What I Learned From “The Martian”

The Martian is a 2011 sci-fi suspense novel about astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars after a huge dust storm ends his crew’s mission and nearly kills him. It’s a book that combines near-future hard science-fiction with a classic survival story. Author Andy Weir keeps the story rooted in realistic science and extrapolates what the first few manned missions to Mars might look like. But it’s Watney’s struggle to survive and overcome one impossible challenge after another that gives the book its heart.

Rather than review a decade-old book, I decided to look at what the story does well, and what lessons I can learn from it to improve my own writing.

A Good Opening Is a Juggling Act

There’s a lot going on at the start of the book. The astronauts of the Mars mission leave their habitation module in the midst of a severe dust storm, fleeing to their launch vehicle so they can escape before it tips over in the high winds. They’re unable to see each other in the dust. When Watney is skewered by a high-speed flying antenna, disabling him and his suit’s comms, his teammates have no choice but to leave him for dead.

Weir could have started the book with this high-octane action scene, but he doesn’t. Instead, he starts with this:

Chapter 1


I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.


Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

There’s no doubt that the action scene would start the book on an exciting note, and it would set up the plot nicely, but wouldn’t do much more than that. Instead, Weir starts with a log entry and Watney’s assessment of his situation, before he describes what happened.

This has a few advantages. It immediately gives us hints of Watney’s personality. The way he describes the situation is important. These few sentences set up Watney as the main character and the challenge he will have to overcome: surviving Mars, alone. This primes us to ask “what the heck happened?” And now we’re hooked, and we keep reading to find out more.

Adjust the Narrative Style to Fit Your Needs

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that splits up the scenes of the story in so many different ways.

The first five chapters (about fifty pages) are told entirely through Watney’s computer logs. We get to know him and his situation, and see him go into problem-solving mode as he tries to solve the immediate challenges of staying alive. Interestingly, the logs are relatively short, with several logs per chapter.

Next, the book goes into a third-person narrative style to go back to Earth and the folks back at NASA. There is a larger cast of characters to follow at NASA, so this shift makes it a lot easier to follow what’s happening, while sacrificing some of the closeness to a single character that the “logs” style give us with Watney.

The next major shift is at chapter 12, about halfway through the book, where we finally get a flashback to the action-packed scene of the astronauts fleeing earth. This comes at a time where things are going well for Watney, so it injects a bit of needed tension. More importantly, this flashback serves to introduce us to the rest of the crew of the Ares III mission, just in time for them to come into the story. After the flashback, we immediately roll into a scene with these same people in the present.

Finally, throughout the book, little mini-scenes and dialogues play out as back-and-forth messages between those in space and those back on earth. These serve a few different purposes, but mostly convey necessary info quickly so the story can move on to something more interesting.

What was most surprising to me about all of this is that it’s really not distracting. As long as these different techniques are written well and serve the needs of the story, they enhance the experience, rather than detracting.

Go to Great Lengths to Cut the Boring Bits

The style of Watney’s logs give Weir a great way to skip the boring parts, and opportunities to create micro-tension as Watney describes his plans in one log, then describes the results of those plans in the next log, often within the same chapter.

The story doesn’t even touch on the people back at NASA or Watney’s crewmates until it’s time for them to enter the story. All along the way, the important information is provided, the characters introduced, exactly when they are needed. Information that isn’t worth an entire scene is conveyed through quick exposition or text messages.

The book doesn’t slow down, because as soon as there’s any risk of that happening we skip ahead to the next exciting bit.

The Try/Fail Cycle is an Engine That Drives the Story

Watney is faced with a big challenge: survive and somehow get off Mars. That one overarching goal is actually composed of dozens of smaller challenges: having enough food, water and air; making contact with earth; and traveling hundreds of kilometers to another mission’s launch vehicle. Back on Earth, they have their own challenges. As the characters try to solve each problem, they sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, sometimes have to change strategies and try again, or deal with the fallout of a bad decision or unexpected event.

The book exemplifies how the try/fail cycle can drive a plot. The characters have clear goals and sub-goals, and clear stakes for success or failure. Plus, Weir uses these cycles to ramp the tension up or down. I could sense when a few things had gone well for Watney that it was just about time for some new catastrophe to blow up all his well-laid plans.

The tension only abates occasionally, to give the reader a reprieve. Once we’ve taken a collective breath, a new problem is introduced, and once again the characters have their work cut out for them. They have to inch forward, fighting every step of the way.

One example even interleaves Watney’s happy logs, where everything is going smoothly for a change, with italics description of the manufacturing process for a particular piece of equipment. What would otherwise be relatively mundane description of things going well becomes ominous as it becomes clear that the description is foreshadowing the imminent failure of that equipment, and the ensuing disaster.

Asymmetric Information Can Create Tension

For most of the book, Watney is completely cut off from NASA, or can only communicate one-way through simple morse code messages, spelled out in rocks and read through satellite photos. This creates a dynamic where Watney knows things that the people at NASA do not, and vice versa. In each of these cases, Weir uses this asymmetric knowledge to create tension.

The reader, being able to look out through multiple viewpoints, can see the incoming problem while some of the characters remain ignorant until it’s too late. The characters would have too easy a time overcoming some of these challenges if they could work together with no hindrance, so Weir creates believable problems that prevent them from working together.

Sometimes You Don’t Need a Villain

A lot of readers love a great villain, but this book really doesn’t have one, and it still works. If anything, Mars is the antagonist, but none of the characters really bear any ill will toward the big red rock. Despite effectively being a prisoner on the planet, alone for months, Watney has mixed feelings whenever he thinks he might actually escape.

If the book has any overarching message, it’s one of optimism. It says that almost anything can be overcome with human ingenuity, and our greatest strength is our ability to work together. Near the end of the book, Watney ponders how he could have never come as far as he had without the help of hundreds of people working tirelessly at NASA, along with the rest of his Ares III crewmates, and even some surprise help from the Chinese space agency.

A story like this can be hopeful without being saccharine. Not every story is zero-sum. Sometimes nobody has to lose and everyone can win. And I think that’s the kind of story that a lot of readers are finding appealing right now.

Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.3

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

When God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm returned to the rest of the people, it was nearly dark. Soon after, the hunters returned, not with deer, but with two more hares.

“You said there were deer in the trees,” Far-Seeing said, setting the rabbits on the ground and sauntering up to God-Speaker.

“I only heard something like deer,” God-Speaker said.

Far-Seeing raised a finger and opened his mouth to reply, but he was cut off by Braves-the-Storm.

“There were tracks. You followed them, didn’t you?”

Far-Seeing gave the old man a surly look. “We followed them until it was dark. We found no deer.”

“You found meat,” God-Speaker said, trying to sound encouraging. “If the deer have moved on, then there is nothing else you could do.”

Far-Seeing turned and walked away, scowling. “If you think we can’t track deer, you’re welcome to come on the next hunt. Maybe the spirits can tell us where to find meat.”

It was less of a feast than everyone had hoped for, but once they had been skinned and cooked, there was enough for each person to have a few bites, and the mood around the fires improved. The pelts would be fine and soft as well, caught between winter white and summer brown.

Braves-the-Storm told the people about the small tribe of strangers that he and God-Speaker had seen across the river. They had never had reason to fear other tribes before, but with the death of Makes-Medicine still fresh in their minds nobody was happy to have another tribe somewhere nearby. Wood was plentiful near the trees, so they fed the fires until they burned high and bright. A few of the hunters took turns staying awake, watching the path back toward the river crossing.

God-Speaker stayed awake for much of the night too, but not out of fear of the strangers. The other tribe did not feel like a threat to him. One of the strangers had set down his spear in what seemed like a gesture of peace.

The faint sound of the nearby river made him think of a time when he was a child, and the people had journeyed along the sea. It was so much water; sheet ice and shimmering waves stretching into the distance. That was before the years journeying through the mountains. And what had been before that? All the people knew was the journey, never ending. There were stories of a time long ago when they had lived in snowless lands. Then the ice came, covering everything. Evil spirits bringing cold to destroy the people. What would it be like to find another snowless land? What would it be like for God-Speaker to lead the people to that place?

God-Speaker rolled in close to the stone god and murmured to it.

“Will you bring us somewhere without snow and ice?”

The god was silent and still.

God-Speaker rolled onto his back again. What would they encounter tomorrow, away from the river?

He thought about Makes-Medicine. He tried to remember what she had told him—about the spirits, about the rituals and the herbs and plants that could heal sickness. He could no longer ask her questions. He was afraid that he would forget something important. What secrets had she not passed on to him? What had he missed or forgotten? Those things would be lost to the people forever now.

He lay on the hard ground, staring up into the clear sky. Among the bright stars, there were two streaks of light, one after another. He waited, frozen in place, and watched. Another streak. Another.

These, at least, he remembered. Makes-Medicine said that many signs could be good or evil, to be interpreted by the events surrounding them. But shooting stars were almost always a bad omen.

God-Speaker sat up. The god remained silent; a hunched mass in its pouch. Far-Seeing squatted near one of the fires, half-dark, half illuminated, watching the darkness between the river and the trees. Everyone else was asleep.

God-Speaker lay back down. He closed his eyes and tried to remember everything Makes-Medicine had ever taught him.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.2

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

It did not take long to come to the narrow part of the river. They found it was an even better crossing than it had appeared from above. Many of the rocks and boulders that had washed down the river collected here in a place where the water cut back and forth through a crack in a huge shelf of solid stone. The water was very deep and fast, but the crossing was narrow enough that everyone could jump it, even mothers carrying their children. The only child too big to carry was Black-Eyes-Staring, and he was nearly a man and able to make the jump by himself, under the worried eyes of his mother. They crossed one by one, with people waiting on the far side to catch them, until all were across.

The land was rocky and barren around the crossing, but they soon came to the trees that God-Speaker had seen from the ridge. They covered a broad area of rolling hills. Birch and pines grew far apart, surrounded by tangled bushes and undergrowth. All the plants and trees were eager for spring and had sprouted new growth and new leaves.

The people followed the edge of the forest, still within sight of the river, and soon came upon hoof-prints in a half-frozen patch of mud. The sun was still well above the horizon, but they immediately stopped and made camp. Several of the hunters took their spears and slings and went off into the trees while the rest of the people made quiet, excited conversation.

God-Speaker saw Braves-the-Storm at the edge of the group, and the man motioned for God-Speaker to join him. God-Speaker looked down to the pack that he had only just removed from his aching shoulders. He left the god sleeping there, in the middle of the camp, and followed Braves-the-Storm.

“If we do not hunt, we can at least look ahead,” he said as God-Speaker caught up.

They walked a little ways in the space between the trees and the river. The shadows grew long in the fading light. The water was quieter here. The furrow carved by the river cut deeper and deeper into the earth. They approached the edge and saw that the water was far below now. The walls of the little canyon were slick with ice. Even here, the gap between the walls was not wide. Braves-the-Storm picked up a rock and threw it to the other side. It barely cleared the gap and skittered into a line of gray boulders.

Suddenly, the shape of a person holding a spear came walking from behind those boulders, followed by several more. They were not quite shadows, but were hard to see clearly with the sun setting behind them. They stood in a line, looking across the gap at God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm. It was a small group, much smaller than their own people. God-Speaker thought of the strange man who had invaded their valley days before. Did these people look the same? It was hard to tell. He tensed, watching for any sign of danger.

The man with the spear crouched and set his weapon on the ground. Then he stood and made a broad, sweeping gesture with his arms. One of the others spoke or made some sound, but it meant nothing to God-Speaker. He looked to Braves-the-Storm, but his face showed uncertainty too. After a few silent moments, the others walked back to the line of boulders, turned, and went out of sight up-river.

When God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm returned to the rest of the people, it was nearly dark. The hunters had returned, not with deer, but with two more hares. It was less of a feast than everyone had hoped for, but once they had been skinned and cooked, there was enough for each person to have a small portion, and the mood around the fires improved. The pelts, caught between winter white and summer brown, would be fine and soft as well.

Braves-the-Storm told the people about the small group of others that he and God-Speaker had seen across the river. They had never had reason to fear other tribes before, but with the death of Makes-Medicine still fresh in their minds, nobody was excited to have another tribe somewhere nearby. Wood was plentiful near the trees, so they fed the fires until they burned high and bright. A few of the hunters took turns staying awake, watching the path back toward the river crossing.

God-Speaker stayed awake for much of the night too. The other tribe did not feel like a threat to him. The man had set down his spear in what seemed like a gesture of peace. Still, he worried about what they might encounter tomorrow, away from the river. He thought about Makes-Medicine. He tried to remember everything she had ever told him, about the spirits, about the rituals and the herbs and plants that could heal sickness. He could no longer ask her questions. He was afraid that he would forget something important. What secrets had she not passed on to him? What had he missed or forgotten? Those things would be lost to the people forever now.

He lay on his back, staring up into the clear sky. Among the bright stars, there were two streaks of light, one after another. He waited, frozen in place, and watched. Another streak. Another.

These, at least, he remembered. Makes-Medicine said that many signs could be good or evil, to be interpreted by the events surrounding them. But shooting stars were almost always a bad omen.

God-Speaker sat up. The god remained silent; a hunched black mass in its pouch. Far-Seeing squatted near one of the fires, half-dark, half illuminated, watching the void between the river and the trees. Everyone else was asleep.

God-Speaker lay back down. He closed his eyes and tried to remember everything Makes-Medicine had ever taught him.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 5.1

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

The people followed the river for days as it descended through the mountains. The great ice that filled in the cracks of the world was here, as it was everywhere. They could often see fields of ice filling the low places. Sometimes it was milky white, sometimes it was the deep blue of the sky just before nightfall. Even though winter was fading, the wind still cut like sharp flint, and the nights were bone-numbingly cold.

Early spring was a dangerous time. The reserves of dry meat, fish and berries that had sustained them through the winter were nearly gone, but the land was just beginning to awaken. There would be few edible plants to find, and nothing would fruit until well after the next full moon. Some animals were still in their long winter sleep. What few could be found would be lean and tough.

The river was a lifeline, not only because it gave them a path to follow, but because it kept them close to the river spirit, who could watch over and protect them. The tribe made good speed after the mild winter in the valley, but they were uneasy. They spoke little as they walked. They had suffered already this spring, and everyone was waiting to see if that hardship would lead to better days, or to more troubles.

God-Speaker felt the weight of their stares, saw them looking away when he turned. There were some who had grumbled when Makes-Medicine had adopted God-Speaker as family. The grumbling was quieter, but no less, when he had heard the stone god speaking and Makes-Medicine had announced that he was a shaman and spirit-talker. Now that she was gone, they were getting louder again. God-Speaker heard the whispers, and he could guess what was being said beyond his hearing.

There was no question of Makes-Medicine’s authority, at least while she was alive. She was beloved by the people, and a hard loss to bear. Now, the unspoken order of the tribe was unsettled. Despite Makes-Medicine’s blessing, God-Speaker was young and untested as a shaman. The tribe had not yet seen proof of the powerful visions or the deep understanding of the spirits that Makes-Medicine had shown. And God-Speaker knew there were some who expected him to be a failure. The grumblers were eager for Braves-the-Storm to lead. He was Makes-Medicine’s brother, now the eldest of the tribe, and wise by all accounts. And he had been a great hunter in his younger days.

Still, the people were a community that worked together. Respect had to be given to those who earned it. For now, the questions of leadership would remain open, and the people would watch and judge everything that God-Speaker did and said. God-Speaker had never wanted the burden of leading, but he had been chosen by the stone god, and by Makes-Medicine, and now he was trapped. When the stone god had first spoken to him, it was thrilling. For once, he felt useful. Now, he wondered if it would have been better for him to have not been chosen.

Three days into the journey, a storm crept over the mountains, dumping heavy, wet snow on them. Travel was slow and miserable, and there were no dry places to sleep. The tribe’s mood worsened, but they continued to descend, following the river and hoping to get clear of the snow.

They came to a place where the river wound back on itself, running between a series of ridges. He heard talk at the front of the group: some of the hunters, men his own age. They were talking about climbing the nearest ridge to see the lay of the land and the course of the river below.

The stone god had been quiet for days, only whispering wordlessly now and then. Now it spoke to him clearly. Go up.

Two of the tribe’s best hunters, Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail, were already scrambling up the steep, slippery ridge. It was icy, and covered in loose rock that skittered down behind them.

God-Speaker wanted to back away, into the group that was settling in to wait. Instead, he stepped forward and took a deep, shaky breath. He set down his pack of personal belongings next to the packs the hunters had left behind. Finally, he adjusted the second pack, the one that held the stone god, and began to climb. He heard a few whispers from behind. Nobody had expected him to go up. They did not hear the stone god. They did not feel the compulsion that gripped him.

The slope was shallow enough that it could be walked, if it weren’t so slippery and loosely-packed. God-Speaker kept his hands out, sometimes for balance, sometimes scrabbling on all fours. He slid and scraped his knees and hands. He slowed. The other two continued up the slope above, getting further and further ahead. One of them looked back down at him and grinned mockingly.

To God-Speaker’s surprise, someone else came up the slope behind him. It was Braves-the-Storm. Unlike the younger men, he was clearly taking his time, picking each step and hand-hold carefully. Despite his age and his deliberate movement, he soon caught up to God-Speaker and began to move ahead. As he passed, he nodded to God-Speaker, his face showing no emotion beyond the strain of climbing.

God-Speaker knew he could not catch the hunters, especially once they had seen him coming up behind. Unlike them, he had never earned names praising his strength or hunting prowess. He had always been weak and clumsy. But it was embarrassing to be unable to even keep up with Braves-the-Storm, no matter how strong the old man was for his age.

The two hunters reached the top of the ridge when God-Speaker was only halfway up. They turned back and shouted offers of assistance down to Braves-the-Storm, but he only waved them off. They looked past him to God-Speaker, but said nothing more and walked out of sight.

By the time Braves-the-Storm reached the top, God-Speaker was struggling. He was hot with exertion and freezing at the same time. The cold wind turned the sweat to ice in his hair and beard. His back burned and his hands and arms were shaking with effort. For a moment, he thought about stopping, letting go and sliding back down.

The stone god whispered and hissed. He kept going.

Braves-the-Storm sat at the top of the ridge, catching his breath and waiting for God-Speaker. He offered a hand and pulled him up the last few feet. They sat for a moment, together, looking down on the rest of the people at the bottom of the slope.

Before God-Speaker could calm his breathing, Braves-the-Storm stood with a grunt, giving him a light slap on the shoulder as he turned and followed the two hunters. God-Speaker wanted to sit until the shakiness left his limbs, but he stood and followed.

“We wondered if you would make it,” Far-Seeing said, and both men smirked.

Braves-the-Storm did not smile. “He carries a heavier burden.”

“Heavier than the seasons you carry?” Finds-the-Trail replied. But his smile faded in the face of Braves-the-Storm’s stoic stare.

There was a smooth outcrop of rock at the top of the ridge. Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail stood side-by-side, looking down at the land beyond. God-Speaker and Braves-the-Storm stood beside them. From where they stood, the land fell, and fell again down bare stony ledges. The river twisted and turned before pouring into a canyon crusted with ice. It was narrow before the falls—narrow enough that the people might be able to cross it. It was clear that they couldn’t follow the river down. They’d have to pick one side of the canyon or the other.

It was the moment God-Speaker had dreaded. They could no longer follow the river. They might be able to stay close and find it again below, but they had to make a choice now.

“Which side of the river looks best?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He was clearly thinking along the same lines as God-Speaker.

“Even where it’s narrow, it will be dangerous to cross,” Braves-the-Storm replied. “We should not take that risk without good reason.”

“We could stay on this side for now,” God-Speaker said. “We may follow the canyon down to that far ridge and see more of what lies ahead.”

The hunters both narrowed their eyes, as though annoyed that God-Speaker would involve himself in their conversation.

“Yes,” said Braves-the-Storm, “but the path is rough with rocks and ice. It will be slow. We may spend a day or more getting there, and if the trail ahead looks bad, then we will have to come back to the narrow place.”

“Whichever side we pick, we may not find a good path,” Finds-the-Trail said.

Their voices faded from God-Speaker’s ears. At the top of the ridge, the whispers of the stone god grew to a roar. They clung to him and made him itch. He felt compelled to kneel on the flat stone. He swung the leather pack around in front of him. His shoulders throbbed as the burden was removed. The outside world dulled and blurred. He opened the pack and gently slid the stone from it. It was all he could focus on. He cradled the god in his lap, and they surveyed the land together, like a parent cradling a child.

God-Speaker could not tell if the others were still talking amongst themselves. Everything close had become hazy, but the land in the distance was bright and clear. God-Speaker couldn’t hear his own breath. He couldn’t hear the wind scouring the ridge or his companions’ voices, but he could hear the rustle of trees across the river. He could hear the water far away as it quickened down its narrow channel, falling into the canyon in a foamy rush.

Away, beyond the next ridge, before the river dropped from sight, there were other noises. A dull thumping, as of hooves on hard ground, and then a deep bellow. The low groan rose into an eerie trumpeting that echoed among the rocks. It was a sound like elk or deer might make, but strange enough that God-Speaker wondered if it was some other, stranger beast the people did not know.

“Have you ever heard such a noise?” he asked.

“What noise?”

The fog fell away. Once again, the far-away ridge and the river and the woods were distant and muted, and the rock was hard beneath him. He could hear his own breathing again. It was slow and steady now. He shivered as the sweat of the climb dried on his neck and face.

The others stood nearby, looking down on him. The hunters wore their familiar irritated expressions. Braves-the-Storm was impassive.

“You were in a trance,” he said. “We heard nothing but the wind. Did the god speak to you?”

“Not with words,” God-Speaker said. He pointed toward the patch of forest. “I heard hooves on the other side of the river, beyond the ridge. Maybe among those trees. I heard bellows, too.”

“Deer?” asked Finds-the-Trail. He looked interested, in spite of himself.

God-Speaker shook his head. “I don’t know. They were strange, not like deer or elk I have heard before.”

“We should be wary,” Braves-the-Storm said. “It may be some new kind of deer, or a predator.”

“Deer meat would be worth crossing the river for,” Far-Seeing said.

The people still had some of their winter fare. They dug up what edible roots and plants they could find as they traveled, and Far-Seeing had killed a hare with a well-aimed sling-stone, but something as large as a deer could feed everyone.

Finds-the-Trail nodded. “We should cross if there is a chance of deer.”

Braves-the-Storm crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you think, God-Speaker? Did the God show you anything else?”

God-Speaker looked down at the smooth stone head. It was silent now. Even the whispers had quieted.

“Nothing,” he said. “I think it must have a reason to let me hear this, but even Makes-Medicine said that signs from the spirits could often be interpreted in many different ways. I think we should cross, but we should watch carefully for animal signs.”

They said nothing more, but stood for a moment, looking out over the land and holding as much of it in their memories as they could. The hunters seemed caught between their irritation with him and the hope of fresh meat. God-Speaker slid the stone god into its pack and pulled it onto his aching shoulders once more. They all went down together, the hunters again leading the way.

Far-Seeing and Finds-the-Trail moved among the group to explain what they had seen ahead. The people began walking again, with Braves-the-Storm leading the way. God-Speaker walked in the middle of the group. He heard mentions of deer here and there in the group, but nobody approached him to ask what he had seen or heard on the ridge.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 4.2

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

There were three or four of everything in the storage room, which meant that Christopher had a limited range of random clothing sizes to choose from. The largest pair of boots was about a size too big, but the rest of the boots were far too small. He found one of the heavy overcoats that fit well enough and a pair of gloves that were perfect for him. Then he grabbed a tinderbox and a hatchet and made his first real excursion outside the bunker.

The radio was still the most likely way to make contact with the outside world, but he had no idea what frequency he was broadcasting on, what frequencies anyone was likely to be listening on, or what the range was on the damn thing. The only transmissions he had heard were from the cycling numbers station, and if they were hearing him, they weren’t acknowledging it. A multi-pronged approach was in order. He would try other signals.

First, he shuffled to the nearest group of pines and chopped off the lower branches, looking for a good mix of dead wood and green. He heaped it up in the rocky, open space between the bunker door and the lake. Then he collected a large pile of dry pine needles. He criss-crossed small bits of deadwood over the needle pile.

He still had sharp pains in a variety of joints when doing almost any physical activity, but it felt good to be outside, and he thought his troublesome right leg felt a little bit better. He was sweating under the overcoat after fifteen minutes of chopping and hauling.

The tinderbox was a little wooden box painted gray-green and labeled in stenciled white letters. When he opened it, he found several strips of black cloth and two pieces of metal. Christopher had never used flint and steel, but he had assumed that one would clearly look like metal and the other would clearly look like rock. These were both rectangular metallic pieces of slightly different proportions. He had to scrape a few edges between them before he got them to spark.

Once he understood the basics, it was surprisingly easy to produce a cascade of sparks with the flint and steel. He tried to light the little pile of pine needles, but a cold wind was gusting across the open space, and the needles only smoked and smoldered. He piled the wood next to the needles, as a bulwark against the wind, then stood on that side as well. Already sweaty, he was getting uncomfortably hot striking the flint and steel over and over. The wind was icy on his neck and face where his clammy skin was exposed.

He had wanted to save the little scraps of fabric that were obviously intended to be used as kindling, but the needles refused to light after several minutes. He finally took a scrap of the black cloth out and draped it over the needles. It only took a few tries for the sparks to light it, creating a tiny, fluttering flame. With the flame going, the needles caught fire more easily, and soon he had a decent little fire going.

“You thought this would be easy,” he muttered. “You didn’t think about how you’ve never done any of this before. You’ve barely been camping. Flint and steel starts fire. Wood burns. Easy, right?”

He placed several dry branches onto the pile as it crackled and sizzled. The needles were consumed in less than a minute, and the pine branches were burning well, but much more quickly than he had expected. The wood he had cut would only last a few minutes, and he had built the little fire a hundred feet from the trees.

“You’ve got to plan these things step by step,” he said. He threw the rest of the dry wood onto the flames, and stacked a few pieces of the green wood with intact needles on top, in hopes that it would burn more slowly.

He hobbled back to the copse, finding an untouched tree to hack at. He glanced at the fire as he worked, worrying as the flames dwindled. He chopped quickly and haphazardly, and returned to the much-diminished fire with an armful of wood. He sorted out some of the dead branches and threw them on to get the fire going again, then began to arrange the rest of the wood over it.

He had hoped to get a good fire going, then use the green wood to create thick smoke for a signal that could be seen by any nearby towns or passing aircraft. However, the wood was burning too fast and not generating that much smoke. The plume blew away in the wind before it could get very high. The attempt was clearly a failure. He’d just have to treat it as a test run. He would need an improved plan for the next time.

He would need more fuel. The fire ate through the skinny pine boughs much more quickly than he’d anticipated. He’d want to look for something that made thicker smoke. The fresh needles and green wood produced an unimpressive amount of gray smoke that would be hard for anyone to see against the dull clouds or snowy peaks. Finally, he would need to do something about the wind. It would help to wait for a calmer day, but Christopher didn’t know what typical weather was like up here. For all he knew, the wind always blew like this.

The problem with the wood was that he had already hacked away a lot of the lower branches from the pines close to the bunker entrance for his failed fire. He would need to go further afield, to the trees ranging further down the lake shore. He would need to do some scouting, which was fine because he had already intended to walk around the lake and get a better sense of his surroundings. He needed to determine conclusively where the bunker was on the map (or if it even was on the map).

He felt his energy ebbing. A slow walk around the lake had seemed reasonable first thing in the morning, but now he wasn’t so sure. He would definitely need a more manageable solution for hauling the wood if he was going to chop more and bring it further for another fire.

The sun was getting high in the sky. Christopher went back to the bunker and looked for some food that he could take with him. There were shelves in the pantry that appeared to contain various kinds of field rations. A few were labeled “MRE,” but many of the packages were inscrutable. He found a box of bars in vacuum-packed plastic that were pliable and made from some kind of reddish-brown, greasy, granular substance with more colorful bits embedded. He guessed they were some kind of granola bar, or a very odd piece of jerky. Either way, he grabbed two and went back out.

There was a tall, lonely birch among the pines that he had used for his fire, and he found a thick, sturdy branch to use as a walking stick. He began trekking down the shoreline.

The beach was mostly gravel — sharp little shards of rock — and Christopher found it easier to walk further back from the water, where the rocks gave way to hard ground, scrubby grass, and occasional shrubs and boulders.

Once again, Christopher was struck by the desolate beauty of the landscape around him. There were no planes overhead; no signs of people whatsoever. He barely even saw animals. Occasionally, a sparrow or chickadee would hop between nearby branches or be visible picking at half-frozen berries in a bush. Christopher saw a flash of movement in the needled carpet beneath some pines, but couldn’t identify the animal. Otherwise, the only sound was the wind and the faint lapping of the water.

Time passed. He had no way to measure it exactly, but the sun was descending. With mountains all around, the horizon was high, and the sun set quickly. He felt himself slowing down, and his right knee was tightening up. He knew he was pushing his body more than was smart, but there was some sort of freedom in moving, in being outside instead of trapped in the stone-walled bunker.

He wouldn’t be able to make it around the lake before sunset, so he decided to take a break. He found a small boulder with a flat top and took a seat. He took out one of the sealed bars and opened it. It had a faintly salty smell, not unlike bacon, with a fruity tang. It didn’t smell rotten, but it was a little musty.

He took a tentative nibble. It was greasy and a little meaty, like a sort of ground-up jerky. The brighter bits turned out to be some kind of fruit, maybe dried cranberry. If someone had asked Christopher whether he wanted to eat ground jerky with berries a few days earlier, he would have replied with an emphatic no, but now that he tasted it, it wasn’t awful. Not exactly a treat, but after a morning of exercise in the cold, it was energizing.

The sun dimmed behind a fluffy pile of cumulonimbus clouds, and Christopher could feel the temperature drop a few degrees as he finished the strange bar. The living landscape painting surrounding him was drained of its color, leaving a world of the same gray-green that was so prominent inside the bunker. Heavy flakes of snow began to fall.

Christopher had already been thinking about turning back, and the snow immediately confirmed that decision. The food reinvigorated him, but his injuries ached more after the brief pause. The snow fell thicker, and soon the world was reduced to a bubble around him as the blowing flakes reduced visibility. The snow accumulated, and the ground grew slippery. Several times his foot slid, and he was grateful for the walking stick to help prop him up and avoid twisting any of his already damaged limbs.

He began to worry that the snow would alter the landscape enough that he would lose track of the bunker. It would be ridiculous to find this safe haven against astronomical odds, only to lose it after a short hike. However, he recognized the trees he had chopped when he came upon them, and the remains of his fire were still a black smudge in the fresh snow.

From there, it was easy to find his way back to the cliff and the embedded hatch. He tapped the code into the keypad and went inside, where the air felt over-hot after the stinging wind and sweating in his overcoat. He stripped off his outer layers and set about making another dinner of rice and beans. If he wasn’t rescued soon, he would have to do a proper inventory of the available food.

He sat, and the uncomfortable couch was blissful. He ate, and the simple food was amazing. He jotted a few notes in the notebook and unfurled the map again, but he had little more to add to his knowledge of the surrounding landscape. Tired and full, he sank into a daze. He thought he ought to do something useful, perhaps try to determine if the radio signal jumped frequencies in a predictable pattern. But he didn’t want to. He was worn out. He was in pain. It was warm in the bunker.

Half-dozing, he felt as though he were drifting outside his own body. In this dreamy state, he watched himself laying back on the couch, doing nothing. He could see backward and forward in time. He glimpsed the insane jump from the plane and the fall into the lake. He saw a smear of future moments, hiking around the lake, lighting signal fires, tuning the radio for meaningless signals.

He felt his heart constricting in his chest. This place was safe and warm, yes. There was food, perhaps for years. There was no immediate danger, no impetus to push him. He saw further back into his life. When had there ever been any impetus? He drifted along the path of least resistance. He was boring and safe. When had he ever taken chances?

He fell into his own body again, waking with sudden adrenaline. He heard his own breathing, shallow and fast. His chest was tight. He clung to the couch. He had the frantic feeling that the stone walls were pressing close. The bunker was a safe, secure prison. It would be easy to stay here, to wait on others to find and rescue him. But his plane had gone down under strange circumstances. They might not be looking.

The easy path would be to wait for whatever would come. Maybe he would be rescued within a week. Maybe he would be trapped for months or years, and eventually run out of food. He knew himself. If he let his guard down, it would go that way. He needed to plan. He needed to do something.

He got up and tried to slow his breathing, still feeling like he might be having a panic attack. He brought the notebook to the radio and scanned the channels. Frustratingly, he couldn’t find the signal at all. Either it wasn’t transmitting, or he was missing it. It was dark outside now, and the overhead lights dimmed to a flickering lamplight glow.

He gave up on the radio and stood, wincing as pain flashed through his right leg. The wood chopping, the hike, and the cold had been too much. Or perhaps it had been the dream-induced panic attack that had tensed his whole body like a single muscle. In any case, his body would limit what he could do for days or weeks to come. He would have to be more careful or risk slowing himself further.

He limped to the bunks and lay gingerly in the bed, still fully clothed. He felt nearly as tired as he had when he had first collapsed in the bunker. He was dirty and sweaty and smelled of fire and pine needles.

He lay there, his eyes too heavy to open, his limbs too heavy to move. But he couldn’t sleep.


Razor Mountain — Chapter 4.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alright, what do you remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.3

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

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

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

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

After a few seconds of silence, he tried again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher flipped the switch.

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


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

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

Christopher flipped the switch.

“What the hell is this?”

As expected, there was no response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He unfolded the map and looked out at the landscape.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Razor Mountain — Chapter 3.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where the hell am I?”


Reblog: Accumulations — The Inner Moon

Remember when we talked about William Gibson calling the cyberpunk genre a retro-future on Twitter? Part of the reason cyberpunk can feel stale is that so many of the tropes are already part of our daily lives.

This thoughtful essay from The Inner Moon suggests that cyberpunk is actually a close sibling of post-apocalyptic fiction. An “entropic dystopia.”

In post-apocalyptic stories, the apocalypse strikes in a moment and leaves behind a broken world. A meteor, bio-weapon, zombie plague or nuclear war changes everything overnight.

Meanwhile, the apocalypses of cyberpunk are slow, insidious, and layered. Societal rifts that spread over decades. Dysfunctional governments in thrall to multinational corporations. Greed winning out over community. Tech becoming more and more ubiquitous without solving any of these issues. The problems just keep piling up. The world doesn’t collapse in cyberpunk. It gets steadily worse. It’s society as the frog boiled in the pot.

Check out the whole article over at The Inner Moon…