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THE MOUNTAIN - Chapter 1 - East Wall This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

Chapter 1 – East Wall

"I'm sorry I dragged you into all this," I say quietly, scuffing my feet on the frozen cement in a futile attempt to stamp out the cold. A few tiny pieces of ice pounce off the catwalk and vanish into the winter darkness below; the rifle strap digs into my shoulder, as yet another reminder I need a heavier coat. Yeah, because the cold wasn't enough, I complain silently, and then force the thought away. No good to think like that. Maybe once, when some things were still certain. But not now.
Cataro stares across the abyss in contemplative silence, and it's easy to see what he's looking at, even though it's pitch black out. It was there starting this morning, far enough toward the horizon as to be nearly invisible- but that's our job, to see what’s out there before it gets close enough to hurt. When the sun rises again in a few hours it'll be there again, and though they don't say anything we can tell it's not good. There isn't a person alive inside these walls who hasn't been wondering lately...
This is the first time that I’ve actually talked to Cataro about the state of things, at least since we got here and everything we knew changed. We were best friends, back in that perfect past life everyone seems to have had now before the Infection- before things went bad. Now that we’re finally here, we two and Elea, everything’s changed. The paradise of legend everyone talked about has become our paradise, our legend, and suddenly it’s not perfect anymore. I haven’t tried to breach the subject yet with Cataro, but there’s nowhere we’re less likely to be overheard than here. No time like three in the morning.
Then I'm surprised to see a slow smile emerge on his face, one of the first I've seen on practically anyone since before we got here. Though it's nearly pitch black out, the clouded moon casts a faint silver glow, and after three hours on watch you'd better believe my eyes were adjusted to the dark. His eyes, like usual, are hidden behind a sheaf of brown hair roughly the same length as the rest of it, but sweeping in totally arbitrary directions.
"Dragged me into this, yeah?" he said. "I'd rather not think about where I'd be now if you hadn't. Zombie compost, man." I grinned, shook my own hair (black) out of my face, and felt the laughter gradually drain out of me. That was an old joke with us, from even before, before all this happened, from the old video games we used to play and all the stupid movies we watched. Since we got here it'd been adopted by the others and joined the already massive ranks of Mountain jargon, but held something of a deeper meaning to me. I suppose you could call it a symbol of pre-Infection life, or something.
“Yeah,” I said, “but sometimes… sometimes I wonder whether it’s really that bad out there. I mean, we haven’t seen anything real since we got here. Maybe…” I trail off, because I’ve realized we have seen something, just yesterday. In all likelihood it’s still there. Cataro must be thinking the same thing, but it’s a dangerous subject. Better to stay off it.
“I’m glad we’ve not seen anything real,” he says quietly. “It’s a damn good thing.”
I nod, because he’s right. “True. But don’t you ever wonder, how will we ever know when it’s safe? If we can’t leave-”
He cuts me off with an aggressive look. “We’re safe here, okay? They’ll tell us when it’s safe outside. When they’ve found it we’ll all know. Why would they keep us here?” He’s angry, because if we were caught talking about this we’d be in major trouble. What I’ve said alone is blasphemous enough to incriminate Cataro just for not reporting it, though I know he would never do that. They’ve got to have rules, because they can’t turn anyone away. Sure, they’ll let anyone in, but if you screw around or try to leave, you’re dead. They have two priorities: Defense and secrecy. Threats to either are removed.
“You’re right,” I said after a minute. He is right, of course; he always is. “Sorry. How long have we got?” He fumbles his gloves around his watch, eventually locating the backlight, and a slight green glow flickers behind his cupped hand.
It goes out. “Nine, ten minutes,” he says.
“Great.” I’m going straight to sleep after this. Everyone hates night shift, but that’s how it is. You take what they give you or jump off.
Nothing happens the rest of the shift. At the muffled knock from behind us, I sigh in relief and step away from the rock wall. A portion of it slides backward and inward, and the face of my friend Elea, woolen hat pulled over her hair, rises out of the darkness. Her hair, normally a reddish-brown, is darkly silver tonight, and it glints softly in the moon’s faint glow, curving around and framing her face. I catch myself staring at her again, not for the first time, but she doesn't notice, because she’s making room for the second watch, José. He’s of medium stance, and built strongly, of African-American and Spanish descent. I’m not quite sure what age he is, but I’d guess at least sixteen.
“’Morning,” I say to the pair of them, yawning; it’s a joke we all share, since it is technically the morning- but so early any normal person, in normal circumstances, would chalk it up to night and get back in bed. Normal circumstances, however, are in short supply here.
Elea smiles briefly. “Anything new?” She lifts the rifle from her back and shoulders the camo strap, flipping it around fluidly so it points at the ground, at the ready, as we’re trained. Something jumps into my throat and my heart seems to speed up at this, but thankfully I’m saved for having to say something coherent by Cataro, who has replaced his rifle onto his back. “Nothing. Nothing we can see, anyway.” It’s a subtle enough reference to what we’re all looking for that it might be missed by someone else, but Elea’s nothing if not subtle. She’ll have picked it up, and though I'm not close with Jose, he's always had an air of silent intelligence.
There’s a knock from the other side- the doorman’s getting impatient.
“See you,” I manage, and José and Elea both reply in kind as I duck inside the door. Cataro follows, and he pushes the faux-stone door back into position.
Instant and total darkness falls like a chloroformed handkerchief over my face, but I know by now how to control the sort of claustrophobic panic I’ve always had. Hands outstretched I find the walls and squeeze into the darkmaze, as it’s called here; a series of twists and turns of the passageway intended to block any light from the other end from escaping and creating what would effectively be a beacon for any roving Infected. My heartbeat pounds up to unhealthy levels each time, but in half a minute I come to the end, hands groping for the handle, and open it into the blessed light.

*
*
*

A yellow bulb dangles from the concrete ceiling, beaming warm light into the room. Clustered around the worn circular table sit three watches, either just off duty from one of the many towers or waiting for their shift. One is Mo, an Indian girl with black hair who’s about eighteen; another is a thirteen-year-old boy with blond hair and freckles, Seth, who’s rumored to be the kid of one of Them. The third is Amelia, who somehow found her way here from New York- she arrived just before we did. She’s either fifteen or sixteen, strong and tall, with shoulder-length brown hair and green eyes. The three look up when Cataro and I step out of the darkness, and Mo raises a hand in greeting. Cataro slides the door back into the cement wall, and a hum and click from inside signals the doorman’s locked it. We bypass the Terminal; nothing to report.
“How is it outside?” Mo asks, reaching behind her and plucking two mugs off the cabinet. Her faint accent is barely noticeable; she lived in Nevada since she was six, at least before the Infection.
“Cold,“ I say gruffly. “Heavy clouds. The usual.“ Cataro and I accept the mugs with thanks, and sit at the table, passing around the hot water and packets of coffee and hot chocolate. Cat takes a long draw of chocolate, sets down the mug. Little dark rivulets start work at creating another ring on the already spotted wood. “No sign of anything untoward, if that’s what you mean,” he says quietly. Mentioning what she’s really asking about, what we’ve all seen yesterday, would be dangerous in front of the doorman, so we resort to using general terms.
Amelia crosses her arms over her dark green wool sweater and changes the subject. “Cataro, Michael, I got in just before you two, off the north face. Looks like some big lights toward Vegas.” I look up in wary interest. “Reported it, naturally. Doesn’t look like fire this time.”
“It is definitely not,” Mo says. “Too steady, too white. It was still there when we left.”
The north face of the Mountain faces Las Vegas, about 170 miles off- what’s left of it, anyway. From what we’ve heard, in the first days, most of it was on fire, as a result of the general collapse of infrastructure. Most cities were, for a while. Seeing lights- real, powered lights- is either good, which is unlikely, or very, very bad, which is probable. Either way, it’s big news, and I don’t like the way it coincides with the… the other things we’ve seen lately. I set down my mug, noting with some surprise I’ve drained it. Settling back into the wooden chair, I sigh- the four hours of watch duty has been hell, as usual.
“Well, I’m off,” I say, yawning. Cataro looks up from his mug. “Seeya. I’ll hang around a bit.”
“All right. Later,” I say, raising a hand to the rest of them. They reply in kind, and as I leave Mo’s pouring herself more coffee. I nod in automatic greeting to the doorman as I pass, and he responds by flicking through another spotted page of his outdated magazine.
The stone stairway, curving down inside the mountain from the peak, is dark and far colder than the heated watchroom. The chilled rock stairs leech warmth from my feet, double layers of wool socks disregarded. Each step seems to pound more cold through the soles of my shoes. The standard leather jacket they give all of us feels especially worn tonight, as winter approaches, and I’m glad to see the heavy, insulated door as I round the final dark corner.
I step through the door, and rejoice inwardly at the warm air. Heaters chug comfortingly along the four walls of the atrium, and though the large ceiling skylight is dark, recessed lighting illuminates the dark wood-panel walls. The room has four doors, one to each wall. One nearly never opens, from what we’ve seen- it’s where They work, eat, and sleep, if the last two apply. Access is extremely limited; I’ve only seen one person enter, and none leave. The door is fashioned of metal, and locked inside and outside by enormous bolts. If the Mountain was overrun, that is the last place they want the Infected to go. And not without good reason.
The second door, the one I’ve just left, leads to the watchroom and from there the towers. The towers aren’t what you’d expect- they’re simply disguised lookouts on the Mountain’s face. There are nine of them, enough to keep a staff of about fifty young survivors rotating regularly through the shifts. For some, there’s a real hike until you get to the right spot- though it’s a small mountain, climbing all the stairs to the top or crossing through to the West side takes about twenty minutes at a brisk pace. Thankfully, I was assigned to the East face tonight, practically right next to the watchroom.
The third door leads to the boys’ and girls’ dormitories, for lack of a better word. They’re nothing but large rooms filled with salvaged cots covered in old blankets. That’s how it is in the boys’ dorm, anyway; for all I know the girls’ might be nicer. Still, it’s a warm place, even if it’s not entirely a safe one. Even among us kids there are informants. They want to know what the ranks mutter when things get tough.
Of course everyone is asleep when I crack the wooden door, so I try not to make much noise. The sounds of deep breathing susurrate around me as I settle into my cot near the back, and I finally admit to myself for the first time tonight how tired I really am.
My eyelids grow heavy and fall together into the darkness, while somewhere, perhaps a hundred miles away, the first rooster crows.



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