattern of overlapping squares in various shades of gray. There were baseboards of some dark red wood. The lighting was softer and warmer than the harsh fluorescents down below.

It wasn’t exactly opulent, but it had the feeling of a nice corporate office or private doctor’s waiting room.

Christopher stepped out, and the elevator doors slid closed quietly behind him. Upon closer inspection, he saw there were four of the little paintings, two on each side of the hallway, depicting the same scenery in four seasons. Ahead were a pair of plain wooden doors that matched the baseboards. They had been left open to an office. Christopher could see a big, old-fashioned wooden desk, a bookshelf, and a side table with a lamp and a bottle of liquor on it.

He walked forward slowly. It was oddly quiet, and he realized he had grown used to life underground where there were echoing stone surfaces everywhere.

He started when a man stepped into the doorway from inside the office. He was older and a little paunchy, with thick gray hair, neatly combed, and jowels beginning to show on his lined face. He looked up, saw Christopher, and smiled, but there was some strange emotion in it. Sadness, Christopher thought, or maybe exhaustion.

“So,” he said, “You’ve finally arrived.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 26.1

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

After his conversation with Speares, Christopher had expected that things would happen fast, good or bad. Instead, his comfortable confinement continued for two more days without any communication. He had food and a good bed, and the view of the street below, but he began to wonder if he would continue to trade one prison for another for the rest of his life. The bunker, the holding cell, the slightly dingy apartment: a never-ending limbo, waiting for some sort of final judgment.

When he fought back the existential weight of the situation, he knew that his basic circumstances were objectively better. In the bunker, he had been surrounded by the beauty of nature, seemingly free from any signs of civilization, but there had only been a handful of moments where he was really able to stop and appreciate that. The sheer loneliness, and the question of whether he would ever see people again, had made the landscape feel too desolate.

He was just as much a prisoner here, below the mountain, but the trappings of civilization surrounded him. The apartment could have existed in hundreds of other cities, apart from the view. And the view allowed him to look out over the rooftops of the neighborhood, and the place at the end of the road where it opened out into the central chamber of the city. People walked the streets, coming and going, having conversations. He was trapped for the moment, but no longer felt alone. There was some emotional value in simply being near people.

Beyond that, and in spite of Specialist Speares’s warnings, he had hope that his situation might still improve. He had been wildly optimistic when they had last talked, although that had been tempered by the intervening days with no visits and no news.

There was another way he felt changed, one that he was only just beginning to understand. When he woke inside the bunker, he had been gripped by absolute fear, and he had lived for weeks, maybe months, with those black claws wrapped around his heart. But, somewhere along the way, they had begun to loosen. By the time he was released from the interrogation room and Sergeant Meadows, they were gone. Having been a risk-averse person most of his life, he had the strange feeling that he had made his way through circumstances more difficult than he had ever imagined, and that he was capable of more. An unreasonable fatalism had gripped him, and it made him think that circumstances had guided him to this time and place for a reason, though he couldn’t articulate what it might be.

He was sitting in his place by the window, half-reading a ragged paperback of Stranger in a Strange Land he had found in one of the cupboards, when he saw Speares walking down the street. She looked preoccupied, flipping through her notebook as she walked, passed his door before she paused in the street and realized where she was. Then she looked up and saw him. He raised a hand in silent greeting, and she responded with a tight smile and a nod. Then she snapped her notebook closed and walked through the front door.

He waited for her knock at the door and said, “Come on in.”

The door opened and Speares stepped inside. She closed the door and paused as though unsure whether to enter any further.

“I was beginning to wonder if you’d forgotten me,” Christopher said. He had intended it as a lighthearted greeting, but as soon as he said it, he wondered if he might just sound bitter.

“No,” Speares said. “You’ve actually been the focus of quite a bit of debate.”

“Am I still in administrative limbo?”

“No,” she said again. “I think things have been resolved. It turns out that Sergeant Meadows had some connections to call on as well. He’s been fighting to keep you locked up. He made a variety of…interesting claims about you.”

“Like what?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. The man doesn’t care about anything except his own hide and ambitions, and I think that’s been exposed now. With any luck, he’ll face a court-martial. But even if he doesn’t, I think he’s likely to stagnate in some forgotten corner of the city.”

“So what happens now?” Christopher asked.

“Exactly what I thought was going to happen a couple days ago,” she said. “You’ve got a meeting with the Secretary of Energy.”

Christopher frowned. “Why?”

Speares shrugged. “Honestly, I have no idea. He seems to be the one who took an interest in you, but I’m not in a position to know what exactly that is.”

“What does the Secretary of Energy do?”

Speares pointed up, at the light fixture above the entry way.

“He keeps the lights on. Manages the electric generation, the heat, the distribution, and probably a hundred related things I’m not aware of.”

“Huh,” Christopher said. “We might actually have some things to talk about. My job dealt with that kind of thing too. Before I vanished, never to be heard from again.”

“For some reason, I don’t think he’s going to be asking you to consult on the city electrical grid.”

“Hey,” Christopher countered, “you said I was probably stuck here for good. Maybe it’s a job interview.”

Speares smiled. “So when you got your old job, was it the CEO of the company who interviewed you?”

Christopher made an irritated face. “Fair point. So when is this meeting?”

“As soon as I take you over there,” Speares said.

“You’re really trying to keep me on my toes, huh?”

Speares sighed. “I realize it’s frustrating to not have any idea where you’re going and when, but it’s out of my hands.”

“No, that’s fine. I was getting bored in here anyway.”

She gestured to the door. “Shall we?”

“Hold on,” Christopher said. “Let me just gather my things.”

She stared at him as he looked around the bare room, first left, then right. He grabbed the grubby novel from the table.

“Guess I’m ready.”

Speares frowned. “You sure you weren’t employed as a professional comedian?”

“You’re the one running the background checks.”


Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 25

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Narrative Convergence

God-Speaker’s chapters throughout Act II have been jumping through time, showing key moments in God-Speaker’s evolution. They’ve also shown the evolution of Razor Mountain and its people. In this chapter, the narrative is finally approaching the present day. For the first time, we can start to see the same things from both God-Speaker’s and Christopher’s perspective.

This gives me the opportunity to set up some narrative tension by revealing things in God-Speaker’s chapters that will pay off in Christopher’s chapters. Sometimes tension comes from not knowing what will happen next. Sometimes it’s more exciting when the reader can guess what’s happening, but the characters don’t know.

God-Speaker’s Cabinet

The two new characters introduced in this chapter are Reed and Cain, and they are both members of God-Speaker’s cabinet. However, I looked through my notes and I had no record of what their actual positions are. I was certain I had thought about this when I was first developing the story, but it turns out that writing a book is a messy process, and I either lost those notes or never wrote them in the first place.

Internally, to the citizens of Razor Mountain, the cabinet is a secret arm of the US government that handles the day-to-day operations in the city. Only God-Speaker and the secretaries themselves know the truth about who runs the city. The populace “knows” that the secretaries report to a higher authority, but they’re told it’s the President of the United States and the military. God-Speaker doesn’t need to worry that the population will try to overthrow their autocratic king, because they don’t know that they have a king.

When deciding what positions there should be in this cabinet, I looked at the US presidential cabinet for inspiration. Razor Mountain is a sort of city-state, so a lot of those positions make perfect sense. Others are completely unnecessary (ambassador to the UN) and a few just need to be tweaked.

I wanted a large enough group to seem like a reasonable governing body, and to allow for interesting interactions between members.

These are the positions I ended up with:

  • Secretary of the Treasury – Responsible for overall budget, accounting, and income and outflows across all departments. Administers local banking system.
  • Secretary of Agriculture – Responsible for local farming and food processing. Works with the Trade Coordinator for food imports from outside.
  • Secretary of Commerce – Responsible for most non-food businesses internal to the mountain. Works closely with Secretary of Labor and Trade Coordinator.
  • Secretary of Labor – Responsible for labor conditions, allocation of labor across industries, work safety, etc.
  • Secretary of Housing – Responsible for maintaining and expanding housing supply within the mountain as needed for the population.
  • Secretary of Energy – Responsible for generation and distribution of electric power, lighting, and certain energy-related trade (batteries, generation equipment, etc.)
  • Secretary of Education – Responsible for the school and university system.
  • Director of Media – Responsible for producing local media, importing external media, censorship.
  • Director of Intelligence Operations – Responsible for gathering internal and external intelligence, as well as most external interaction with outsiders for trade.
  • Secretary of Science and Technology – Responsible for science and tech R&D, manufacturing, and external trade. Collaborates with Intelligence Ops for external hacking.
  • Director of Military Operations – Responsible for military within the mountain and the area around the mountain. Collaborates with Intelligence Operations for external military and espionage ops.
  • Trade Coordinator – Responsible for import/export and maintaining trade. Collaborates with Intelligence Operations for external negotiations and obfuscation.

I decided that Cain is the Secretary of Energy. He is very focused on his particular field, and is especially excited about developing and constructing new electric generation and distribution technology.

God-Speaker would be constantly thinking about how to balance power between the cabinet members, and play them off each other so that nobody can ever feel secure or think about turning against him. To this end, I thought he would avoid involving the Secretaries of Intelligence Operations and Director of Military Operations when it comes to investigating their fellows. Instead, he turns to Reed, the Secretary of Labor, who naturally collaborates with the Secretary of Energy on his big building projects.

Resolving Mysteries and Emotional Catharsis

My goal throughout most of this book has been to draw the reader in with a series of mysteries. However, it’s not structured like a classic “who-done-it.” It’s not building up to a revelation that wraps up the plot. Instead, in Act III I will be trying to rapidly resolve most of the open questions that have given the story momentum so far.

Unraveling these mysteries will reveal more about God-Speaker and Christopher, and those revelations will leave Christopher with some difficult things to do, and some difficult choices to make. The end of the story will not be about big mysteries, it will be about the choices Christopher decides to make and why he decides to make them.

This whole structure goes back to one of the big lessons I learned from Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story: the big, world-shaking stakes should be tied directly to the main character’s “smaller” but more relatable personal stakes.

It will be up to Christopher to decide what the outcome is, for himself and for the world.

Next Time

Next chapter, we go back to Christopher as the two narrative worlds begin to collide.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 25.2

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

A long shaft of light slid across the room when Reed opened the door, scattering new angular shadows across the space. God-Speaker could see that Cain was indeed waiting outside. He was a big man, both rotund and taller than Reed. His shadow stepped out of view as he made space for Reed to exit. The two men exchanged perfunctory greetings; God-Speaker couldn’t make out Reed’s whispery voice, but Cain’s jovial response was clear.

“You look tired. Better get some rest.”

The big man entered and closed the door behind him, shutting out the external light and plunging the room into half-darkness again.

“You certainly do like to lurk in the shadows, don’t you?” Cain asked as he approached, his shoes tapping across the stone floor until he reached the island of the huge plush rug that encompassed the desk and chairs.

God-Speaker smiled. “I was thinking earlier this evening that there’s something about the campfire aesthetic that appeals to me.”

“The light is only beautiful in its contrast with the darkness,” Cain said. “And vice-versa, of course. I know I’m in charge of keeping the lights on, but I think both have their allure.”

Where Reed was dapper in an old-fashioned way, Cain was much more casual, wearing a work coat and jeans that wouldn’t be out of place at a construction site. He carried a small leather satchel with a shoulder strap. As he sat, he adjusted it to sit on his lap and opened the flap.

For a moment, God-Speaker couldn’t see what was in the satchel. His thoughts flashed to the pistol under his desk and the small knife concealed on his belt. He remained still in his seat, his elbows on the desk, his fingers steepled in front of his face.

Cain took out a tablet and a folder of papers, setting them on the desk while he closed the satchel, unslung it, and set it next to his chair. Then he picked up the tablet and began tapping the screen.

“The agenda for this meeting was a little unclear,” God-Speaker said. “Did you have something in particular you wanted to discuss?”

Cain had been scheduling more meetings recently, and the topics were beginning to range far beyond the projects he had inherited from his predecessor just two years earlier. God-Speaker had known when he appointed the man that he was more of an ambitious and energetic personality than God-Speaker would typically appoint to a cabinet position. He had to ride the knife’s edge to find those who would do their jobs competently, but not overstep their bounds and start thinking too much for themselves.

“I wanted to talk about the new high-efficiency geothermal plans,” Cain said. “I know the initial proposal was for a pilot plant that would run alongside existing generation. But I’ve been running numbers. We set up a miniaturized version in one of the unused expansion chambers, and it’s already looking like it’s a good fifteen or twenty percent better than we anticipated.”

God-Speaker frowned. “Where did this miniaturized version come from? I don’t remember seeing any budget with something like that in it.”

Cain’s smile faltered only for a fraction of a second. He shifted in his seat.

“It was manufactured under the R&D budget. It’s only something like two percent of the total outlay. I thought it prudent to investigate the construction and maintenance process before we got to the pilot plant. Now, though, I’m thinking this could be the future of all our generation going forward. It could be a huge savings. It could pay for itself in a matter of a few years.”

God-Speaker sighed.

“The pilot plant isn’t even scheduled yet.”

“Yes, and I’d like to discuss that, too.”

God-Speaker held up his hands to stop Cain before he continued.

“The numbers are interesting, and I think it is quite possible that you are right about the technology. It probably deserves more investigation, and it may very well be revolutionary. But I am concerned about the reallocation of funds without any sort of accounting crossing my desk.”

“I think this is the most important thing my department can work on right now.”

God-Speaker rubbed his eyes. “You have made that abundantly clear.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that you are acting unilaterally. I expect my cabinet to work together to look at all aspects of any major projects. That includes handling budgets and accounting with the Treasury, it includes scheduling the working time with Labor, it includes coordinating the manufacturing with Science and Technology. Most importantly, I expect to be included in the decision-making process for any major project, because I have the final say as to whether or not it goes forward.”

Cain clenched his jaw. “Do you think I’m incorrect in my assessments of this technology?”

“It’s not simply a yes-or-no, stop-or-go question,” God-Speaker said. “It is a matter of scheduling and budgets and resources. You have jumped into this position with both feet, and I appreciate your passion for the job. But you are only one member of the cabinet, and even if you have complete understanding of the concerns under your purview, you have relatively little experience, your department is only one slice of the pie, and you need to consider all of the other concerns that the other secretaries and myself must take into account. Every one of them was appointed because they’re competent, but it’s not enough to simply be effective in your particular area. You need to collaborate as well.”

Cain looked down at his tablet screen, shaking his head slowly.

“Is there any schedule for when these projects might move forward? What are other people working on that justifies the budget more than this?”

“I think that’s a bigger topic than I want to address this evening,” God-Speaker said. “If you’d like, we can do a round-table overview of everyone’s major projects at a full cabinet meeting. But that’s not something I’m going to throw at everyone last-minute. I’d need to give everyone time to prepare for a presentation like that.”

“And then we could discuss adjusting budgets?” Cain asked.

God-Speaker shook his head. “There are procedures for setting budgets. Is this an emergency? Because I’m not inclined to spend a huge amount of time rearranging budgets mid-year for something that isn’t extremely pressing.”

“It will pay for itself.”

“Not immediately.”

The two men sat and stared at one another.

“As I said,” God-Speaker continued, “I appreciate your passion. But I also need to know that you can work within the system and you can collaborate and make compromises. Sometimes that will be frustrating, but it is a necessity.”

Cain stood abruptly.

“I think you’re wrong. You’re not giving this due consideration.”

“You’re welcome to your opinion,” God-Speaker said. “As you might expect, I disagree with your assessment. I have to balance a great many things to keep this place running smoothly.”

“Fine,” Cain said, turning on his heel and heading toward the door. “I look forward to that cabinet meeting where we can see all these other vital projects.”

God-Speaker cleared his throat.

“Your bag.”

Cain turned, walked back, and picked up the satchel, shoving his tablet and papers into it. Without looking at God-Speaker, he turned again and left the office, closing the door hard behind him.

God-Speaker took a deep breath and let it out slowly. For a moment, he had thought that Reed might have been right in his misgivings about this meeting, but there was no bloodshed. His Secretary of Energy appeared to wear his heart on his sleeve, but God-Speaker sensed that he was holding something back. For some reason, despite his apparent openness, there was something hard to read about him. God-Speaker wondered if he was reading too much into Cain’s motivations, or not enough.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 25.1

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

God-Speaker sat in the half-light of his office, silent but for the scratching of his pen. The heavy paper was scored with musical staffs, and he toiled over it with a fountain pen. For writing cleanly and precisely, it was objectively worse than a modern pen or computer program, but there was something about the tactility of the pen and paper that was deeply satisfying to him and it looked better on the desk—alongside the inkwell—than a more modern implement.

A special bookshelf next to the desk was dedicated to the reams of music he had written over the years. He wrote and re-wrote it, playing with modern and ancient forms, little dalliances and sweeping epics. However, it was his symphony (his “first symphony” as he thought of it) that he spent most of his time on. He wrote it and re-wrote it, tweaked it for years, and then threw it away and started again. There were dozens of versions on the bookshelf, and many more lost to time. Long ago, he had dared to imagine it being played, but it never was. It always felt incomplete, and he wouldn’t allow it to be played until it was truly done.

The office was equipped with the sort of lights ubiquitous beneath the mountain, cleverly channeled daylight or carefully tuned artificial light, inset into the ceiling so that it filled the room indirectly. God-Speaker kept those lights off in the evenings. He much preferred using the antique lamps that had been tastefully placed here and there around the big room. Something about being at the center of a pool of yellow light felt right to him, something about the darkness around the edges of the room that the light couldn’t quite penetrate. Maybe it reminded him of traveling with his people in the old days, huddled around the campfires at night. Back then, the darkness beyond the firelight had seemed infinite and full of danger. Here, he knew the limits of the darkness. It was well-contained within stone walls, beneath the crushing weight of the mountain above.

God-Speaker made use of technology, but he didn’t relish the aesthetics of glass and plastic and chrome that were so prevalent these days. He was more comfortable surrounded by his leatherbound books in their wooden bookshelves, his richly upholstered furniture and lamps of brass and iron and stained glass. The office was filled with a faint but powerful scent of old and cherished things: dust and leather, wine and ink.

God-Speaker himself seemed to belong in this place as much as the books on the bookshelves or the furniture and rugs. He was a carefully maintained relic, and he was currently showing his age. He had gotten in the habit of staying with the same body longer in recent centuries. There were advantages to being accustomed to his vessel. He could focus on more important things. But he also felt the aches and pains. He slowed down, and he was beginning to feel that little bit of mental fog creeping in. He would make the jump soon, and relish the freshness and energy that came with it.

However, he had a situation to resolve first. At this point, he had a well-honed sense for little things out of place, signs that something was working against his grand designs. He suspected that someone, perhaps even a member of his inner circle, was working against him in subtle ways. It made him nervous, as it always did, and he had to remind himself that he had dealt with betrayal many times before. Traitors thought themselves so clever, rarely understanding the insurmountable advantages of an opponent with hundreds of lifetimes of experience.

As if the world moved by God-Speaker’s direction, there was a knock at the door directly across from him, in the half-darkness. He sealed the inkwell and set it and the pen aside. He pushed the sheafs of music to the other side. Then he pressed a button beneath the desk.


The man who came in was tall and thin, with wispy red hair that was perpetually uncertain about which direction it ought to be facing. Reed Parricida: the Razor Mountain Secretary of Labor. He wore a black suit and narrow tie that further accentuated his thinness. He wore large, thick glasses that slightly magnified his eyes, completing the vaguely insectoid ensemble.

“I’m sorry to call you in so late.”

“Is there some sort of emergency, sir?” Reed’s voice was quiet, just barely more than a whisper.

“Not an emergency, but a serious situation that must be carefully addressed.”

Reed walked into the pool of light and sat in the chair across the desk from God-Speaker. He sat with his right foot set up on his left knee, his right elbow on the arm of the chair, his chin cradled in his right hand as he stared intently at God-Speaker.

“I’m going to ask you to do something entirely outside of your usual responsibilities,” God-Speaker said. “It will require the utmost discretion, and I expect no word of it to leave this room.”


“I have reason to believe that Cain Dolus has been secretly working to expand his influence, and he may be making plans to assassinate me.”

Reed’s magnified eyes widened behind the glasses.

“Cain? Are you sure? He’s always struck me as…well, a little dull.”

God-Speaker nodded. “I was skeptical too, but I’ve been noticing things that concern me. It is also possible that there is a conspiracy among more than one of your fellow secretaries.”

“That is…disturbing.”

God-Speaker shifted in his chair. “By virtue of your position, you have good reasons to be involved in Cain’s major building projects. I would like you to very quietly look into those projects. I am especially interested in any cases where he has been diverting funds or doing any unusual accounting.”

Reed’s narrow brow furrowed. “I appreciate the seriousness of this situation, and your trust in bringing this to me,” he said, “but surely there are others better-suited to this sort of investigation. Someone from Military or Intelligence Operations?”

God-Speaker leaned back in his chair, looking up at the shadowed ceiling.

“I think it’s likely that any traitors will be more guarded around Reese and Cas. I also need to be absolutely certain that neither of them are involved in this before I bring them on board. Besides, you have good reasons to be involved in Cain’s projects, and those two do not.”

God-Speaker didn’t mention that he wanted to avoid looking weak in the eyes of his Directors of Military and Intelligence Operations. The fewer people were aware of the situation, the less likely anyone would entertain any seditious ideas.

Reed sighed. “I understand.”

“I’m sorry to put this burden on you,” God-Speaker said.

“No need to be sorry,” Reed said, sitting up straight in his chair. “I’ll start my investigation first thing tomorrow.”

“Very good,” God-Speaker replied. “I’ll set up a daily meeting to discuss anything you find.”

“Anything in particular I should know?”

“Not at this point. I’d like to see what you can dig up before we share notes. You may find some avenues of inquiry that I hadn’t considered.”


Reed stood, and God-Speaker did as well.

“I’ve asked Cain to come talk to me tonight as well. He’ll probably be waiting outside when you leave. Try not to look suspicious.”

Reed frowned. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“We often meet at odd hours,” God-Speaker said. “It’s best not to change routine at this point.”

“Do you want me to stay?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary. I know how to defend myself, and I will be on my guard. Besides, I think a direct personal assault would not be a good way to carry out the crime and get away with it.”

“Very well. Can you send me a message after your meeting to confirm that nothing happened?”

God-Speaker smiled a tight smile. “Of course.”


Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 24

This is part of an ongoing series where I’m documenting the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain.

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Outlining is Hard

Once again, I am making small adjustments to the outline for the end of Act II. The end-result is two more big God-Speaker chapters, and one small Christopher chapter left to write. I don’t remember having to do much rearranging in Act I, but I feel like I’ve been doing a lot of it in Act II.

Originally, I decided to do more outlining up-front for Razor Mountain than I normally would. I wanted to make sure I knew all the answers to the questions so that I didn’t pull a LOST and write myself into a corner. In that sense, my outline has served me very well. I have a good idea of everything that I need to keep track of and reveal as I go.

The reason the chapters have changed is mostly to accommodate the flow of the story, which I don’t always have a good feel for until I’m actually in the middle of writing. What makes sense in the outline doesn’t always make sense as a sequence of scenes, especially as little things change along the way. So, I’m still writing everything that was in the outline, but slightly adjusting the order it appears in.

The fact that I have two different narratives in different time periods gives me some additional flexibility. Each narrative still follows a linear sequence, but I can choose how I switch between them in order to maximize the mystery or create the most tension.

Exposition is Hard

This chapter, much like the previous one, is a bit of an exposition dump in the form of conversation. I’m taking advantage of the assumption that Speares can be a little forthcoming with Christopher because he’s not leaving Razor Mountain, and anything he knows won’t be going back out into the world.

The challenge of Razor Mountain is that there is a lot of history and a lot of things I’ve had to figure out for the story to make sense, but it’s hard to get all of that across when most of the characters don’t actually know the truth about it. I also need to be careful of “prologue syndrome,” over-explaining all the back-story just because I know it and not because it’s necessary for the reader to understand the plot.

Next Time

The climax of Act II includes a two-chapter episode of God-Speaker’s story. The recent God-Speaker chapters jumped through time, but this bigger episode will give me room to introduce a couple new characters and jump into Act III with some big revelations.

Just in case anyone picked up on it—yes, it’s Jules Verne who wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth, not H.G. Wells as Speares says. She’s just not very well-versed in old-school “scientific romance” stories.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 24.3

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

Once again, the streets turned them back around toward the city proper.

“Can we walk anywhere?” Christopher asked, probing for information.

“Of course not,” Speares said, “but most of the places that are off-limits to you are also off-limits to any civilians, so they’re already locked up tight. If you want to go into town, we can do that.”

“Sure. Aren’t you worried I’ll see things I shouldn’t, as a prisoner? Aren’t you worried about telling me all these things?”

“Not really,” she said. “I already told you, you’ll probably be here indefinitely, and you’ll be given the same kind of basic access that any civilian would have. If, for some reason, they decided to lock you up again, well, you’d be locked up, and it wouldn’t much matter what you’ve seen or heard.”

“Comforting,” he said. “And if they somehow decide I can leave?”

She stopped walking and looked at him askance.

Christopher held his hands up, as though warding her off. “I know, I know. No chance at all. Still, I’d rather not make it any less likely than it otherwise would be.”

“I actually had one other important thing to talk to you about,” she said. “I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to tell you.”

“That’s either ominous or exciting.”

“It’s probably neither, which is what I really wanted to make sure you understood,” she said. “I submitted that motion you asked for, but the tribunal has temporarily deferred your case.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they set it aside for the moment.”

“I’m not a complete idiot,” Christopher said. “Why did they set it aside?”

“Well, some of the questions I’ve been asking about you were flagged in our systems. Someone in the cabinet seems to have taken an interest in you.”

Christopher frowned. “I assume you’re talking about government, not furniture?”


“As in, the president’s cabinet?”

“No, no,” she said, hurriedly. “Not quite that high up. There’s a cabinet just for Razor Mountain. The military and civil authorities all get their marching orders from the cabinet. There are secretaries for various different departments, and those departments are in charge of all the different aspects of government here.”

“So some Secretary of Excavations or whatever wants to know what I’m doing here?”

“Sure, something like that.”

Christopher sighed in exasperation. “What does that actually mean for me?”

“Well, it may not be a secretary, it may just be someone who works in their office. And I doubt they would outright fight a tribunal ruling, but they do have sway as long as that ruling hasn’t been handed down yet.”

“You think this person might actually intervene and get me a ticket home.”

“That’s exactly what I didn’t want you to infer,” she said. “Their interest could mean a lot of things. It might mean more questions. It might mean you get some additional privileges. A friend in high places, so to speak.”

“And?” he said, reading her hesitant tone.

“And…it means there is now a non-zero chance that you could actually get what you want. Not a good chance, but a chance. A hell of a lot more than there was yesterday.”


Razor Mountain — Chapter 24.2

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

Speares led him down the stairwell, going slow for his benefit. His body was still stiff and sore, but he already felt far better than he had the previous day. It was amazing what having basic needs fulfilled could do for a person. He wondered if he was actually supposed to be let out like this, or if Speares was feeling sorry for him. She did seem to be genuinely chagrined about his situation, but she didn’t strike him as someone who would break the rules.

They left the apartment building, and Speares led him deeper into the stone-bound neighborhood, away from the central cavern. She held her notebook open in one hand as they walked. The questions today focused on the details of the bunker and the landmarks around it. Christopher suddenly wondered what the purpose of this questioning was.

“Are you trying to figure out where the bunker is?” he asked. “I assumed your people knew where all those buildings are.”

“I’m not trying to figure anything out,” she said. “If we’re being honest, I’m just told what to ask about.”

“I could probably point out the location on a map, if that would be helpful,” he said.

“It might be,” she replied. “I’d have to get hold of a map though. Let’s put a pin in that.”

“Do you think they actually lost a whole bunker?”

She smiled. “As ridiculous as it sounds, it wouldn’t completely surprise me. There are a number of out-buildings, and they’re all well-hidden, for obvious reasons. From what I know, they aren’t all continuously populated. And in my experience, the bookkeeping isn’t always stellar.”

The narrow street wrapped around in a wide loop, eventually turning back toward the center of the city. They came to a cross-street, and Speares took a left, leading him into another side neighborhood.

“How old is this place?” Christopher asked. “It seems like it would take ages to carve this all out of the rock, even if there were already some caves here. I can’t imagine any caverns this size would form naturally.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about the engineering behind it,” she said. “I know that there has always been somewhere in the city where they’re drilling or digging, as far back as I can remember. The excavations aren’t exactly fast, but they just keep at it, day in and day out.”

“Someone must have designated the money for all this though. The president or something? When did it start?”

She smiled. “That’s the kind of knowledge that’s way above my pay grade. The laws around Razor Mountain have changed over the years, but it’s been around in some form for well over a century. Nobody living here today was around when they first started digging holes. Or if they are, they aren’t talking about it.”

“That’s crazy. How much of this could they even do with early 1900s technology?”

Speares lowered her voice mock-conspiratorially. “Well, there are all sorts of rumors. And only ninety percent of them are insane conspiracy theories.”

“Is that even a fair thing to call it?” Christopher asked. “As an outsider, I think it’s safe to say you live inside a giant conspiracy theory.”

“Fair,” she said, “but I’ve heard everything from hollow earth, H.G. Wells kinds of theories to ancient aliens. A lot of people subscribe to the theory that big chunks of these caverns were already carved out perfectly, and nobody knows how. They were just found.”

“What do you think?”

“I think, like most things, it’s probably a lot more straightforward and less interesting than anyone believes. I think someone clever figured out how to dig out the caverns, maybe a long ways back, when people wouldn’t have thought it possible. And then they just kept digging, using whatever new technology they could. I certainly have a hard time believing some of the crazier rumors. I think this place has always been a government project, or at least became one very early in its history.”

Christopher thought in silence for a moment.

“That sounds reasonable, even if I have a hard time believing that anyone could make this place without spending insane amounts of money.”

“I don’t get to see the bills,” Speares said, “but who’s to say they don’t spend insane amounts of money?”

“Surely someone would notice that much secret spending.”

Speares shrugged. “There are a lot of government programs that are…less than transparent. All those three-letter spy agencies have big budgets, and we don’t know what they get spent on.”

“Someone, somewhere is keeping tabs on those programs though,” Christopher said, questioning the words as soon as they exited his mouth.

Speares gave him a look like he was a small child making proclamations about things he didn’t understand.

“Yeah, okay. I still think it’d be essentially impossible to keep something so big and expensive hidden for so long.”

“You didn’t know about it, right?” Speares said.

“Of course not.”

“And that’s why you’re in…this whole situation,” she said, gesturing vaguely at Christopher.

“Yeah,” Christopher said. “That whole ‘effectively imprisoned for life despite doing nothing wrong’ situation.”

“That’s the one.”