The International Peace Ascent is the brainchild of billionaire Sebastian Plank: Recruit a global team of young climbers and film an inspiring, world-uniting documentary. The adventure begins when fifteen-year-old Peak Marcello and his mountaineer mother are helicoptered to a remote base camp in the Hindu Kush Mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. When the camp is attacked and his mother taken, Peak has no choice but to track down the perpetrators to try to save her. Fans of the bestselling Peak will be thrilled with this gripping, high-stakes sequel.
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The Shen The snow leopard makes an impossible leap. Twelve feet. Maybe fifteen. Up the sheer rockface. Landing on a narrow shelf as if she is lighter than air. Her two cubs stand below, yowling for her to come back down. She stretches out, her dusky white paws hanging over the ledge. Her long, thick tail flicking back and forth like a metronome. She looks down at the cubs, yawns, wraps her tail around her body, then closes her pale green eyes. *** “That’s rude!” “They need their mommy!” Paula and Patrice. My twin sisters—well, half sisters—the two Peas. Like two peas in a pod. Seven years old. Just. I’m the third Pea. My name is Peak. Not Pete. Peak Marcello. The two Peas and I share the same birthday. They were born, on the day I turned eight, to my mom and my stepdad, Rolf—a good guy, but very different from me. Paula was holding my right hand. Patrice my left. We were at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, not far from our loft on the Upper East Side. “Maybe the snow leopard needs a little break from the kids,” I told them. “Are you saying you need a break?” Patrice asked. “I was thinking the same thing,” Paula said. They look alike, they sound alike, they think alike. “Lucky for you I wasn’t thinking that at all,” I told them. They smiled. Same smile. Same missing teeth. Different clothes, though. They don’t believe in dressing the same. “Twins dressing the same is goofy!” Every morning they have a little meeting and decide who will wear what. No arguments. Fashion is not their thing. Music is their thing. Piano. Prodigies. Both of them. Me? Not so much. Unless you count the ability to climb sheer rockfaces and buildings a talent. Although buildings are out now or I’ll be locked up until I’m eighteen. “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the climb.” “What?” Paula asked. “Nothing.” I hate it when my private thoughts come out of my mouth without me knowing it, and it had been happening a lot lately. What was that about? “You could climb up there,” Patrice said, pointing at the mother snow leopard. She was right. I had already figured out three routes up to the ledge. I couldn’t help myself. It’s what I do. “Not as gracefully as the snow leopard,” I said. “There’s no snow,” Paula pointed out. “Not in July.” It was a sweltering ninety-two degrees in the city and was supposed to get hotter. “It’s still a snow leopard, even without the snow,” Patrice said. “Did you see snow leopards on the mountain?” Paula asked. She’s asking about Everest. I was up there a couple months earlier, but standing at sea level in the sticky heat with the twins, it seemed like a century ago. “The only animals on Everest are yaks and birds.” “Why?” “Because there’s no food except for camp garbage.” “Snow leopards don’t eat garbage,” Paula said. “Birds do,” Patrice insisted. Patrice was right. The birds also picked at the frozen corpses at the higher altitudes, but I didn’t tell them this. “What do they call snow leopards in Tibet?” Paula asks. I tried to remember. I hadn’t picked up much Tibetan or Nepalese on Everest, but it seemed like one of the other climbers called it . . . The twins’ smartphones started playing Chopin’s polonaise Op. 53 in A-flat major. The only reason I knew the piece was that they had been practicing it for at least a year. I’d heard the music so many times, I thought I might be able to play it on the piano myself. “Texts!” they shouted in unison, reaching into their pockets. That would be one text from either my mom or stepdad. They always text all of us so no one feels left out. Somewhere my smartphone was buzzing too, or maybe not, because I hadn’t charged it in a week. In fact, I wasn’t exactly sure where I had left the phone. Probably in my bedroom, or maybe in the kitchen. Drove my parents nuts. They couldn’t threaten to take it away from me, because I didn’t want it in the first place. I understand the idea of smartphones, but I think smartphones look dumb. Almost everyone in front of the snow leopard cage was holding a smartphone—talking, listening to music, snapping photos, thumbing texts, tweeting, whatever. I’d rather hold the twins’ hands than a smartphone. “Mom,” Patrice said. “She wants us to go to the bookstore,” Paula chimed in. “Right away.” Mom co-owns a small bookstore with a friend. “Shen!” I shouted. The twins’ eyes went wide. The crowd stared at me. “Shen,” I repeated, more quietly. “That’s what they call the snow leopard in Tibet.” The Itch Mom’s bookstore is called the Summit Bookshop—not surprising, as she was a world-class climber before I was born. But the shop carries very few titles about climbing or mountaineering, and those it does carry are written by climbers she knows personally, including my bio dad, Joshua Wood, whom I rarely see and, to be truthful, don’t miss much. The store was doing okay, considering most people are reading their books on electronic gizmos now. It stays in business because of Mom’s taste in books. When Mom stopped climbing, she started reading—everything. No TV or video games for me, the twins, or Rolf. We spend our spare time with words and music. Oh, and climbing—at least in my case, but not so much since I came down from Everest. Instead, I’d been hanging with the twins, which saved them from hanging out in the bookstore all day. We’d been going to museums, plays, concerts, and movies almost every day. So far I hadn’t gotten the itch to climb, but I knew it was coming. It was just a matter of time. We left the zoo, walked up Fifth, took a right on East Sixty-Sixth, then walked into the air-conditioned Summit Bookshop. It was jammed with people getting out of the heat. Mostly nannies. On weekday afternoons, the place looks like a daycare center. Mom has a little coffee shop in the corner of the store and makes more money selling coffee and pastries than she makes selling books. The nannies sipped iced lattes, chattering in several languages over their cooing babies and crying tots, talking about their real children, who lived long subway rides from where we lived. The twins ran over to the strollers and started making baby noises in perfect harmony. Mom came out of the back room carrying an armload of books with a padded envelope balanced on top. “How was the zoo?” “Hot, but we were having a good time. What did you need the twins for?” “I didn’t need the twins. I needed you. And knowing you wouldn’t have your phone, I used them as intermediaries. I wish you’d carry your phone.” “Sorry.” “Right.” She set the books down and handed me the envelope. “What’s this?” “Vincent dropped it by.” Vincent is my literary mentor, a.k.a. English teacher, at the Greene Street School. The school is filled with little geniuses like the twins. Then there’s me. Everyone there has to have some kind of special talent. It was decided, without asking me, that I was the school’s writer. To pass to the next grade, I had to write about my experiences on Everest in a couple of Moleskine journals. I knew what was in the envelope without opening it. I’d carried Moleskine journals to the summit of the highest mountain on earth—well, almost to the summit. “Are you going to open it?” Mom asked. I tore the envelope open. Two Moleskine journals. Blank. Big surprise. There was a yellow sticky note on the cover of one of the journals in Vincent’s careful printing. Write something in First Person Present Tense. V. “Looks like Vincent has an assignment for you.” “I already completed his assignment on Everest,” I pointed out. “And school doesn’t start for more than a month.” (Note to Vincent: First person present tense is a ridiculous viewpoint. To start with, it’s unbelievable. You’re writing as if what is happening to you at that very moment is actually happening right then, but the reader knows that’s not true. How can something be happening to you while you’re writing about it in a journal? And don’t tell me that the writer is merely transcribing what happened in real time. FPPT is a literary trick, but I’ve used some of it in this journal, so you’ll know that I can do it. And I can’t believe that you dropped off an assignment a month before school starts. What’s the matter with you?) “It won’t hurt you to keep your writing brain working until school begins,” Mom said. “You’re a good writer.” I wasn’t a good writer. Yet. “Writing is no different from piano,” Mom continued. “You have to practice to be good at it.” “Except when you’re practicing piano, you’re not writing the music—you’re playing other people’s scores. When you write, you need to have something to write about.” “I’m sure you’ll figure something out. But Vincent’s assignment is not why I pulled you from the zoo. You have some old friends waiting for you in my office.” “Who?” “Go see for yourself.” *** JR, Will, and Jack. We’d been on Everest together. With them was another guy I didn’t know. They were gathered in front of Mom’s climbing wall. The wall is covered with beautiful photos of her in her former climbing days, clinging and dangling at impossible inverted angles on sheer rock walls along with my real father, Joshua Wood. “She was called the Fly,” I said as I walked into the room. They all turned around. “She’s incredible,” JR said. “It’s great to see you, Peak.” It was great to see them, too. We shook hands. “This is Ethan Todd,” Jack said. “The newest member of our team.” Ethan gave me an engaging grin. The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it. “Ethan is our new tech guy and climbing guru,” Will explained. “Of course,” I said. “You’re Ethan ‘Sarge’ Todd. You topped McKinley and rode a snowboard down to the bottom.” “Guilty.” “At the bottom you were chased by a wolf.” “It was a young wolf, and he, or she, wasn’t serious—just curious.” “Why do they call you Sarge?” “Long, boring story.” I liked Ethan, and I was happy to see JR, Will, and Jack. My bio dad had hired them to film me summiting Everest, which hadn’t worked out the way my dad, or the film crew, had planned. “What brings you into town?” “A couple things,” JR answered. “We finished the Everest documentary and signed a distribution deal with ESPN. It airs next month.” “I look forward to seeing it.” “It came out pretty well. You’re in it of course.” I wasn’t happy to hear that I was in it, but I wasn’t surprised. Originally the documentary was supposed to be about me—the youngest person to summit Everest—but that didn’t happen. I stopped ten feet from the top and videotaped my friend Sun-jo becoming the youngest person to summit Everest—but that’s another story. It’s just as well that it wasn’t me. I’d watched some of the tape of JR interviewing me. Awkward is the kindest thing I could say about it. Sun-jo had been much better on camera. “A natural,” as JR put it when we were filming on the mountain. “Remember Sun-jo’s interview with the avalanche hurtling down behind him?” Will asked. It wasn’t really an avalanche. The rocks were tumbling, not hurtling. “Dynamite vid!” Jack said. I wondered what they were doing at the store. It wasn’t like ESPN was across the street. They had to have taken a cab or a subway. They didn’t walk. Not in this heat. “I appreciate you dropping by,” I said. “It wasn’t just to say hello,” JR admitted. “We have a proposition for you.” “An invitation,” Ethan said. “An opportunity,” Jack added. “What’s up?” “We have another gig,” JR said. “Are you interested in a little climb?” “Is my dad involved?” I didn’t care if he was. I was just curious. JR shook his head. “Have you heard of the Peace Climb?” Cause Climbs. There are dozens of them every weekend all over the world. Climb for Cancer, Climb for Creatures, Climb for Love, Climb for God, Climb for Whatever, advertised in the back of all the climbing magazines. I’m not against causes, but I prefer to climb alone if possible. I told them I didn’t know anything about it. “Do you know who Sebastian Plank is?” “Of course.” Sebastian Plank was the richest man in the world, or so it was said. He had his digital fingerprint in a dozen billion-dollar high-tech businesses. Rolf was one of the two-hundred or so attorneys he had on retainer. Our loft was probably paid for by Plank, even though—as far as I knew—Rolf had never met him. “Plank is sponsoring the climb,” JR said. “Paying for the whole thing,” Ethan added. “First class all the way. Private jets, catered food, the best climbing gear money can buy.” I’d always wondered about this worthy cause travel deal. My parents had a lot of friends who spent their free time and money traveling around the world to third world countries for a week or two at a time, planting food, digging ditches, and building houses. It seemed to me that the people they were trying to help might be better off with the cash their friends spent to travel there. Mom says I’m too cynical. She’s probably right. “How many climbers?” “Two hundred plus,” JR answered. “All under eighteen.” “From every country on earth,” Ethan said. “Not quite every country.” Jack started counting off the excluded countries on his fingers. “North Korea, Somalia, Papua New Gu—” “Okay, okay. Most countries.” It didn’t matter how many countries were represented, because I wasn’t really interested in climbing with two hundred plus, or even two, people. “I appreciate the invite, but it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing.” Surprise and disappointment spread across JR’s face. It was the same expression he got on Everest after we concluded one of our many horrible video interviews. “Plank personally requested your participation.” “Why?” JR shrugged. “As I understand it, everyone else had to apply for the climb. You’re the only climber he specifically requested.” If they had to apply, I was surprised I hadn’t heard about the climb. I subscribed to several climbing zines and kept up with a half dozen climbing forums on the web. I didn’t remember hearing anything about Plank sponsoring a climb. “We already asked your mom,” Will chimed in. “She said it was up to you.” I wasn’t surprised by this. After I had gotten busted for climbing skyscrapers and returned from Everest, she’d been all about personal responsibility and freedom of choice. Her summer mantra was “You make the choices. You own the consequences.” Although since I had returned from Tibet, I hadn’t made any consequential choices. “This could be the first one.” “What?” JR asked. I’d done it again. “I was just thinking about choices,” I mumbled. “Saying no is also a choice.” They stared at me. Embarrassed, I changed the subject. “I didn’t know Sebastian Plank was interested in climbing.” “I didn’t know either,” JR said. “The assignment came out of the blue a couple days ago. Got a call from his people. Met them at our hotel last night.” “So they’re paying you well?” Will smiled. “A lot more than your dad paid.” “What about the climbers? Are they getting paid?” Not that it would make any difference to me. “They’re climbing for the glory,” JR admitted. “And the gear,” Ethan said, dreamily. I knew the look. “Don’t forget about the gear. Plank’s people showed us the list. It’s all top of the line, and the climbers get to keep it.” All climbers are gearheads. Including me. The storage unit in the basement of our building is stuffed floor to ceiling with my gear and Mom’s old gear. I’m not even sure what’s in the unit anymore, but I know it’s not enough. Ethan knows the best way to get to another climber is with the allure of gear. I tried to hide my gear addiction, but it didn’t work. Ethan gave me the gear-gotcha grin. A gearhead can always pick out another gearhead. Once again, I changed the subject. “Who’s the climb master?” A climb with this many people had to have somebody in charge. Probably more than one person. JR shook his head. “Don’t know. They didn’t say, but I’m sure it will be someone well known. Plank can get anyone he wants.” Which got me thinking about who else was being recruited for the climb. I’m not in the elite climbing circles, but because of my mom and dad, I know a lot of climbers who are. “I assume Sun-jo is climbing,” I said. “I wonder if he’s climbing for Nepal or Tibet.” “Neither,” JR said. “He’s not on the list.” “That’s weird.” “We thought so too. There’s a girl climbing for Tibet. Seventeen years old. I haven’t heard of her before.” “Probably Chinese,” Will said. He was probably right. The Chinese think Tibet is China. They wouldn’t allow a real Tibetan to climb for peace, or any other cause that wasn’t in China’s political interest. “What about Nepal?” “A boy,” JR answered. “Also seventeen. Never heard of him, either. I’m sure they tried to recruit Sun-jo, but he must have passed. I hear he’s been pretty busy since his Everest summit. Endorsements, personal appearances, and media interviews.” Which reminded me why I was happy that I wasn’t the youngest person to summit Everest. I liked hanging out with the twins. I liked going to the zoo. “Sun-jo is nearly impossible to reach,” Jack said. “Everything has to go through Zopa. And you know Zopa.” I don’t think anyone really knows Zopa. He’s Sun-jo’s ex-Sherpa. He’s also his grandfather and a Buddhist monk who magically appears and disappears when you least expect it. For a second, probably because of the gear, I had drifted toward saying yes to the climb. But now, because of the media attention, I was drifting back to no. “I’ll think about it,” I told JR, which was a polite way of saying no. “There isn’t much time to think about it,” Ethan said. “The climb is next week.” “A climb for two hundred people from all over the world cannot possibly be put together in a week,” I said. JR shrugged. “Plank is famous for getting businesses up and running at lightning speed.” “Climbing is not a business.” “That’s debatable,” Will said. He had a point. A lot of climbers, including my father, were in the business of climbing. “What’s the big rush?” I asked. “Maybe Plank’s worried that peace will reign on earth and he’ll miss his window of opportunity,” Will said. We all laughed. “Seriously, though,” JR said. “There is a deadline. Plank wants the Peace Climb documentary to air on Christmas Day.” “You’re kidding me.” “No joke. He’s already bought the airtime. If we don’t have the vid in the can by Ho Ho Ho Day, we don’t get paid.” That was insane, but I guess if you’re one of the richest people in the world, insane is not an obstacle. “So if I don’t climb, who’s next on the list?” JR looked uncomfortable. “Yeah, that’s the thing, Peak. If you pass, the U.S. won’t have a climber in the mix.” “That’s ridiculous. There must be a thousand climbers in the States under eighteen who could do the climb. I could give you names of dozens of climbers right now who would jump at the chance.” JR looked even more uncomfortable, if that was possible. He glanced at the others as if he was asking for their permission. Ethan, Jack, and Will all gave him a nod. JR took a breath and said, “We . . . um . . . we sort of assured them that you . . . um . . . that you would climb if they hired us to film the climb.” I stared at JR, not quite understanding what he was saying. “Are you saying that if I don’t climb, you lose the job?” “That about sums it up.” “Kind of optimistic, wasn’t it?” “What?” JR asked. “Assuring them that I would go on the climb.” “I guess,” JR admitted. “But there wasn’t much choice. I’m not sure they would have come to us if it weren’t for our connection to you.” A tenuous connection. Like being fixed together on a frayed rope. “I’m not convinced of that,” Jack objected. “They saw the Sun-jo video. They were impressed.” The Sun-jo video. Would it have been called the Peak video if I had succeeded? Not that I have any regrets. I chose not to reach the summit for a very important reason. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about Sun-jo trudging up those last ten feet, imagining myself following in his heavy footprints to the summit or, better yet, Sun-jo following my footprints to the summit. “There are a thousand videographers right here in New York with more climbing creds than we have,” JR said. “They picked us because of Peak.” “It’s nice of you guys not to mention the fact that I totally let you down on Everest.” “You didn’t let us down!” Will said. “You shot the vid of Sun-jo reaching the top. We used almost every second of it in the documentary. If it weren’t for that, we wouldn’t have had anything.” I didn’t take the video for their documentary. I took it to prove that Sun-jo had reached the summit of the highest mountain in the world. “I don’t understand why Plank’s people didn’t come directly to me if it was so important that I join their Peace Climb.” “That’s a great point,” JR said. “We talked about it all the way up here in the cab.” “And what did you come up with?” “Zip,” JR said. “It doesn’t make sense.” “Let me ask you this,” Ethan said. “If Plank’s people had asked you directly, what would you have said?” I thought about this, but not for long. “I probably would have said no.” Ethan grinned. “Well, there you go. Maybe their approach was shrewder than we think. We’ve been talking to you for ten minutes, and you haven’t said no.” Apparently Ethan didn’t understand that I’ll think about it meant no. But then again, maybe it didn’t mean no. Not any longer. Because now I was thinking about saying yes. If I said no, they’d lose the contract. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to let them down again. If I said no, I’d probably never find out why Plank wanted me to climb so badly that he was willing to forgo a climber from the USA altogether. And then there was the gear. Ethan maintained his grin. “What do you say, Peak? Are you in or out?” I returned the grin, which I suspected looked a lot like Ethan’s. “In,” I said. The crew visibly relaxed. JR pulled a folder out of his backpack and gave it to me. “We leave first thing in the morning. Plank is sending a car for us. We’ll swing by and pick you up on the way to the airport. We’ll be at your apartment building around seven. Your visa is inside.” “Visa?” “Yeah. And don’t forget to bring your passport. You can’t get into Afghanistan without it.” I stared at him, trying to wrap my mind around our climbing destination and recalling the titles in the stack of books Mom had been carrying. I wasn’t certain, but I thought all of them had the word Afghanistan on the spine. I wondered if I would have said yes if I’d known where the climb was taking place. “Isn’t there a war in Afghanistan?” “Technically, no,” JR says. “What about untechnically?” “Yeah, there is still stuff going on over there. Skirmishes. Political unrest. Protests.” “Terrorism,” I added. JR shook his head. “I don’t think so. Our troops have all but pulled out. I think they have an international peacekeeping force there. Something like that. But we’ll be a long way from where the problems are, and we’re doing something positive. The risks are minimal. And Plank has hired a private security force to watch our backs just in case.” Mom walked in, still carrying the stack of books. “Well?” I looked at the spines. I was right about the word. “Is it okay if I go to Afghanistan tomorrow?” I asked. “Sure,” she said, then looked at JR. “I just got off the phone with Plank’s people. I’m going with you.”