Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.
When the sun was above the horizon, they continued walking. Harold took some jerky from his pack and gave a piece to Christopher and another to Garrett. They walked in silence.
Christopher noticed that Garrett seemed to be scanning the ground as they went, and he finally stopped and picked up a straight stick about three feet long, with all the bark missing. He paused to take a plain white tee-shirt from his pack, and using his pocket knife he cut a square of fabric from the torso with two extra strips hanging off. Then he used the strips to tie the fabric to the stick. Finally, he tied the flag to his backpack so that it stuck up just above his head, hanging like a dead thing in the still air.
He also unloaded the rifle and slotted it onto the opposite side of the pack, through a series of straps that seemed to be designed for it. He pointed to Christopher and looked at Harold.
“Keep an eye on him.”
It didn’t seem to matter much whether Harold kept an eye on Christopher or not, because Garrett also made Christopher take the lead while the brothers walked behind. That meant Christopher would be the the first thing any sharp-eyed resident of the mountain would see, and the first thing they’d be likely to shoot at. Christopher thought about asking if he could wear the flag, but he already knew what Garrett’s answer would be.
“It won’t be long now,” Garrett said to Christopher. “We’ll either run into a patrol or be seen by a spotter. If you want to stay alive, don’t do anything that could be construed as remotely threatening.”
“That’s actually my standard operating procedure,” Christopher replied.
“Cute. If you’ve got any info that we could use to negotiate, now’s the time.”
Christopher shrugged. “Even if I did, wouldn’t it be better for me to hold onto it? Why would you do anything to help me? All you’ve done so far is kidnap and insult me.”
“What helps us helps you,” Garrett replied. “If they have reason to believe you’ve been cooperative, it might make you look a little better.”
“You think they’ll be lenient on the supposed spy who collaborated with the traitorous deserters?”
Christopher glanced back in time to see Garrett’s irritated frown. Harold looked oddly unperturbed for a man who had very recently suggested they might all be murdered before they had a chance to realize what was happening.
“You want real truth? The truth is that, as far as I can tell, all of you have been wildly misinformed about what the outside world is like. Nobody has been very eager to share much with me, but it seems like you think it’s a lot worse out there than it really is. You’re all worried about Russia and I can’t tell if you think the Cold War is still going. I suppose it makes sense, being right next door to them, but you all still seem way too concerned.
“I realize it doesn’t really matter what I say. I’m an outsider, and everyone here has a lot of trust issues. I don’t know whether that’s justified or not, but the fact that your people are on the run from the military and might just go to prison or get shot makes me think at least some of the fear is reasonable. Meanwhile, I’m stuck out here, having been dropped down the shittiest rabbit hole this side of wonderland, and I’m more and more of the belief that I’m going to end up dead because of you. So thanks for that.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
They kept walking, a thin, hard layer of snow crunching beneath their feet. Despite the talk of being shot, Christopher couldn’t stop his mind from wandering. The human brain could only keep up the tension for so long in the face of sheer boredom.
“So what’s it like up there?” Christopher asked, pointing at the mountain that now dominated the sky in front of them.
“More like down there,” Harold said.
“What, underground, like that office where your friends were?”
“They’re not our friends,” Garrett said, “and we’re not here to play tour guide.”
“I was friends with a couple of them,” Harold muttered.
“What’s the point of all the secrecy anyway?” Christopher said. “Your people already told me that there’s this base here, and there are certainly enough other buildings littered around here to make even someone as clueless as me start to wonder what’s going on. Other countries must have satellite cameras. These places must be visible in infra-red or something.
“Knowing there’s something is a lot different from knowing what that something is,” Harold said. “You’ve heard of Area 51, right? Everyone has.”
“What exactly do they do there?”
“Okay, that’s a pretty good point.”
Christopher gave up his questioning and marched in silence for a while.
The trees began to thin out. The land rose in fits and starts, hills piled upon hills, with unexpected little dips and gullies hidden by scrub bushes. They had to find narrow places to jump across or scrabble down and up. A few of these low places had ice at the bottom, and one had a thin trickle of dirty water. Christopher imagined them flooding with snow melt in the summer, the water carving up the land into little puzzle pieces, the inexorable pull of gravity doing its work over hundreds of years. Once again he was captivated by the beauty of this lonely landscape. It felt like a place outside of time, like he could walk these paths a thousand years before or after and see the same things in only slightly different arrangements.
They came up a slope and found themselves on the edge of a wide open, treeless expanse with a clear view of Razor Mountain. Perception was tricky: the roots of the mountain might only be a few hundred meters away, or still miles distant. For the first time, Christopher could see the entire vast mass of rock in all of its glorious crenulations and textures. The sunlight glinted here and there on facets of the rock and gilded the deeper ridges with liquid gold. There was very little foliage visible among the shattered boulders and jutting rock, and the nearly vertical faces made the mountain look almost as though it had burst from the ground in a single violent incident. It was a mingling of dull reds, grays and blacks. The broken twin peak was dusted with snow, but even in the bright sunlight the dull black rock looked as though it had been scorched from above by heavenly fire or some unruly dragon.
Garrett stopped and adjusted his makeshift flag. Christopher saw a meaningful look pass between the brothers before Garrett looked to him and motioned him forward. They stepped out into the open space, completely devoid of cover.
A stiff breeze blew through, whipping and cracking the flag dramatically, then everything went quiet. Christopher felt the tension hang between them. He stepped carefully; his footsteps in the gravel seemed loud. Off to the side, somewhere in the low brush, unseen birds chirped and chattered at one another. The breeze blew over the rough grass in uneven waves.
Christopher felt certain that something was coming, the crack of a gunshot or a shout from some hidden spy. His muscles were tight, vibrating with nervous anticipation. He glanced back and saw the fear in Garrett’s eyes. Harold studied the landscape around them, but he still looked calm. Whatever he thought would happen, he appeared to have made peace with it. Christopher felt a faint pang of envy.
Christopher didn’t see where the soldiers came from. He only saw the sudden change in the brothers’ expressions. He turned, and found himself facing six men in gray-green camouflage, helmets and body armor. They shouted orders as they surrounded Christopher and the brothers, though Christopher didn’t process exactly what they were saying. Something about not moving and getting on the ground, he supposed, because they immediately pressed their captives face-down to the earth. Christopher heard a thud near his head as Garrett’s backpack was removed and tossed aside. The tee-shirt flag lay on the ground nearby.
More voices and footsteps joined the others. Christopher kept his face in the rough, sharp grass, adjusting his position only to avoid getting jabbed in the eyes. He half-expected to hear the sound of gunfire or Garrett making some desperate excuses. But the guns and the brothers remained silent.
After a quick, whispered conversation among the captors, Christopher felt hands firmly grasp his arms and haul him upright. The soldiers weren’t rough or cruel; they exuded an aura of professionalism. This was what they did, and they’d do it efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Christopher saw that Garrett and Harold now had their hands behind their backs as well, bound with black zip-ties. Two soldiers held their backpacks.
The soldiers gathered in a loose formation around the captives, weapons held ready, and they began to march, once again, toward the mountain.
Though he still had a tight knot of fear and worry lodged just below his heart, Christopher couldn’t help a slight smirk at his situation. He had swapped captors three times in as many days, but he was still headed toward the mountain. In opposition to the seasonal flow of water, pulled by gravity toward distant lakes and oceans, Razor Mountain had its own gravity, and no matter what he did, Christopher couldn’t escape its pull.