Provided below is an an excerpt (three chapters) of the novel to whet the readers interest.
It is August of 1991, and the Soviet Union is reeling from the consequences of its ill-advised adventures abroad. It had to walk away from Afghanistan with a bloody nose and Cuba with a wounded pride, which errors of judgment have left it demoralized and broke. Sensing opportunity, the satellite countries in Eastern Europe that make up the Soviet Union are now clamoring for their independence. The new Russia resulting from this bifurcation will be a shadow of the original vast empire that was the Soviet Union, and economically perhaps little better than a third world country. Gorbachev, and the Glasnost he is appeasing the west with, is the last straw for many of the hardliners – the military stages an internal coup to replace Gorbachev.
To keep the Americans from interfering in their internal affairs, the Russians put their armed forces on alert, including their nuclear missiles. In order to safeguard their own interests the Americans are compelled to reciprocate, and suddenly an inadvertent escalation toward nuclear annihilation confronts both superpowers. Fortunately, the Old Guard within the Russian hierarchy that personally witnessed the unconscionable carnage of the Second World War, is determined to avoid any unintended confrontations. Especially a nuclear one, with all its horrific consequences. Consequently, a select group within the Soviet hierarchy has been exploring potential schemes that could work as safeguards to help defuse an inadvertently disastrous escalation.
Sally Nash is the beautiful and sophisticated daughter of a very well to do and politically connected industrialist, Jim Nash, who has extensive business connections with the Russians. At the age of eight Sally suffered a head injury that resulted in significant physiological brain damage, to correct which she was required to undergo a split-brain operation. As a consequence of that surgery all her social and interactive faculties like language and emotion, are now located in her right half-brain. Her left half-brain is essentially dormant from a language standpoint. She has a complete recovery, and on the surface there are no indications that she has undergone such a drastic procedure.
Because of his extensive connections in both countries, Jim Nash is approached by the select group of concerned Russians to help with developing a secretive conduit that can be exploited when needed to defuse a potentially calamitous situation. Intrigued by the notion, he figures out how to get information into and out of Sally’s long dormant left hemisphere, so that she can be used as the messenger. The way the information is processed, Sally is unaware of it, cannot verbalize it, and it can only be imbedded and extracted using very sophisticated equipment (Z-Lens), and procedures. Unfortunately, there are consequences to the experiments her father is conducting. Because he is reactivating her left hemisphere’s residual language skills, Sally starts hearing unfathomable noises in her head which she is helpless to articulate.
Sally and the hero are thrown together through a chance encounter. Later she approaches him again, seeking his help with these noises she is hearing that she can’t give expression to. Our smitten hero naively accepts the assignment as a lark, convinced that little of any consequence can possibly result from something as bizarre as noises in her head. Then her father is struck down, and suddenly the hero is stuck with the problem of trying to figure out exactly what is going on. Mayhem, bloodshed, megatons of TNT, and a ticking doomsday clock are what our hero ends up having to contend with before the noises Sally is hearing finally make sense enough to save the world.
Children’s Hospital, Pittsburgh, December 1971
Suddenly fearful of the path he had picked, the surgeon hesitated. There was nothing inviting about the soft, pliable, gray-white tissue confronting him. To the contrary, he found it intimidating, this helpless mass with its excruciatingly convoluted surface and intricate fissures; this incredibly complex organ that had transformed the human species. Given it genius and bestiality; heroism, nobility, a sense of compassion and sacrifice, but also a heinous desire for genocide that made the nobler instincts pale in comparison. He sighed, allowing the air slow release, steadying his hand for the task. It wouldn’t be much as incisions went, two inches at most, yet he had never before gone so deep or made so drastic a cut. Two hemispheres, each only slightly larger than the clenched fists of the eight-year-old girl lying before him, intricately connected by a complex bundle of nerves to make a singular entity. Yet here he was, about to separate them. The consequences awed him. Would he create beast or genius in the process? Did he really have a choice?
Scalpel in hand he deliberated his decision. The facts left him with no choice; the girl was quickly losing language skills, while the Wada procedure had confirmed cross-hemispherical interference. There were also the initial indications of intractable epilepsy, and if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the angiogram had clearly identified a sizeable obstruction directly above and just to the left of the brain stem. Drastic though the procedure seemed, under the circumstance he was convinced he had no choice. Only hemispherical separation would address both the physiological and psychological issues involved.
There were grave downside risks to the path he had picked, but also the accompanying potential for a remarkable consciousness. When he was finished, if she recovered as he expected, the girl would have emotion, creativity, and language residing in the same hemisphere. All the external sensory inputs she collected would be processed spontaneously and instantaneously without any need to translate and re-translate the signal. None of the loss of form, nuance, or intensity inherent in the chemical and electrical reformulation of the sensory signals during transmission between hemispheres. An intertwined neural complexity in a single hemisphere, with no barriers or paths to be crossed. The potential synergies were unfathomable. This was the closest he could come to defining a physiological potential for an intuitive genius. Turned out he was right.
Elated by this sense of expectation he delicately reached into the skull cavity and began cutting the corpus callosum. Two hours later he was finished. What had been whole was now inexorably separated; there was no reversing what he had done. The rest, only time would tell.
There were the anticipated post-operative syndromes. She was mute for a period of time, suffered some confusion as to who she was and where she belonged, but came back remarkably strong with most of her vocabulary intact. There had been early indications of a photographic memory for details, and quite remarkably, that attribute survived the separation. In both hemispheres it would turn out. She also developed an insatiable curiosity that would drive her relentlessly in the years ahead. Briefly she had problems controlling the left side of her body, which first acted paralyzed, and then behaved awkwardly, but even that passed. For a while the left and right hand competed for writing, but the right hand conquered, though she wrote with an inverted or hooked posture. She also found herself in a completely new environment with a new role model, and slowly the past, which was still the source of her greatest confusion, slipped back into the darkness it had come from, and where it belonged.
How much of what followed was coincidence and how much inevitable is not something I care to pass judgment on anymore. There is an old Vedic contention that any coincidence taken far enough back in time will seem inevitable. However, that religious philosophy also claims that there is a purpose to all events, and if there is purpose there can be no coincidence, only inevitability. I don’t know that I ever had a choice.
But did she have to die to set the stage?
“Life is fragile and impermanent, yet therein lie both its strength and its beauty.” So said the sensei before casting me out to wallow through the gullies of my desolation. If his words were meant to represent succor for a lost soul, then his succor was as lost as the soul was. A twig thrown to a man sinking in quicksand, but always with that toothy grin, as though his joviality were compensation enough for his obscurity. Not so toothy either, for he had lost a few over the three years since I had last seen him, but that seemed to be the only encroachment of time. He was as strong, agile, and astute as ever. He had to be almost seventy, yet didn’t look a day older than fifty. He could as easily have been ageless; a slight perturbation in the flow of time that appeared to defy being creased.
How effortlessly the mind floats in its own history. A speck of consciousness captured in the tides of its own affairs and expectations, with the captain’s mood dictating the course. It was also the kind of reunion that lends itself to easy recollection; I had sunk down into some previously unfathomed emotional pit, and yet I dreaded that meeting. Finally, at the height of my despair, when I felt as though there could be no greater distance between me and happiness, dragged to my knees by the burden of lost faith, I showed up again at his dojo for solace, but all he offered was: “Life is fragile and impermanent, yet therein lie both its strength and its beauty.”
It was apparent to him from the expression on my face that his profound offering was rolling away like some broken string of pearls. This swine was determined to keep his snout firmly entrenched in the swill of despair. Apart from the glaringly obvious incongruity, I really was in no mood for riddles.
“The answer to the riddle is not important. The frame of mind that leads to the answer is all that matters. Once you achieve the necessary mental discipline you will automatically have the answer. You will also realize then why I say that the answer is unimportant.” He paused briefly to give my consciousness an opportunity to expand. “Use your Karma,” he added as an afterthought. Then he stopped to brood.
Right then a bowl of hot and sour soup would have provided more nourishment, but I had sense enough not to make that claim. Given my insignificance in the scheme of things, and my frame of mind, it seemed appropriate that I pretend to brood with him. After all, I was there of my own volition, and it behooved me to go with the flow.
When he started up again there was a solemnity about him that prompted attention. “Your despair and suffering are like a fog to the mind; they close the door of your senses to the world you live in. Yet they also open the door to your soul, thus offering an opportunity to start that long journey which we must all eventually finish, whether in this life or the next, or even the next. Learn from history; Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha himself, began his journey with suffering. You have your suffering, now use it to grow.”
Unfortunately, I had been gone too long, and had sunk too far to keep the faith. I came very close to telling him I had no wish to start on any such silly journey in spite of an ample supply of suffering, but he sensed my mood and his energy flowed to me, closing off that thought.
Then he released me, but a realization persisted. That I had come to him implied that I needed his guidance. If I wanted to do it my way I was free to go somewhere else.
He waited long enough for me to leave, but when I stayed he smiled. Yet there was sadness to his smile. I had been his favorite and best student; certainly he had harbored great expectations on my behalf, yet to see me then would have shaken the faith of a lesser man. But he had read my chart, and though he refused to share its message with me, it did prompt him to take me back with open arms.
“You will start again tomorrow.” That was an order. “You will come every evening,” clearly another order. “Through discipline and hard work you will regain your center.”
Not something I was about to put money on, but deserving of attention nonetheless.
All of this transpired late in December of ‘89, the twenty-seventh to be exact. The heart of what the psychologists call the blue season, and the pathologists the flu season, of both of which I had more than my share. But that was also a good seventeen months behind me that sulking afternoon as I crossed the tree-line on the trail en route to the top of Mount Lafayette. I had followed his dictates and gone to the dojo just about every day that I could get away, which workouts had done me good. I had my strength, speed, power, instincts, and confidence again, as befitted the stringent requirements he demanded from a deadly black belt killing machine under his tutelage. I had even regained some semblance of a center, and though I hadn’t quite completely found myself yet, it wasn’t clear what of significance there remained to find.
It had started out as a gorgeous Friday morning, the pristine blue New England sky only occasionally marred by a casual parade of high flying cirrus clouds. I had spent the week at the Tilton School attending a Gordon Conference on Artificial Intelligence, and was packed and ready to go the minute the conference broke up at mid-day on Friday. My gear wasn’t the lightest, which meant that the food supply paid the price for the pace I was hoping to keep. Fortunately, breakfast Friday morning offered the usual opportunity to feast in preparation for the strict regimen I had defined for the next three days.
Gordon Conferences are week-long, industry-sponsored technical conferences held during the late spring and summer months at the various prep schools scattered throughout New Hampshire. They offer an excellent opportunity for academic and industrial researchers to get together under informal circumstances while spending a week in relative isolation discussing the merits of their latest research programs.
For us starving assistant professors they are also a culinary delight. Catering at these conferences is invariably handled by stern looking matrons with hearts of gold, whose sole purpose is to ensure that the city dwellers entrusted to their care are maintained in a state of physical stupor from culinary overindulgence. In fact, mine had even packed a hefty lunch for me that Friday, which took care of the meals for the first day.
By twelve-thirty the Subaru was heading north on Route 93, but by the time I made the Kancamagus Highway the clouds were already rolling in, and it made good sense to delay the detour through the pass until the return journey. By two-thirty in the afternoon I had parked the car at the Lafayette campground, shouldered the pack, and started the climb up the Greenleaf trail. Given the option of a day hike I would have preferred the Falling Waters trail to the top of Little Haystack, followed by the ridge trail to the top of Lincoln, and then on to Lafayette, but the impending weather put a premium on time, and I was much more comfortable with speeding on the Old Bridal Path trail.
The continuously darkening sky forced my pace, and in just over an hour I made the sharp left turn that offered the first uncluttered view of the summit of Mt. Lincoln. Unfortunately, even that normally majestic sight was devastated by my sulking disposition and the worsening weather. This time it struck me as some ominous edifice; a gesturing phallus protruding into a murky canvas of gray uncertainty, while all around it fingers of mist swirled and beckoned.
I had just entered the growth of stunted spruce which marked the transition zone before clearing the tree-line, when the first peal of distant thunder went stammering across the horizon behind me. Without trees for protection, the wind, blowing at a steady twenty-five knots with gusts up to thirty, now let itself be felt. The elements can cut a vicious bargain with those unprepared for the fickle fashion in which the weather in the White Mountains can change sides. Then, to complete the picture, a very fine, cold drizzle began laying down a clammy film of dampness on the miniscule fragment of the universe that I had picked as a temporary retreat.
In less than two hours I had reached the start of the final steep climb, and forty minutes later I was at the open top of the shoulder where the Greenleaf hut is. The Greenleaf hut was full, not at all unusual for the time of the year. They even had some unregistered guests present: less prepared hikers who had run for shelter from the inclement weather. Kozek was in the kitchen struggling with a very large pot of spaghetti, and looking positively peeved.
“You picked a fine time to show up. We are about as packed as we can be without the sanitation people throwing a fit.” At six feet tall with a devoted kayaker’s body, he is an impressive sight. Broad shoulders, barrel chest, slim waist, and powerful legs that develop from having to carry kayaks to, from, and around practically inaccessible locations. His features are angular, with a pronounced jaw and setback eyes, while his demeanor is usually placid and collected.
“Not stopping. Just wanted to say hello on my way up.”
Bob looked straight into my eyes, found what he needed to see, and turned his gaze to the view outside the window. We have taken some crazy trips together, have pulled ourselves out of holes in raging rivers that would swallow a kayak without even a burp. Such adventures have a knack for creating a kind of emotional symbiosis. There was no way I could stop him from sensing my mood, even if I wanted to.
“I’m fine,” I answered the question he was still framing in his head. “It’s all behind me, I am starting to forget.” Which was certainly an attempt at the truth, because logic dictated that those halcyon days no longer deserved an emotional sanctuary within the limited confines of my consciousness. I couldn’t even justify preserving the memory in subconscious archives.
He turned and flashed that quick smile of his. “You need sunshine, my friend. The weather forecast for this locale is dismal.”
I laughed, but it stuck in my throat and came out sounding halfhearted. “Too late to worry about that now. Besides, we have been through much worse. How long is it supposed to stay this way?”
“At least through tomorrow afternoon. What were you planning to do?”
“Not much anymore I guess. Spend the night on top of Lafayette. Will most likely decide tomorrow morning whether to take the Franconia ridge or the Garfield trail.”
Bob stared at me skeptically. “It is going to be cold, wet, and miserable up there. Are you sure that is what you need?”
In the past year I had mastered a halfhearted smile to go with the halfhearted laugh, and I presented him with a practiced version for inspection. “That’s what the soul needs, and that’s what it gets. I’ll stop by Toby’s on the way out Tuesday to leave a message.” Toby ran a little outfitting store on the main road where we picked up our supplies and tacked messages for each other on a disintegrating cork board. It was a precautionary gesture that came from years of running into trouble. I was alone, and a message on the board come Tuesday would be the only way Bob would have of knowing that I had made it back in one piece.
“Good. I’ll make sure whoever goes down for supplies looks out for it”
Suddenly there was silence while we stared awkwardly at each other. It was as though age and worldliness had tempered spontaneity so that now things had to be arranged. There had been a time, and not too many years ago either, when the two of us would have spent hours discussing some utterly crazy, hair-raising adventure that deserved a try. But not anymore. Now schedules were tight so that adventures had to be fitted in, and somehow the enthusiasm was missing. We shook hands in farewell. It wasn’t much as gestures go, but at least that touch could penetrate some small part of this barrier that seemed to have formed between us. There was nothing left to do but to shoulder the pack and hit the trail.
The path dipped into the scrub, passed south of Eagle Lakes, and then began the steep ascent to the summit. The going was now more difficult, with long stretches of loose, wet rock to contend with which did not make for sure footing. Adding to my problems was the wind, which, without any cover on the open face, was merciless in its assault. With the bulky pack on my back I was so exposed and vulnerable that no person in his right mind would care to change places with me. Yet here I was, seeking a direct confrontation with the elements and enjoying every minute of it.
Under these conditions a summit at over fifty-two hundred feet can hardly be expected to provide a hospitable environment to set up temporary quarters in. However, Lafayette is different. The summit is reasonably flat, while the west corner has a ten foot by ten-foot rectangular hollow around which a three-foot-high stone wall has been built to provide a relatively sheltered area. Hardly the spot for sunshine hikers, yet sufficient for taking the sting out of being in the open. Twenty minutes after reaching the top the tent was up with my gear stashed away inside, which always brings with it a feeling of security. A prelude, if you will, to being foolhardy because a place has been prepared to retreat to should trouble arise.
The drizzle had finally stopped, and feeling restless, I collected the binoculars and flashlight, and headed for the cairn that marks the official summit. Lafayette is one of the tallest peaks in the White Mountains, and certainly the tallest peak in its vicinity. From its apex the view can be spectacular, surrounded as it is on almost all sides by a panorama of peaks, four thousand feet and higher. On that day, however, the fog and mist dominated, laying down a carpet of varying shades of gray through which dark and jagged teeth protruded at uneven intervals. I could find no comfort even in my surroundings, trapped as I felt in a gargantuan jaw about to close on me, while the mist, like streamers of saliva, flowed by in its quest for another morsel.
The summit of Lafayette is the northernmost point of the Franconia Ridge trail, which runs almost due south to the summit of Lincoln, and then on to the top of Little Haystack. I started down the Ridge trail not really looking for anything more than an opportunity to lose myself in physical exertion. I could easily cover the distance from Lafayette to Lincoln and back in under two hours, while the purely mechanical, though strenuous, exercise involved would provide an excellent opportunity for a right side float. To keep me on my toes, there was barely enough light left for the journey, which would add to the excitement.
For better than ninety percent of the species the right hemisphere is the non-linguistic half of the brain. Because language is our primary means of communication, and communication dominates social interaction, we tend to more strongly stress the analytical and linguistic left half of our brain, much to the detriment of the more visual and imaginative right side. Yet the right side is a crucial player in meditative processes and the various disciplines that teach self-improvement through visualization techniques. Even martial arts methods like aikido, which stress overcoming physical barriers through mental visualization of the desired end effect, are all right hemisphere dominant processes. Certainly, creativity is enhanced by letting the right side float free. Free of boundaries, dogma and fear. And through that release a freedom to create a vision that transcends known reality.
Life is fragile yet therein lies its strength, stressed the sensei.
I had immersed myself in my daily routine and not given much time to address that conundrum he had thrown at me all those months ago. Yet the present circumstance seemed appropriate to addressing the enigma; my emotions were more muted, while the mindless physical exertion was an ideal stage for a right side float. With nothing better to do than just trudge on mechanically, I allowed myself to be detached from any particular pressing issue, and just let the question float placidly in the background.
And as placidly the answer came floating by. There is no strength in fragility-there never was meant to be. What the sensei’s conundrum called for was a typical inversion he loved to exercise. The only way to confront fragility is through strength. If life is fragile then one must be strong within one’s self in order to accommodate this fragility.
But what of the other half, the impermanence indicating beauty. The inversion still applied; if life lacked permanence then each moment needed to be cherished as being uniquely beautiful, for only through that recognition would the moment achieve the respect it deserved.
At the top of Lincoln, surrounded by the darkening vista, I no longer felt betrayed. I was far from having the detachment that the road called for, but at least I could recognize the journey. In the here and now I had transcended the image of the most beautiful thing in my life lying squashed and dead on a hot Houston highway, while the blood drained from her and blended with the dirt and dust to make a mockery of life’s gift. And temporary though that transcendence might be, I knew it could be done, and that I would find my way back.
Sometimes all we have is the moment; I lifted up my arms in grateful homage and uttered a deafening kiai shout to mark the start of my journey back. I was facing Little Haystack and was sure the sound had reached it. Waiting for the echo to return I suddenly felt cold fingers race down my back and shuddered. There had been movement on the ridge between Lincoln and Little Haystack. With shaking hands I focused the binoculars, and my worst fears were confirmed. There was a body down on hands and knees trying to traverse the ridge. For being crazier than I was, that person was in trouble.
“Between Lincoln and Little Haystack the ridge is in places a serrated knife-edge with sheer slopes on both sides; it is DANGEROUS in wet or windy weather.”
That is a direct quote from the White Mountain guide book and should help explain why I felt such uncommon fear at the sight of that person struggling on the ridge. Not only was it exceedingly wet, cold, and windy, there were also some long stretches of ice along the ridge path, and where that idiot was down was perhaps the most treacherous stretch along the entire col connecting the two peaks. Watching through the binoculars it became obvious that the man was in trouble. He had made a feeble attempt to get up, had succeeded in crawling a few paces, and had then collapsed again, precariously balanced on the edge of the ridge.
I did what had to be done; prayed like hell that the fool wouldn’t move and made the best time possible over to him. A number of thoughts were racing through my mind during the fifteen minutes it took me to get there. The temperature had dropped so precipitously since earlier in the day that hypothermia was a real danger for an unprepared hiker. Even if the person was in good shape the trip back for the two of us would be difficult, and would have to be finished in darkness. The more likely situation was that exposure to the elements had left that person exhausted and uncoordinated, and unlikely to have what it would take to make it back in one piece. We were both in a fix, yet I had no choice but to go to his help.
The last stretch had to be covered on hands and knees. The path was too narrow and icy, with the drop on either side quite terminal to even contemplate doing otherwise. Quite frankly, I am no hero, and the thought did cross my mind that this was a foolhardy gesture. I could have turned around to try and get help right then, and no one would have thought the less of me, for the risk was great. Unfortunately, I knew with utmost certainty that any help would be too little too late in getting there. Besides, I felt no compelling obligation to act prudently with regard to my own welfare. What I once had was gone, and the memory just drove me crazy. With a cynical smile I dropped down on hands and knees and gingerly traversed the last twenty feet.
Is it kismet or karma that one should hold accountable at times like these? Fate, destiny, a punishment for past sins, what is it that drives singular souls along singular paths? What manifest purpose is there that takes a universe so singularly statistical in many of its attributes and imposes on it coincidences that with time seem so inevitable?
I turned the body over carefully and found myself staring at a very attractive woman. There are faces, and there are faces. Some are perpetually surly, while some are perpetually sad. Some have weak lines, and some have harsh lines. Not often does one encounter a face remarkable for the simplicity of its beauty. A gentle, open face with smooth lines and no set emotions; the kind of face that has a haunting familiarity to it; the kind of familiarity that bodes a prelude to entanglement. I shook the shoulders and her eyes opened. They seemed relatively alert, but set me back for being a cold blue.
I have been to the Caribbean, have seen the same color when it is described as turquoise, but there is a warmth to that color that was missing. Hers were at the other end of the spectrum. Punch a clear hole into fresh, dry snow, cover the opening so that no light can directly enter into it, and then look down the hole to follow the subtle change in color as light penetrates through the snow. Near the top of the opening the light will be yellowish, but with depth it will turn yellowish-green, bluish-green, and finally a vivid blue. Her eyes were like that, a tinge of brightness on the surface, but a deep, cold, blue when you tried to reach her soul.
“Did you shout?” she asked.
I nodded and began to gingerly search for bruises or broken bones.
“I heard you. It woke me up. Got me going again.”
Her voice was like a Siren call luring me to the rocks where I would be breached and beached trying to find the depth that the blue eyes had promised. There also appeared to be nothing broken.
“Do you hurt anywhere?”
“No. Just tired and very cold.”
“And damned lucky to be alive if you ask me.” I scowled at her as I fingered the flimsy, light blue outer jacket she had on. It was little better than a wind breaker, and certainly offered no protection against the numbing cold.
She must have read my mind. “My friend slipped on ice and twisted her ankle. I had to leave my heavy jacket with her. Figured I could stay warm moving fast to find help. Guess I was wrong.” She gave a tired sigh.
“Listen, I need to check your body temperature. I am going to have to get under your clothing and touch your skin.”
She nodded mutely in agreement. We both recognized that I wasn’t asking for permission, just doing what had to be done. Under the jacket she had on a thick woolen sweater, which was most likely the only reason she had made it as far as she had. Under the sweater a cotton shirt, and then skin cool to the touch. Belly and back both cool. I had time, but not much. Her stamina and resilience would make or break us.
“Okay lady, you are fine, let’s go.”
“Had the same thought myself,” she said with a winning smile.
I was tempted to chastise her, make some bland statement about saving her energy for what lay ahead, but her predicament seemed punishment enough. “The next twenty feet or so are pretty rough. Stay on your hands and knees until I tell you to get up. I will be right behind you if you run into trouble.”
We made it past the worst part, and quite easily at that, which fooled me into thinking that all she had really needed was the short rest she was taking before I saw her. She had stopped twice to shiver briefly while still on all fours, which was to be expected. On our feet again and heading to the top of Lincoln, I kept a brisk pace and moved ahead of her, not sympathizing with her or otherwise giving her any excuse to feel sorry for herself and break her gait. Her stumbling sounds fell further and further behind as we approached the top, and yet she never complained, and though my head was filled with a hundred questions I didn’t stop to ask them. At the top it seemed proper to wait for her. She had fallen behind by about fifteen feet, was unsteady in step, and was shivering uncontrollably.
She leaned against me and closed her eyes, her teeth chattering like a mechanical Morse key stuck on dots. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“Not…Not….Nothing to sa..aa..yy,” she stammered. “Must, must k..ee..ep on mo..ov..ing.”
“We have less than a mile to go. Shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes. You can make it.”
“S….Suu…re.” She said.
I wondered if she wondered why I didn’t offer her my jacket. It seemed selfish of me, but my jacket wouldn’t do much for her at that point, whereas my staying hot was her only hope when we made it to the tent. Without another word I turned around and walked away. It was cruel, and yet I had to make her go as far as she could on her own steam. She stumbled along behind me, falling further and further behind, until finally she cried out. I turned and saw that she was on her knees, shivering so violently that she couldn’t keep her balance. I went back and checked out her eyes; they were slipping in and out of focus, and that got me scared. There wasn’t much time left, but at least she was still partly lucid.
“Lady, I am going to have to carry you on my back the rest of the way. Try and hang on or we will both get hurt.”
“I’m……mmm. So…..ooo. Cold.”
“Sorry, can’t do anything about that. You have all the initial symptoms of hypothermia – cold body, violent shivering, and lips going blue. If I give you my jacket and you walk again, you could go into after drop. Do you know what after drop is?” She shook her head, but I was merely killing time to give her a chance to get enough of her strength back so she would be able to cooperate with me.
“After drop is when the cold extremities of the body start to prematurely warm up again, sending cold, deoxygenated blood to the body core, cooling it even further. If I warm you up before I get you back to my tent, then you may as well stick your head between those pretty legs and kiss your ass goodbye. And I don’t think we want that to happen, so just get on my back and let’s move it.”
With a bit of maneuvering she managed, her legs locked about my waist, her arms around my neck, clinging on tight; can’t tell whether it was her own sense of fear or a reflection of mine that drove her, but I got the distinct impression she wasn’t going to be pried loose no matter how violent or painful her convulsions. Now all that remained was for me to get us back. The light, however, had long faded, leaving behind a damp darkness like a curtain of apprehension drawn over dying hope. I was quite tired. She was heavy and shaking violently, which tended to shift her weight unnaturally, and we still had a half mile to go. I was desperate, and desperation makes for strange bedfellows. I focused on her presence, her weight, the feel of her body clinging tightly to mine, and let the mind drift away until I felt a strange calm, and with it an uncommon sense of confidence. Pain, uncertainty, and fear all floated away. It helped that I was in pretty good shape, and after a bit of a struggle we made the tent.
Mind you, her long legs proved quite handy.
All of this exertion exacted a price, so that safe in the tent with the flap closed to keep the elements out, the exhaustion came at me with fierce hammer strikes to mind and body. Yet there were things to be done before I could finally relax. In a daze I stripped her down to her under garments, unzipped the down sleeping bag, rolled her in, stripped myself down to expose the raw heat generated by my exertions, and got in alongside her. Zipping the bag closed, I held her tight to me so the life-giving heat could flow, and abruptly the lights went out.