Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.4

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

When Christopher had rested for a few minutes, they kept walking. The narrow residential street ran into a wider avenue within a much bigger cavern. There were a few buildings here that looked like multi-story apartments, but most of the buildings looked like storefronts and businesses. There was considerably more foot traffic here, and people on bicycles, but there was a distinct absence of cars, and there were no sidewalks. Everyone just walked in the street.

The ceiling of this cavern was high enough that Christopher had a difficult time estimating it by eye. The largest buildings seemed to top out at four or five stories, and the ceiling was well above them. Here, too, it was painted to look like sky, with a smattering of clouds here and there, but the illusion was broken by a web of geodesic support beams. Christopher also saw bundles of pipes in varying diameters running here and there along the walls or high across the ceiling. If he squinted, it almost looked like a vast glass ceiling with sky beyond.

It was like something out of science-fiction, and Christopher had the vague sense that he ought to feel more impressed than he did. But it wasn’t some gleaming futuristic metropolis of glass and steel. It all looked a little outdated and a little tacky, with too many layers of old paint and too many conflicting architectural styles. It reminded him of Las Vegas, the real city that never actually looked as glitzy as it was portrayed in the movies, and turned out to be built on the back of cheap labor and broken dreams, not just piles of money brought in by high-rollers.

The other thing that made it feel old-fashioned, regardless of how the storefronts actually looked, was the complete lack of chain businesses. There were no McDonald’s here, no familiar grocery or department stores. Across the street was Red’s Diner, and next to it was a place called Modern Chic that looked like it sold clothing. Further down, he saw a store simply called Furniture.

Speares distracted him by asking more questions about his journey from the bunker to Razor Mountain. He recounted his time in the wilderness and his interactions with the people he thought of as “the exiles.”

“What happened to Harold and Garrett?” he asked her, “and the rest of them, for that matter.”

“Those two will most likely have to face a court-martial,” she said. “I don’t know much beyond that. I’ll see if I can dig up some information, but it’s going to be limited. I’ll try to keep you out of those proceedings if possible. Hopefully your documented testimony here will be more than enough.”

They left the busy, large cavern and entered another one of the residential neighborhoods, but they didn’t have far to go. Speares led him to the door of a three story apartment, and they went inside. There was a little entryway, followed by a narrow staircase leading up.

“This might be a little rough on you,” she said. “I tried for a ground-floor place, but no luck. At least for now.”

Christopher took the steps one at a time, holding tight to the rail and getting both feet on a step before tackling the next one. He paused at each landing to catch his breath. Two landings per level, and three stories to the top. He felt like an old man. His whole body burned by the time he finished.

“You seem like you like to be self-deprecating, but you’ve held up pretty well considering what you’ve been through,” Speares said.

“Yeah, well, I think I’d like some more water and a bed to lie down in,” he replied.

“You’re in luck.”

The single door at the top landing opened onto a small, unremarkable apartment. It had a bathroom just large enough to contain a toilet, sink and shower; a bedroom with nothing but a bed; and a combination living and dining room with a small table, two chairs, and a simple kitchenette along one wall. There were two little windows—one in the bedroom and one in the living room—but they offered little light and a disappointing view of the stone-enclosed street outside. Most of the light came from recessed bulbs in the ceiling.

Christopher found a glass in the cabinets. There was a pitcher of water (and not much else) in the small refrigerator. He took his drink and sat at the table. Speares sat across from him, still holding her notebook.

“Who decides what happens to me?” Christopher asked.

“Your case will go before a tribunal. They’ll decide what happens, and how much…supervision you need. For now, you’re under house arrest.”

“So I go on trial?” he asked.

“Something like that.”

“When do I have to talk to them?”

Speares shook her head. “You don’t. They already have all the case information, including everything from Meadows. I’ll make my reports as well.”

Christopher frowned. “I get no say in what happens to me?”

Speares sighed. “I know it seems unfair, especially as an outsider. Those of us who live here know what to expect. The tribunal is not debating whether or not you can go back home. That’s not even a question. Part of it is secrecy, but it’s also to protect you from the bad guys. Even if you were willing to keep all the secrets you know, there are always going to be people out there trying to find out about this place, and if they get to you, they will do whatever is necessary to get you to talk.”

“I’m still debating who exactly the bad guys are,” Christopher said.

“I don’t blame you, but I’d suggest you try to be pragmatic instead of bitter. There are things we can change, and things we can’t. Work within the framework that’s available to you.”

“I’d like to at least make my case,” Christopher said. “You’re going to report to them. Tell them I want to at least talk to them in person.”

“That’s really not my purview…”

“Please. Like you said, I’m being pragmatic. This is the only opportunity I have to influence what happens to me.”

“It may not have the kind of influence you’re hoping for,” Speares replied.

“I’m willing to take that risk.”

“Well,” she said, “I suppose I could make a motion on your behalf. It’s only a request. Most likely they’ll reject it and make their decision without your input.”

“Then at least I tried.”

“Very well,” she said. She set the notebook onto the table and opened it. “Now, I have a few more things I want to go over before we’re done for today.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.3

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

Speares let Christopher finish his food while she politely flipped through a small gray notebook and occasionally tapped on the pages with a pen. From what Christopher could see, the notebook was filled with precise, hand-written notes that could almost be mistaken for a printed font.

When he was finished, she snapped the notebook closed.

“Can we walk and talk?”

Christopher stretched his sore limbs. “I think so, if we go slow. Maybe limp and talk.”

“Sure. Leave the tray. Take the bottle, if you like.”

Christopher slid to the edge of the seat and levered himself to a standing position. Then he picked up the one water bottle that was still half full. Speares waved a hand over a black plate next to the door, and Christopher heard the lock click. Then she held the door open as he stepped through. It felt like crossing a magical threshold, even though it only led into the dingy hallway he had seen when he first entered.

She stepped past him and went right, down the hall, notebook in hand, shoes clacking on the stone floor.

“I’m going to tell you a few things up-front,” she said. “Then, unfortunately, I’m going to need you to answer some of the same questions, one more time. We’ll take breaks, and you can ask me questions. I can’t promise that I’ll answer everything.”

“Alright.”

The area around the jail room really was a maze of identical corridors in varying shades of beige and gray. Here and there, Christopher saw places where the paint had chipped away, revealing more layers underneath, or sometimes bare gray stone with white or black flecks. It looked as though the hallways had been cut directly out of the rock and merely had a coat of paint applied. The lighting was mostly indirect, from narrow gutters that ran along either side of the ceiling. It was bright, but still somehow gave him the feeling of the light just as the sun began to set. Here and there, he did see electric bulbs set into the ceilings as well.

“Outsiders coming into our custody isn’t unheard-of,” Speares said. “But it’s not a common occurrence either. There are procedures in place, and—off the record—Meadows was way out of line. My determination is that you are a low-threat individual. However, I’m going to be honest and tell you right now that you are never going to go home, and that’s something you’ll have to come to grips with.”

She paused to look at him, gauging his reaction.

“Why?”

“Everything you’ve witnessed since you found that bunker is classified. We can’t let you go back out into the world with nothing but a pinky swear that you won’t tell anyone. Assuming you’re trustworthy, there are still bad people out there who would use coercive methods to get whatever information out of you they could.”

Christopher nodded. “I’ve had enough of coercive methods for a while. But I’d still like to go home. What’s supposed to happen to me if you’re not going to keep me in a cell?”

“The best option is that you integrate into Razor Mountain society. You rest up, you heal, and eventually, we find you something productive to do. In short, you stay here, and you’re…lightly supervised. It’s a bit like being out on parole.”

“Except I never committed a crime,” Christopher said.

Speares resumed walking without responding to that comment, but Christopher thought she had the good grace to look a tiny bit guilty.

“If you don’t mind, tell me about your rough landing and finding the bunker,” she said.

Christopher recounted his story yet again, starting with an overview of his sales trips and job, and ending with his entry into the bunker. Speares stopped him here and there to ask clarifying questions, but otherwise just listened. She flipped pages in her notebook, which he realized must contain notes taken from his sessions with Meadows. Occasionally, she paused to jot a note in the margins.

Their path took them through a set of wide double doors and out into a different series of branching pathways. These were wider, and they entered into what appeared to be a sort of residential area. Small stacks of apartments lined the road. They were all carved directly from the rock, but only a few had stone facades. Others had brick or stucco or tile, and a handful even had wooden shakes or painted siding. There were tiny neighborhoods in different styles, giving the strange impression of moving from an older small town in rural America to some nondescript Mediterranean village, to New York brownstones. Except, of course, that there was a stone ceiling high above them, instead of a sky. In most of the neighborhoods that sky was painted blue, but the illusion only really held up when you weren’t looking directly at it.

There were unusually bright street lights, and they were all lit, even though it seemed to be what passed for daytime here. More indirect light brightened the ceiling-sky and shone down from above. The sources must have been cleverly hidden—Christopher couldn’t see where the light came from.

The path was sparsely populated, but they did pass people. Many wore uniforms, but others wore ordinary civilian clothes. Christopher noticed glances directed toward Speares, and wondered if her uniform somehow marked her in a way that made people take notice.

“I need to rest,” he said.

“Sure.”

She directed him to a nearby bench that had been carved from the wall in the space between “neighborhoods.” Christopher drank the remainder of his water bottle.

“What is this place?” he asked. “Why is everything classified, and why does it look like someone picked up little pieces of different cities and jammed them underground? This doesn’t seem like an ordinary military base.”

“Of course it isn’t,” she said. “Although I could certainly show you areas that I imagine are pretty ordinary-looking. Regardless, the entire mountain is considered a military installation. We just have a large civilian population. This place is a carefully hidden, potentially self-sufficient society. A place that can act as a last bastion if something really astonishingly bad happens. Nuclear war, or a meteor impact, or climate catastrophe. That sort of thing. In some of those scenarios, we just need to be able to take care of ourselves, but in others, secrecy would be vital to our survival.”

“So this whole place is one big bunker,” Christopher said.

“You could say that.”

“What do you mean by potentially self-sufficient?”

“We’re not completely disconnected from the outside world,” Speares said. “But we could be, if we needed to.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.2

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

Christopher’s dreams were full of misery: freezing cold and the inescapable noise, or endless falling through a black void. However, even in his dreams he felt different. He no longer felt the desire to escape these horrors. He accepted what was happening. It washed over him like a wave. The nightmares didn’t wake him. Each one eventually subsided.

When he did finally wake up, he felt a sense of peace. The idea of sitting in his cell in the empty jail room was a perfectly reasonable way to spend his time. Perhaps it would continue to be quiet and warm. What a wonderful idea. Perhaps a soldier might bring a bottle of water, or a tray of basic, institutional food. That would be something on par with the best days of Christopher’s life.

He was delighted to discover that his stomach no longer hurt, and the rest of his body ached slightly less. He still felt like a living bruise, but he had regained some basic mobility, and he experienced fewer knifing pains when he moved. He lay on the bed for a while, then experimented with sitting on the floor and even standing upright while using the bars for support. There was a whole world of possibilities.

The next time the door opened, he was certain it was someone he had never seen before. A woman entered, carrying another tray and two water bottles. The tray captured Christopher’s attention for a moment, as he realized it was the previous day’s fantasy made real, a doubled version of his previous meal, two sandwiches, two apples, a veritable heap of carrots, and two cookies. He was delighted to note that he had underestimated how good his day could get.

The woman was dressed in a dark green uniform similar to Sergeant Meadows, but it was completely unadorned except for chevrons and some sort of white oval symbol on the shoulders. The name tag said “G. SPEARES.” She had short brown hair that hung just past her ears, and a face that projected an air of someone who has to deal with irritations all day, every day, and would be swift and efficient when dealing with those irritations.

She set the tray and water bottles on the steel table in the middle of the room before turning and walking to Christopher’s cell. Unlike the soldiers who had previously visited him, she walked like a human being rather than a robot, and she actually looked at him as though he were visible. The eye contact was the most surprising thing that had happened so far.

“I understand you’ve been through some bullshit,” she said, “so I’m hoping that we can both be civil if I let you out without restraints. Sound good?”

Christopher swallowed, wishing he had one of those water bottles in hand, and nodded.

“Sounds good.”

The woman unlocked the cell and opened the door, then walked back to the table and sat down facing him. Christopher noted that she had left her back to him for a few seconds, perhaps as a gesture of trust. It was a silly gesture considering the fact that he was malnourished and could barely walk, and she seemed like the sort of person who might do respectably in a fistfight with a gorilla. Christopher found himself appreciating it nonetheless.

He hobbled over to the table and slowly lowered himself onto the seat. The woman gestured to the food.

“Don’t let me stop you. I’m sure you’re still hungry. I only limited your intake yesterday because your body would have trouble handling too much right away, and most people find it hard to control themselves when they’ve been starved half to death.”

Christopher was already halfway through the first water bottle, and his throat felt lubricated enough to speak properly as he bit into the apple.

“Makes sense. I felt terrible afterward, and I still would have eaten more.”

“I hope you don’t find it awkward if I sit here while you eat,” she said.

He laughed.

“The mere suggestion,” he said, feeling loquacious, “that my opinion would have any bearing on the situation is pretty fucking delightful, if I’m being honest.”

Her eyes widened a fraction of a millimeter in surprise. She blinked a few times as though trying to order her thoughts before responding.

“I’ll say this. What was done to you was completely unconscionable. You also seem…surprisingly glib about it.”

“I definitely feel different,” Christopher said, moving on to the first sandwich. “Not sure exactly how, yet. But I’m guessing it has something to do with trauma or PTSD or whatever it is that happens to you after being tortured.”

Again, she paused, and Christopher continued before she could respond.

“So are you the local psychologist, here to make me functional again? Or is this a good cop, bad cop thing?”

She frowned and leaned back slightly, hands flat on the table.

“Neither,” she said. “At least, not exactly. I’m not a psychologist. I’m Specialist Gabrielle Speares. I’m a soldier, albeit with a rather unusual job description. I’m a sort of liaison. And I don’t like the good cop, bad cop idea, because it carries the implication that I’m working in some way with Sergeant Meadows. I know you have no reason to believe me, but I can assure you that is not the case. I am, however, going to have to immediately compromise my position here though, because one of the things I’ve been tasked with is interviewing you. Yet again.”

Christopher washed down the peanut butter with the remainder of the water bottle before beginning on the second sandwich.

“I’ll tell you this, if you are the good cop, I think you’re pretty good at it. But again, I’m not confident that my brain is working at full capacity right now, so I might be an easy mark.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 23.1

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

Christopher awoke to the aching of his body. He was stiff and sore everywhere; he felt like he had been beaten. But he was also immediately aware of a clarity of thought. He felt rested in a way that he hadn’t for days, maybe weeks. He also felt that he could continue sleeping forever, but his body suggested that there were more immediate needs. He was incredibly hungry and thirsty.

He worked on sitting up. Each movement brought a new twang or jolt of his joints and muscles. By the time he was able to sit upright on the metal bed, he was holding his breath and tensed all over. He caught his breath and looked around the cell. It was essentially the same as it had been for his entire stay, but it felt entirely transformed. There was silence, the lights were set to a reasonable level, and the temperature was comfortable. There was also a tray of food and an unlabeled plastic bottle of water sitting on the floor, just inside the cell door.

Christopher would have lunged to the tray, if his body hadn’t betrayed him with jolting pain. Instead, he embarked on the arduous task of sliding into a sitting position on the floor, where he could scoot himself the two feet over to the food. It was real food, not whatever bland mush they had been feeding him. There was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread, a small and slightly under-ripe apple, five baby carrots, and a hard little chocolate chip cookie.

While it was objectively something like a mediocre school lunch, it was the best meal Christopher had ever eaten. It put past cookouts and fancy restaurants and thanksgivings to shame. He nearly wept as he ate the cookie in two bites. The lukewarm bottle of water was even better. It was probably his imagination, but he thought he could feel it spreading through his body, the moisture infusing his scratchy eyes, cracked lips, and tight throat.

Perversely, his stomach hurt even more after the food and water. It felt like a wooden knot in his belly that the food was being forced through. Still, he would have eaten several more meals if they had been offered.

Unable to bear the idea of getting back onto the bed, Christopher slid himself into a sitting position against the stone wall. He closed his eyes and felt the moisture welling up under the lids, soothing the sandpaper feeling. He dozed, savoring the silence that now seemed like such an incredible treasure. In his half-dreaming, he thought he ought to be angry. He didn’t have the strength for it. Instead, he felt amazed by everything around him: the taste of the food, the silence, the warm air. There were a lot of simple things worthy of appreciation, and he hadn’t given them the respect they deserved before this ordeal. He wondered if he was still delirious.

He was jolted awake by the sound of the door opening. The uniformed guard entered, carrying another bottle of water.

Christopher wondered if this was the same guard each time. It was difficult to remember anyone other than Sergeant Meadows. There might have been multiple guards, but he couldn’t picture their faces.

The man walked smartly to Christopher’s cell, set the bottle of water inside through the bars, and picked up the empty bottle and tray that Christopher had left. Christopher wanted to ask him what had happened. Why were they suddenly treating their prisoner as though he were an actual human being? Had Christopher somehow told them something they wanted to hear? Had he inadvertently mentioned some secret about Harold and Garrett and the rest of the exiles? Or had Meadows finally decided that Christopher really was just a very unfortunate person in the wrong place?

Christopher wanted to ask the guard if he was proud to have participated in the torture of an innocent person, but he couldn’t even be sure this particular soldier was involved, and he was too grateful for the bottle of water.

All he managed to croak was “thank you,” before the soldier walked back to the door and stepped out of the room. Despite the gift of the water bottle, Christopher saw no warmth in the soldier’s attitude. There was no hint of eye contact or acknowledgment of Christopher’s presence. Just a man whose job was to set a water bottle down inside a room and pick up the discarded bottle and tray. No human interaction necessary.

As Christopher slowly made his way over to the water bottle, he tried to remember what he had said to Meadows. It was all clouded. Christopher knew that some of the things he remembered must be hallucinations: places melding together, people and events that were long past or never happened.

He remembered Meadows fishing for information about the exiles, talking about Harold and Garrett, the woman who had been their apparent leader, the many others whose names he didn’t know, and even Amaranth. He remembered talking about the fall from the plane, the bunker and the lake and his excursions into the wilderness. The messages on the radio. He remembered talking about his own life in ever expanding detail. His job, his schooling, his family.

He had told Meadows about his brother’s death, about how it had fractured their family, about all of the problems and sorrows in Christopher’s life that had come out of that one event. It wasn’t clear how much of that was real, and how much of it happened in fever-dreams. Christopher recalled a particular feeling, the feeling that something had broken inside of him, and the strange connection he had felt as he huddled in the corner of his cell and remembered sitting at the top of the stairs, listening to his parents argue down in the kitchen. It was as though the two moments had become linked across the span of years.

A new memory intruded. Christopher had stopped the interrogations. He sat across the metal table from Meadows and told him calmly that he would no longer participate.

“I’ll talk to whoever you report to,” Christopher had said, “but I’m done talking to you. You can keep doing whatever you want to me. You can kill me. But I’m done with you.”

After that, Christopher had become like a rock, hard and mindless. He had some vague sense that they had, in fact, kept doing the same things to him, but the conversations had stopped. Somehow, with his brain barely functioning, Christopher had found a way to keep control of himself. He remembered the grim satisfaction of sitting across from Meadows in silence.

As Christopher sat on the floor, savoring the bottle of water, he wondered if his stupid strategy had actually worked.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 22.2

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

They sat together, facing each other in the middle of the chamber. The strange symbols and shapes that adorned the metal walls of the room glinted like ghosts in the unearthly light.

God-Speaker had grown adept in tuning the voices, ignoring them when he wanted to, or bringing them to the fore of his mind. Now, he let them come to him. They never tired, never faded. They were always desperate to sing about past glories and times long-forgotten. They needed an audience. Without someone to listen, they went mad. Without someone to listen, they truly had no way to act upon the world around them. This, above all else, they couldn’t bear. It was as close to death as they could come. Always, they were seeking entry into his mind, but he was too different, to strange to them.

The background hum came into focus, and God-Speaker heard the individual voices, sometimes harmonic and synchronized, sometimes dissonant and syncopated.

“Listen closely to the voices,” he said. “Listen for the differences, the high notes and the low notes, the fast and the slow. They are like a rushing river, very loud, but composed of many different sounds.”

He opened his eyes to slits to look at her. Her own eyes were closed, her eyebrows scrunched down in concentration, her lips pressed tight together.

“I hear the low voice,” she said. “But it comes and goes. I can’t follow it.”

They went on, as he carefully described the rhythms and sounds he heard. He described the individual voices and the groups. Sometimes the voices brought particular feelings or ideas to the fore, and he mentioned them. Sky-Watcher’s face grew more creased and furrowed as the minutes passed. Her cheeks flushed and a bead of sweat ran down her temple, though the chamber was cool and dry.

God-Speaker pushed her, even though she was clearly exhausted. She had less and less energy these days. He knew he should stop. She was not making any progress. But he needed something. He had to believe in some sudden epiphany where it would all come together. It would happen for her the way it had for him, when he first heard the mountain speak so long ago. That too was a desperate time. Perhaps it was only such an experience that could make it happen.

If it was to happen, it would not be tonight. He let himself admit it.

“We should stop,” he said.

Sky-Watcher opened her eyes and nodded. She took a deep breath and her shoulders sagged.

“Alright. Just give me a minute before we go back.”

It was several minutes before she was ready. He waited in silence. She was tired, and he didn’t want to rush her or cause her any more stress. He already regretted pushing her so hard, but he was driven by the iron-hard ball of fear at the bottom of his stomach.

Finally, she turned and struggled to stand up. He rushed to help her.

He remembered their long hikes in the woods surrounding the mountain, laying in the snow in the middle of the night and staring up at the stars. There were no long hikes anymore.

They made their way along the dark, narrow path. He walked behind her, one hand on the smooth stone wall and the other on her waist. She led the way, setting a pace that was comfortable for her, and he was ready to catch her if she stumbled in the darkness.

They crossed the main avenue of the mountain city, but it was late now, and the street was quiet.

Finally, they came to the last ordeal, the stairway. She had to stop twice to catch her breath at the landings. God-Speaker wanted to say something, but there was so much to say that the words stuck in a tangled mass in his throat.

They reached the doors to his apartments, and he unlocked them with the brass key that hung on a chain around his neck. Inside, she led him to the balcony, the one that faced the outside world. Sensing where they were going, he took a blanket from a chair along the way. As they stepped out, the cold air stung him. He tried to wrap the blanket around her shoulders, but she shrugged it off.

“Let me feel the air for a moment.”

The balcony was built to be invisible from below, blending into the rock. From within, it offered an unparalleled view of the surrounding country, harsh and beautiful. They looked out on the slope of the mountain below, the patches of forest and bare rock and water. The moon was bright, giving a sharp white edge to the trees and snow-dusted ridges. Distant lakes shone like silver coins.

God-Speaker laid the blanket out on the balcony, and they lay down next to each other. Sky-Watcher took his hand and held it ferociously. He realized then that she had also spent their walk back trying to find the words to express something.

“This is where I belong,” she said. “Not down beneath the mountain.”

He wondered if that was a faint accusatory tone in her voice, or only disappointment. But there was happiness too. She was always happiest under a starry night sky.

“Have you been able to use the new telescope?” he asked. It was a marvel of engineering, even by Razor Mountain standards, housed in a chamber a little further up the slope.

“No,” she said, “not very much.” There was a catch in her voice.

He tried to find the right words.

“I am sorry, if I’ve caused you pain. I know this is not what you want to be doing.”

She shook her head and squeezed his hand. He turned and saw that she was crying.

“I’m sorry. It hurts us both, what is happening to me. You’ve taught me so much…there is only one thing I’ve wanted to teach you, but I don’t know how.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

“No, it isn’t,” she replied. “Not for you.”

“I don’t…”

She put a hand on his cheek, gently turning his head to face her.

“This is okay,” she said. “This right here, you and I, on this blanket under the stars. This is all we need.”

Now he had to close his eyes to stop the tears.

“I cannot lose you.”

“You can,” she said. “It will be alright.”

“It isn’t!”

“Even you,” she said, “have your limits. I’m not afraid of dying. You don’t need to be afraid either.”

“I can’t live without you.”

She kissed his forehead. “That’s a choice you must make. Besides, how many others have you seen come and go? How many have you outlived?”

“It’s not the same.”

She shrugged. “It’s the same to the stars. It’s the same to the mountain. It might feel different to you and to me, but it’s not. It’s just what happens.”

“There’s still time,” he said. “You can do what I do. You don’t have to die.”

“You cannot put all your happiness upon that,” she said. “I have tried, for you. I will be sad to let you go. But if that must happen…it will happen. I can accept that. I’m happy that I had these nights under the stars. That is enough for me.”

“You could stay with me forever,” he said.

“Forever is too much,” she replied. “Everything has an ending.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He wanted to shout, to plead. He couldn’t accept it. But he could see the weariness on her face. He pulled the blanket close around them, and she looked up at the heavens while he studied the reflections of the stars in her dark eyes.

He didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until he was jolted awake by a dream of falling. The same dream he had so often these days, of falling through a crack deep in the mountain, into an endless abyss. He blinked blearily. He was cold, and she would be freezing.

He pulled himself up onto his elbow to look down at her. Sky-Watcher lay under the night sky, her face serene. She still stared up at the stars, but the twin mirrors of her eyes were dull, and there was a slackness to her expression. He held a hand to her cheek. She was too still and too cold.

The panic rose in his chest as he felt for her heartbeat in the vein at her neck, but there too he felt only stillness.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 22.1

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 paced between the rooms of his newly expanded home. He tried to focus, to appreciate the small details of each room and the sheer amount of clever engineering and human labor that went into the construction. Instead, he kept forgetting his inspection, catching himself standing in one room or another, eyes glazed. His mind was a buzzing hive of thoughts, distractions heaped upon distractions.

A hallway connected the rooms of his apartments in a long line. During the day, light was piped in from above. Now, as evening deepened, the faintly flickering natural gas lamps illuminated the rooms from hidden recesses. The walls were cut directly from the stone, smoothed and polished to reveal the natural strata and variations of the mountain. In some places, they were carved into delicate arabesques and geometric motifs. The floors were tessellated stone tile in every color that occurred within the mountain, stylized depictions of the local wildlife, perfectly interlocked.

At either end of the hallway was a balcony. One faced outward from the mountain, offering an unparalleled view of the surrounding landscape. The other looked inward, down on the perpetually growing city within the mountain itself. God-Speaker made his way to this inner balcony and looked down on the main street from the peak of the man-made cavern. His vantage point was only ten feet above the low rooftops, but it was still a marvel that this had all been solid stone only a few lifetimes ago.

He felt the rumbling in the distance as much as he heard it. The excavators would be working sixteen hour days until the latest expansion was done.

God-Speaker stretched, trying to straighten his stiff spine. His body was rapidly losing the suppleness of youth, and once again he felt the aches and pains of age creeping in. It was a familiar pattern, but no less irritating for it. In a few more years it would be time to finalize the replacement.

The sound of the entry doors unlocking came from down the hall. It was a the sound of stone mechanisms sliding and thunking into place, not loud, but designed to be audible from any room. Even with a key, nobody could enter without him knowing.

He left the balcony and walked to the entryway. A stone face was carved into the wall next to the doors. Its jaw hid a mechanism that could bar the doors from within. The doors were already open, and he could see beyond, to the winding staircase that led up from the caverns below.

Sky-Watcher stood in the doorway. She wore her long black hair in a loose braid that fell to her shoulder. Her eyes were such a dark brown that there was no discernible separation between the iris and pupil. Those eyes were wells of mysterious darkness in her otherwise expressive face.

“Are you going to let me in, or must I stand here while you admire me?” she asked.

He moved aside to let her in, but he continued to admire her. Her olive skin was freckled with deep brown moles. Her nose had a slight crookedness, where it had been broken when she was a child. But as she passed him, he saw an unfamiliar gauntness, her cheekbones more prominent than usual.

“Have you been eating well?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I sometimes have some trouble keeping the food down,” she said.

“Have the herbs helped at all?”

“They lessen the nausea a little. But you said yourself that they do not treat the problem itself.”

“No,” he said. “They do not. I have spent days consulting the voices of the mountain, and there is no natural remedy. There are things we could make, but…it would take machines. Skills and practice. Time we do not have. We won’t be able to do these things for many years.”

She sighed. “As you have said.”

“There is only one way,” he replied. “You need to hear the voices. You need to do what I do. Did you try again this morning? Did you feel anything more?”

She shook her head. “I hear what I have always heard. Faint murmurs, and nothing more.”

His brow creased. “You can’t be complacent. They are there, if only you can hear them.”

She shrugged again, irritatingly indifferent. “It is not my place to hear the voices, my love. It is your place. You speak to the spirits, and I watch the stars.”

“The oracles hear the voices too,” he said. “You can do this.”

“The oracles cannot do what you do,” she replied.

“It is different,” he said, “but not so different. My connection to the voices is clearer. I can know what they know and see what they have seen. I can cast my mind out in the current moment. I can touch other minds. The oracles cannot reach out to other minds. They can only find themselves. They send their minds back along the thread of time and find themselves. They can send back important messages. As long as I can send messages through the oracles, no disaster can befall us. We can send a warning back to ourselves.”

“But you’ve never sent a warning,” Sky-Watcher said.

“I will send one about your condition,” God-Speaker said. “Or rather, my future self already sent the message.”

She shook her head. “I still don’t understand. You say you sent the message because I died. But if we find a cure for me, that won’t happen. Things will be different. The message will be different.”

“I can still send the same message,” he replied.

“But things will be different. It won’t happen the way it happened before.”

He shrugged. “Even the voices don’t completely understand how it works. We cannot send messages forward, the way we can send them back. It may be that there are many threads of time.”

“Then there may be another God-Speaker out there who is alone.”

“Perhaps. But he has given me the opportunity to save you.”

“If I could do what you do.”

“I know you can,” he said. “I will help you.”

“Very well,” she said. “I have energy enough for one more try tonight. But you must promise me that afterward we will lay beneath the stars.”

“Of course.”

She turned and took his hand, leading him out to the staircase as the stone doors slid closed behind them. The path was long and winding, but the stairs themselves were shallow and punctuated by wide landings. Eventually they came to another, smaller door. After they passed through, this one closed seamlessly into the smooth wall behind them, almost perfectly hidden, and they came out into the mazes of hallways that ran among the living spaces on the outskirts of the larger caverns.

They walked briefly down the central avenue, passing stores and workshops. A few of his people passed and nodded respectfully or pressed a fist to their chests in salute. Then God-Speaker and Sky-Watcher entered another branching series of hallways, this time on the opposite side of the cavern. A concealed door at the back of this hallway opened onto a small room with a low, narrow exit into darkness.

There were no gas lights, no cleverly engineered mirrors to channel sunlight into the depths. This was a hidden path, and he wanted it dark. It was a sacred place, and the walk through the void seemed somehow appropriate. It was the way he had first come to this place.

There was no real danger. The floor of the path had long ago been smoothed, and the cracks and crevices filled in. With hands on both walls, one only needed to walk forward. The glow ahead was so faint at first that it was impossible to tell if it was even there. With each twist and turn, it intensified.

Finally, they came to the cylindrical chamber. The light was still weak, but somehow hit the back of his eyes with an uncomfortable intensity. It left streaks of blue in his vision when he blinked. The room seemed to rise endlessly above them, where the light faded into darkness before it could find a ceiling.

God-Speaker stepped into the chamber and turned as Sky-Watcher entered. She raised a hand to guard her eyes from the harsh light, but she tripped at the small lip at the threshold. God-Speaker jumped forward to catch her.

“I’m fine,” she muttered, but God-Speaker felt the way she sagged in his arms, the effort of standing up on her own feet again. Instead, he gently lowered her and himself to their knees.

“You are not fine. You’re getting worse.”

She sighed. “You said yourself that I would.”

“All the more reason to do this,” he said.

“Tell me again what I must do,” she said. “Lead me with your voice.”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 21.3

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

Is there a difference between thinking and speaking? I’m not sure. Sometimes I only think, and the words come out into the air. Meadows can hear the thoughts. He answers them. Asks more questions. There are always more questions, even if a lot of the time they’re the same questions.

He’s lying. He doesn’t know anything. He’s just hoping that if he pushes me enough I’ll say something that will prove he was right all along.

Is he lying? He knew things about my job, about my family. Things I didn’t tell him.

Did I think them? He can hear the thoughts.

I’m sitting at the table, and then I’m sitting in my cell. They make me get up and run around the halls. Endless, empty gray hallways. But then I’m jogging in my cell.

I eat something, but I don’t know what it is.

Have you ever killed someone?

“Yes.”

Tell me.

“We used to go to the beach on these family trips. It was a long car ride. He wouldn’t shut up. I was so sick of him by the time we got there.”

Who?

“My brother.”

Does he have a name?

“Yes.”

Well?

“I think I was mad, too, because I wasn’t a very good swimmer. I took swim lessons, but I still wasn’t very good. He was a natural. He could swim circles around me, literally. It’s hard, the first time you realize your younger brother is better at something than you are.”

You were jealous.

“Maybe. I was too young to really examine how I felt.”

What happened?

“I think I just wanted to get away for a while. But it was stupid. I went out into the water, like he wouldn’t be able to get me, out there.

“When he came out, he was worried about me, and that made it even worse. I was tired and bad at treading water, but I didn’t want to admit it. I was too far out. By the time I realized that, I couldn’t make it back by myself. I was so damn ashamed that I needed his help.”

You wanted to get him back for that?

“No. I was only ashamed at first, and then something clicked in my head, the kind of thing that our parents were always telling us when we fought, about how we should rely on each other. I thought if we could just get back, things would be different. We could help each other instead of just fighting all the time.”

What happened?

“We didn’t make it back. He was too small to carry me. He shouldn’t have had to.”

I asked you if you’ve ever killed someone.

“It was my fault. I was just a kid. I didn’t know things like that could happen in real life.”

Are you kidding me? Do you think this is a joke?

“No. Do you?”

The stainless steel table was in the snow now. They must have moved it.

It was cold, but it felt good to be outside again. The harsh wind was cut by the bright sunshine. Christopher felt the warmth of it on his face. It was hot, actually. Hot, and running down his cheeks. He touched it gingerly.

Blood. Sticky on his hands. Blood running down his face from his ears.

He opened his eyes. He was sitting in the corner of the cell. The banging sound pounded him like a physical force. He held up his hands. They were clean.


They’re arguing again, downstairs in the kitchen. The voices rise and fall, one male, one female. Why do they think he can’t hear them?

Of course, he’s withdrawn. What do you expect when he goes through something like this?

It’s a formative point in his life. He just needs time. Jesus, we all do.

What if he needs more than just time?

Like what?

He opens his eyes and sees his own fists pounding against the bars. They fall to his sides and he sinks down. The stone floor is so cold.

There’s an engine deep in his chest that is slowing down. It’s been running his whole life, and he never noticed it until now.

Maybe it’s okay to just stop, to let go. Maybe dying would be a relief. No more pressure, no more fighting.

Maybe it wasn’t so bad, what happened. It’s just something that happens. It’s peaceful.

Christopher lay down on the floor of the cell. This time, he didn’t black out. He felt a velvety darkness enveloping him. It was a warm blanket. Whatever happened, everything would be okay.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 21.2

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

Time frayed at the edges. Sometimes Christopher thought it was day or night, but there was no evidence one way or the other. His body was desperate for some semblance of normalcy. It felt like night when the air was so cold that frost started to form on the metal bed. It felt like day when the lights were so bright that he had to press his hands over his eyes and hope that he wouldn’t go blind.

He entered a new state of exhaustion. He didn’t sleep, he simply lost time. His brain shut down. The banging noise didn’t matter, the light didn’t matter. His body simply did it. It could have been seconds or hours that he was unconscious. He had no way to know.

A soldier brought him a plastic tray of food that he ate without tasting. Reconstituted mashed potatoes? A rubbery piece of meat that might be chicken? It was hard to remember. He ate it all with his bare hands. A half-size plastic bottle of water, swallowed in a single gulp, and still not enough to quench his thirst.

“You came here with two brothers, the deserters. How did you meet them?”

It was a tricky question. The exiles in that old, ruined building were afraid of Razor Mountain. Christopher remembered that. He held no ill will for most of them, although the brothers hadn’t done him any favors.

“I was just trying to find any other people out here,” Christopher said. “I had a map, from the bunker. It showed other buildings. So I tried to hike to them. But I ended up lost and low on supplies.”

Meadows touched the back of his pen to his chin. “And they took you in?”

“They decided to use me as a bargaining chip,” Christopher said. “At least Garrett did, and Harold went along with it.”

“You didn’t want to come here?” Meadows asked.

“You can see how well it’s working out for me,” Christopher said. A staccato squawk of a laugh came, unbidden, out of his mouth.

“You said you wanted to get back home,” Meadows said.

Christopher nodded. “And if anyone out here can make that happen, I guess it’s you. But they seemed afraid of Razor Mountain.”

“They are deserters,” Meadows said. “They have to face the consequences of their actions.”

“Garrett decided he wanted back in,” Christopher said, “and he seemed to think that bringing me as a peace offering would make it all okay.”

“Did he really?”

Christopher thought about it.

“Maybe not. Harold said that he didn’t think it would work. I think Garrett was just desperate and clinging to whatever hope he could find.”

“What about the others?” Meadows asked. “The brothers weren’t alone.”

Christopher took a deep breath. He realized that his eyes were wide. His face betrayed him. His body was a thing not entirely under his control any more.

“You’re protecting them,” Meadows said. “Is that really the strategy you want to take here? Providing cover for traitors?”

“They gave me shelter and food. I’d be dead if they hadn’t.”

“That doesn’t absolve them of their crimes. It’s not your responsibility to defend them.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Christopher said. “I don’t know where they are. It was someplace abandoned. Underground. I’m sure Garrett and Harold could tell you more.”

“That’s not relevant. I’m here to find out what you know,” Meadows said.


When he first woke, on the plane, he had thought for a moment that he was in a dark cave. Why would he think that? Now he was actually in a cave, or at least underground. It felt like a normal building, except that there were no windows. No sun, no moon, no sky or stars. No time passing. No buzzing of airplane engines in the dark that wasn’t a cave.

How did you get here?

“I told you. It was a business trip. A sales trip. I was selling software.”

Did you actually sell anything?

“It’s a new job. I’m new. I’m not very good at it, yet. At least they were nice about it.”

So no. Who are you working for?

“Peak Electric Solutions.”

Who are you working for?

“Look, I told you.”

Who are you working for?

“What’s the fucking point of this? What do you expect me to say? You want me to just make something up?”

I want you to tell the truth. By the way, you have a little blood there, on your forehead.

“I think I hit my head on the table.”

What’s the most blood you’ve ever seen?

“I…why?”

Answer the question.

“I guess, I used to get nosebleeds, pretty bad ones, in the winter when the air is too dry. Sometimes it would just go for five or ten minutes. The wastebasket would just be full of bloody tissues.”

That’s it?

“I think so.”

Have you ever killed someone?


Coming back from a sleep-deprivation blackout wasn’t like waking up. It was like one of those movies where someone overdoses and they inject adrenaline directly into the person’s heart. It was being off, and then being on again.

He sat at the table, both jittery and exhausted. The soldier must have come. Must have taken him from the cell and brought him to sit at the table. He didn’t remember it, but it must have happened.

Meadows sat down in the chair opposite him. Had Meadows come in through the door? When?

“How are you doing today, Chris?”

“Is it day?”

“I’m hoping we can have a productive conversation.”

“Me too.”

“Hey, that’s great. For that to happen, I’m going to need you to tell me the truth.”

“I keep telling you the truth,” Christopher said. “Except maybe about the deserters, at first, because I feel like I owe them. But then I ended up telling you what little I know about them, anyway. At least, I think I told you.”

“You’re not filling me with confidence here,” Meadows said.

“I’m having a real hard time deciding what is actually happening,” Christopher said.

Meadows sighed and set his clipboard down on the table, snapping the pen under the metal clip.

“I can assure you that this is definitely happening,” he said. “I’m trying to help you here, but you’re not making it easy.”

“Look,” Christopher said. “Look. I’m telling you the truth. What answers are you looking for? If you tell me what you actually want, maybe, somehow, I can help.”

“Chris, I’m not going to give you a free pass here. I’m not going to give you a map of where you can lie and where you can’t. I know more about you than you realize. I know you’re lying, and until you tell me the truth, this will only get worse for you.”

Christopher felt his eyes overflowing with tears. He pressed his palms against them until he saw stars.

“I don’t know what you want. I can’t do this anymore.”

Meadows was standing next to the door. Had he stood up?

“I’m sorry to hear that, Chris. If that’s the case, then we’re going to have other questions to discuss. For example, do we put you in permanent storage, or do we line up the firing squad?”

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 21.1

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

The sergeant sat across from Christopher and studied his clipboard silently, flipping between several different pages. Then he looked over the top, into Christopher’s eyes.         

“We have the same name, you know.”

Christopher blinked.

“Excuse me?”

The sergeant lowered the clipboard and used his pen to tap on the name badge. It said “C. MEADOWS” in white engraving on the brown badge.

“Sergeant Chris Meadows,” he said.

Christopher took a deep, slow breath. After being imprisoned and tortured, he had not expected his captors to subject him to tedious small talk.

“I go by Christopher,” he replied at last.

Meadows raised the clipboard again.

“I’ve been chatting with the two deserters who came in with you. I think we both know that they have no idea what’s going on, but I still got some useful information about you out of them. And, of course, I have other means at my disposal for finding things out. I know an awful lot about you Chris, and by the time we’re done here, I will know everything. You can make it simple, or you can make it complicated, but we’ll get there eventually. The only difference will be how unpleasant it is going to be for the both of us. Your level of cooperation will have an impact on what eventually happens to you.”

Meadows waited expectantly.

“Okay,” Christopher said.

“Let’s do a little thought experiment. Take a good look around this room. This could be where you spend the rest of your life. Now, that might not be very long, but it could also be a very, very long time.”

Christopher shook his head. “You don’t need to threaten me. I’ll tell you everything I know. Strap me into the lie detector. Do whatever you need to do.”

Meadows smirked, and it was not a pleasant expression.

“We don’t need your permission, Chris. And I don’t need to threaten you. I work in facts. These are the facts about what is at stake here. If you’re smart, you’ll tell me the facts that I ask of you. I will evaluate what you say against my other sources, and I will determine if you are telling the truth. If you lie or omit things, those will be marks against you. Do you understand?”

Christopher took a deep breath. He felt like his lungs weren’t providing him enough air. The weight of his body was hard to hold up.

“I understand.”

“That’s fantastic,” Meadows said. “Let’s start with Alaska. How did you come to be here in our fine state?”

Christopher told him about the flight from the small town of Homer, about waking up alone, and the frantic minutes leading up to his terrifying jump. His instinct was to leave out the parts that made no sense, but he didn’t dare. Instead, he told the story exactly as he remembered it, without embellishment or commentary.

Meadows stared across the table intently, occasionally looking down to jot something on his paper, but never showing emotion or commenting. He let Christopher tell the story up until the point where he crawled out of the lake, found the hatch, and somehow guessed the code.

Christopher paused and took a deep breath. The lack of feedback from Meadows was almost worse than immediate skepticism.

“That seems like a good place to stop for the moment,” Meadows said, “as it does answer my initial question. Now think back through your story and tell me if there’s anything you left out.”

“Just the facts?”

“Just the facts.”

Christopher thought.

“When I tried to open the door, I wasn’t thinking very straight. I assumed I was going to die, but I thought I might as well try to guess the code. I was going to enter my birthday, but I fat-fingered it.”

“What’s your birthday?”

“November 11, 1983.”

Meadows shook his head a fraction of an inch.

“The code, I mean.”

“111183.”

“And what did you enter, instead?”

“122199. I wasn’t actually sure what I entered at the time, but I figured it out after a little trial and error later on.”

“Interesting,” Meadows said. “Those numbers are quite different.”

“I was freezing to death,” Christopher said. “My hands were shaking.”

Meadows eyed Christopher.

“You certainly look rough around the edges, but you have all your fingers and toes, don’t you? And your entire nose. I think you weren’t quite so bad off.”

“Well, it felt like it at the time,” Christopher mumbled, trying not to sound petulant.

“Let’s back up,” Meadows said. “Where did you come from, before you came to Alaska? Where do you live?”

“I have an apartment in Minneapolis,” Christopher said. “Or at least, I did.”

“Oh, what happened to it?”

Christopher shrugged.

“I don’t know. I just assumed I’ve been declared dead by now. It’s been weeks.”

“Ah,” Meadows replied, no sympathy in his voice. “You lived alone then?”

“Yeah.”

“And where did you grow up?”

“Same general area. Suburbs.”

“Family?”

“My parents and my brother.”

“Older, or younger than you?”

“…younger.”

For the first time, Meadows face betrayed some hint of emotion, the faintest narrowing of the eyes.

“You hesitated.”

“My brother was three years younger. He was adopted, if that matters.”

Meadows shrugged.

“Does it?”

Christopher wasn’t sure what to say. He shook his head.

Meadows wrote for several seconds.

“You said your job brought you here.”

“Yes. It was supposed to be a sales trip. I just moved into a new position at work. Sales for northern North America.

Mostly Canada, Alaska, and a few of the north-most states.”’

“And where were you going, specifically?”

“Golden Valley Electric Association.”

“Anyone in particular who was expecting you?”

Christopher pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I don’t remember.”

“What about where you came from?”

“I…I stayed at the motel in Homer. I visited Homer Electric. I met a few people. I only really remember first names. There was Phil, Lisa…Sandy, I think.”

Meadows nodded, writing. Then he clicked his pen and stood.

“I think that’s enough to start with,” he said. “Someone will be along shortly to bring you back to your cell.”

Christopher blinked. “That’s it?”

“For now.”

“Look, I’m willing to tell you whatever you need to know.”

Meadows held up a hand.

“Be patient, Chris. We’ll get there, in time.”

“Can I please just sleep?”

“We’ll talk again soon,” Meadows said. He turned sharply on his heel and walked to the door. He didn’t even glance back as the door closed behind him.

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Razor Mountain — Chapter 20.2

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

The noise came and went over and over. Christopher counted five times, then began to wonder if he had miscounted. It never seemed to be more than an hour between sessions, and he didn’t trust his sense of time at all while the noise was happening. It felt like it went on for hours. He wasn’t sure how much sleep he got in between sessions, but he knew it wasn’t remotely close to enough. He had crossed into the hazy place beyond mere sleep deprivation and exhaustion, a liminal world of almost-sleep where the world around him felt less than entirely real.

As soon as the noise stopped for the fifth time, the door to the room swung open, and a soldier entered. It came as a shock, it was so sudden and out of keeping with the rhythm of Christopher’s imprisonment thus far.

The soldier walked stiffly to Christopher’s cell, eyes staring straight ahead. The man’s demeanor called to his mind the British palace guards who assiduously ignored the tourists. When the man arrived at the cell door, he pulled out a ring of keys. He unlocked and opened the door, and his eyes actually focused on Christopher for the first time.

“Stand up!” he shouted in perfect drill sergeant cadence.

Christopher rolled over and sat up shakily on the metal bed before hauling himself to his feet. Apparently the soldier was not satisfied with how quickly Christopher was moving, because the man swept forward and turned Christopher around to slam him against the wall before he realized what was happening. He twisted Christopher’s arms behind his back and snapped handcuffs onto his wrists. Then he turned Christopher around and marched him out of the cell, over to the stainless steel table in the middle of the room.

The man pressed Christopher down into the chair, then unlocked one of the cuffs to snap onto one of the brackets welded to the table.

The endless hours of noise torture had left Christopher dazed, and the sudden manhandling had caught him completely by surprise. He felt like he ought to fight back, but he suspected that these people wouldn’t be afraid to really hurt him. Besides, he was hardly in a state where fighting back would do any good.

At the very least, it seemed like he ought to say something.

“When do I get my phone call?”

The soldier didn’t so much as blink. His job apparently finished, Christopher did not merit being seen or heard. The man walked to the door as stiffly as he had entered.

“I’d like to speak to my lawyer.” Christopher’s tongue was thick in his mouth, his words slightly slurred.

The door swung closed, clunking shut with finality.

Minutes went by, the room silent except for the sound of Christopher’s shoes on the smooth floor and the clanking of the handcuff chain on the metal table. He felt the effects of adrenaline fade, and exhaustion crept in again. He was tempted to lay his head down on the table and try to sleep, but it was clear by now that if he did that, they would just do something to jerk him awake.

He didn’t have to wait long however. The door opened again, and a man in a sharp-creased forest green dress uniform and red beret stepped into the room, holding a clipboard under his arm. He let the door close behind him, but he didn’t walk to the table immediately. Instead, he stood just beyond the threshold, studying Christopher, his face impassive.

The man walked forward slowly and sat down across from Christopher. He set his clipboard down on the table with an audible snap.

“I’m Sergeant Meadows,” the man said, “and I’m here to decide whether you deserve to rot in a cell for the rest of your life.”

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