Stripped to the waist, Brad West clung to the wall of an Arizona canyon. The late afternoon sun burned into the taut muscles of his back and cast an orange glow against Rappel Rock, which he was attempting to scale. Sweat rolled into his eyes and he whipped his head from side to side to flick it away.
No excuses, he told himself. Rock climbing was as uncompromising as life itself. He had spent all twenty-five years of his life trusting his own counsel, not that of others.
He reached up for the next ridge.
High above him, a cell phone broke into the theme from Star Wars.
What kind of dweeb would bring a cell phone on a rock climb? For the average graduate student like him, the roaming charges alone would be murder.
The phone stopped ringing, and Brad hung suspended by his fingertips to listen.
He recognized the nasal voice of his dorm mate Earl "Skeeter-Mosquiter" Skitowsky answering the phone. After a minute of murmured conversation, the phone snapped shut.
"Time to go," Earl called.
"All right. Who ruined our climb?"
"Our favorite anthropology professor," Earl said. His round face appeared over the top of the cliff. His intense brown eyes peered above the taped rims of his sweat-smeared glasses.
"Richter?" Brad said. "Calling us?"
"The one and only. He said you should get a cell phone of your own."
"Yeah, if he bothered to pay real wages."
"Get a job," Earl said.
"Yeah, very funny. So, what's the good news this time?" He shifted his weight from one hand to the other to relieve the stabbing pain in his fingers.
"I'm serious. He called to tell us you're out of a job. The university is expelling you."
"Expelling me." Brad felt his heart stop. "For what?"
"Could be anything. You've been in grad school too long. Haven't produced a thesis. Can't come up with an original idea of your own. Maybe it's just that you're a lousy teaching assistant."
Brad felt his fingers slip. "None of those is grounds for expulsion."
"Could've been all of the above. Sorry, man."
Academics could be so arrogant. It looked like Earl was going to earn his doctorate in anthropology while Brad ended up stocking shelves at the Wal-Mart. He stared at the hard face of the metamorphic gneiss formation before him. Why hadn't Earl waited for him to clear the cliff before passing along the bad news?
He moved to consolidate his grip, not to climb but to prevent falling. How was he going to face life without a doctorate? Since childhood he had tried to divine the story of mankind from the rocks in which it was preserved. Anthropology had been his passion, and teaching undergrads had become his sole means of support. He couldn't conceive of life without teaching schedules and research expeditions. That was who he was. And without a doctorate, he amounted to nothing to himself or to the world.
Expulsion. What a revolting word. He had avoided thinking or uttering it his entire career. He had pressed on with his frustrating research and ill-received critiques of others' work until it finally drove him under. He had been driving toward complete self-annihilation for years.
A tiny but influential part of his psyche was telling him it was time to give up. He had little reason to hang on, literally or figuratively.
He was seized by a sudden irrational urge to let go, to enjoy a few blissful moments of freefall and then never have to struggle again.
Then a thumping vibrated his entire being.
Cripes, could that be the onset of a heart attack? He sucked in his breath and let it out slowly.
"Hey," Earl screamed from above. "Quit day-dreaming and look at that."
Brad glanced over his left shoulder and made out two specks silhouetted against the round ball of the sun. They were a pair of helicopters swooping south through Tucson's Santa Cruz Valley.
The thumping grew louder, closer.
Why would a pair of choppers approach so fast? They were ruining his moment of suicidal contemplation.
The crescendo grew to a high-pitched whine. He glanced up to see concern written on Earl's face. He was either frightened, or thinking about food again.
The pounding became a palpable mixture of sound waves and a blast of hot air on Brad's side, then on his other side, then—
"Hit the deck!" Brad yelled into the din.
Earl knitted his dark eyebrows, then fell to the ground. A moment later, the landing gear of one helicopter sliced through the air a scant meter from his posterior.
Dust and loose rocks danced in a maelstrom. Gravel dribbled onto Brad's hair.
He had picked the wrong morning to shampoo. He squeezed his eyes shut and held fast. No sooner had the huge mechanical beast passed overhead, than the second one swooped in.
He pressed against the cliff just as the second blast pummeled him. His bare chest throbbed against the rock. The chopper hovered and its blades began to suck him away from the cliff. He felt the callused ends of his fingers slipping off the rock. The chopper inched closer, wrestling with him.
He caught an insignia on the bird's fuselage. It belonged to the U.S. Air Force. Were the military brats from across town there to toy with peace-minded students? How far were they going to go with this?
The pilot was turned his way. The warped vista of the cliff reflected in the mirrored bubble of the pilot's helmet. Suddenly he saw his life for what it was, a heroic struggle against the world.
"Curse you, bloodthirsty butchers!"
He was overcome by a primitive desire to survive and to make something out of his pathetic existence. Maybe he would even ask a cheerleader out on a date. He gritted his teeth and began to claw for a better handhold.
The only available rock was several centimeters out of reach.
With one last, desperate attempt, he lunged for it. The jagged edge bit into the palm of his hand, and he clung to it with all his might
Then, just as abruptly as the two choppers intruded upon his life, they twirled around and dropped into the valley below.
Blood seeped down Brad's wrist, but he held on.
The sound diminished in the distance, and along with it went the air turbulence. He was left gasping, his arms stretched to their limits.
The blood was slippery and he began to slip. He kicked at the cliff in search of traction.
Just when he thought he would have to let go, his right boot found a vertical edge. He pushed against it and changed the dynamics of gravity against his hands. With the newfound leverage, he twisted to gain another foothold higher on the left. Finally, he could relieve the pressure on his injured palm. He reached back and wiped the blood onto his jeans.
That was close.
What had just happened to him? He shut his eyes to play back the sequence of events. He had been minding is own business when the two choppers had singled him out to harass him. Couldn't the air force torment some terrorists instead?
But he had fended off the attack and won a second chance at life. A rush of adrenalin surged through him. He had to harness it and translate it into purposeful action. He would use it to complete his ascent, his first successful assault of Rappel Rock.
"You okay down there?" came Earl's voice.
"Sure, if stark terror is your idea of 'okay.'"
Earl reappeared over the edge. His long, brown hair had fallen loose from a ponytail and hung in his face.
"What in the name of Darth Vader was that all about?" Brad said. He wedged his sore hand into a narrow crack in the cliff and heaved himself upward.
"Military drones," Earl said. "Pretty near sheared off my hind quarters."
"You could afford to lose a few pounds." Brad took a moment to catch his breath.
"It's not the pushin', but the cushion," Earl came back.
With sharp pain stabbing at his fingers, hands, arms and shoulders, Brad wasn't exactly in the mood for repartee. But Earl did help him take his mind off the fifty-foot drop below.
He reached up and grabbed the next outcropping. "Just what kind of choppers were those anyway?"
"Don't tell me you've never seen a Sikorsky UH-60m Black Hawk."
"A Sky-horsy?" Brad repeated. He dragged a toe up to the next half-inch-wide ledge and prepared to transfer his weight onto it.
A second later, he felt a rope brush past his head and dangle against his back.
Blood and balls. He was going to conquer that hill if it killed him. He was determined to prove himself. Not to the world. Not even to the academic community. But to himself. He would defy the odds and survive.
He did not need Earl "Skeeter" Skitowsky, not even the lucky cheerleader he would attempt to approach that evening, to give his life meaning.
This was his chance to prove that he could stand up to the slings and arrows—
The black plastic frames were staring down at him. "What are you waiting for? Take the rope."
"Go, if you have to," Brad said between his teeth. "I'll stay and do this my own way, in my time."
"Then keep that flab moving," Earl said. "We don't have all day."
"Hold yer love handles." Brad looked for the next ledge. "I'm working on it already."
A few snipes from his buddy usually helped increase his determination. But having survived a military attack on a cliff, he had all the fighting spirit he needed.
When two happy-go-lucky college guys meet two beautiful Chinese pilots, the result is love at first sight and unforeseen peril. They must overcome multicultural differences and a madman pursuing them from the Rio Grande to the Yangtze to save the Chinese leadership and their love lives. Little do they know that they are part of a broader CIA operation that involves a new, experimental technique employing psychic powers. Can our young heroes make good decisions with their newfound powers? Nothing less than the future of China and the world is at stake.
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