"Rest," he whispered to the woman. "You have earned it."

Father Varick retreated to the coal door. He wiped the blood and water from the baby. The child's hair was soft and thin, but plainly snowy white. He could be no more than a month old.

With Varick's ministrations, the boy's cries grew stronger, his face pinched with the effort, but he remained weak, limp limbed, and cold.

"You cry, little one."

Responding to his voice, the boy opened his swollen eyes. Blue eyes greeted Varick. Brilliant and pure. Then again, most newborns had blue eyes. Still, Varick sensed that these eyes would keep their sky blue richness.He drew the boy closer for warmth. A bit of color caught his eye. Was ist das? He turned the boy's foot. Upon the heel, someone had drawn a symbol.

No, not drawn. He rubbed to be sure.

Tattooed in crimson ink.

He studied it. It looked like a crow's foot.

But Father Varick had spent a good portion of his youth in Finland. He recognized the symbol for what it truly was: one of the Norse runes. He hadno idea which rune or what it meant. He shook his head. Who had done such foolishness?

He glanced at the mother with a frown.

No matter. The sins of the father were not the son's to bear.

He wiped away the last of the blood from the crown of the boy's head and snugged the boy into his warm robe.

"Poor Junge…such a hard welcome to this world."




MAY 16, 6:34 a.m.



Death rode the winds.

Taski, the lead Sherpa, pronounced this verdict with all the solemnity and certainty of his profession. The squat man barely reached five feet, even with his battered cowboy hat. But he carried himself as if he were taller than anyone on the mountain. His eyes, buried within squinted lids, studied the flapping line of prayer flags.

Dr. Lisa Cummings centered the man in the frame of her Nikon D-100 and snapped a picture. While Taski served as the group's guide, he was also Lisa's psychometric test subject. A perfect candidate for her research.

She had come to Nepal under a grant to study the physiologic effects of anoxygen-free ascent of Everest. Until 1978, no one had summited Everest without the aid of supplemental oxygen. The air was too thin. Even veteran mountaineers, aided by bottled oxygen, experienced extreme fatigue, impaired coordination, double vision, hallucinations. It was considered impossible to reach the summit of an eight-thousand-meter peak without a source of canned air.

Then in 1978, two Tyrolean mountaineers achieved the impossible and reached the summit, relying solely on their own gasping lungs. In subsequent years, some sixty men and women followed in their footsteps, heralding a new goal of the climbing elite.

She couldn't ask for a better stress test for low-pressure atmospheres.

Prior to coming here, Dr. Lisa Cummings had just completed a five-year grant on the effect of rgr/r-pressure systems on human physiological processes. To accomplish this, she had studied deep-sea divers while aboard a research ship, the Deep Fathom. Afterward, circumstances required her to move on…both with her professional life and personal. So she had accepted an NSF grant to perform antithetical research: to study the physiologic effects of oiv-pressure systems.Hence, this trip to the Roof of the World.p>

Lisa repositioned for another shot of Taski Sherpa. Like many of his people, Taski had taken his ethnic group as his surname.

The man stepped away from the flapping line of prayer flags, firmly nodded his head, and pointed a cigarette pinched between two fingers at the towering peak. "Bad day. Death ride deese winds," he repeated, then replaced his cigarette and turned away. The matter settled.

But not for the others in their group.

Sounds of disappointment flowed through the climbing party. Faces stared at the cloudless blue skies overhead. The ten-man climbing team had been waiting nine days for a weather window to open. Before now, no one had argued against the good sense of not climbing during the past week's storm. The weather had been stirred up by a cyclone spinning off the Bay of Bengal. Savage winds had pummeled the camp, reaching over a hundred miles per hour, kiting away one of the cook tents, knocking people over bodily, and been followed by spats of snowfall that abraded any exposed skin like coarse sandpaper.Then the morning had dawned as bright as their hopes. Sunlight glinted off the Khumbu glacier and icefall. Snowcapped Everest floated above them, surrounded by its serene sister peaks, a wedding party in white.

Lisa had snapped a hundred shots, catching the changing light in all its shifting beauty. She now understood the local names for Everest: Chomolungma, or Goddess Mother of the World, in Chinese, and Sagarmatha, the Goddess of the Sky, in Nepalese.

Floating among the clouds, the mountain was indeed a goddess of ice and cliff. And they had all come to worship her, to prove themselves worthy to kiss the sky. And it hadn't come cheap. Sixty-five thousand dollars a head. At least that included camping equipment, porters, Sherpas, and of course all the yaks you could want. The lowing of a female yak echoed over the valley, one of the two dozen servicing their climbing team. The blisters of their red and yellow tents decorated the camp. Five other camps shared this rocky escarpment, all waiting for the storm gods to turn their back.

But according to their lead Sherpa, that would not be today.

"This is so much bull," declared the manager of a Boston sporting goods company. Dressed in the latest down-duvet one-piece, he stood with his arms crossed beside his loaded pack. "Over six hundred dollars a day to sit on our asses. They're bilking us. There's not a cloud in the damn sky!"

He spoke under his breath, as though trying to incite an uprising that he had no intention of leading himself.

Lisa had seen the type before. Type A personality…j4 as in ass**le. Upon hindsight, perhaps she shouldn't have slept with him. She cringed at the memory. The rendezvous had been back in the States, after an organizational meeting at the Hyatt in Seattle, after one too many whiskey sours. Boston Bob had been just another port in a storm…not the first, probably not the last. But one thing was certain: this was one port she would not be dropping anchor in again.

She suspected this reason more than any other for his continued belligerence.

She turned away, willing her younger brother the strength to quell the unrest. Josh was a mountaineer with a decade of experience and had coordinated her inclusion in one of his escorted Everest ascents. He led mountaineering trips around the world at least twice a year.

Josh Cummings held up a hand. Blond and lean like herself, he wore black jeans, tucked into the gaiters of his Millet One Sport boots, and a gray expedition-weight thermal shirt.

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