“Look at this. Beautiful, isn’t it?” Mark asks.
He is right. Imagine a place featuring the most stunning mountain landscapes you have ever seen, with vertical walls, sheer cliffs, and long and deep valleys. Where the blue skies invites and the soothing breeze urges you to stay to enjoy all the colors and aromas of spring, flooding your senses with joy and awe.
“What an amazing view. Climbing our way up here was quite something. Thanks for inviting me,” I say.
“Thank you for coming,” Mark replies. “It’s nice to have someone to share this with,” he says.
I keep gazing at the scene. The natural beauty of this place has a magnificent variety of shapes and forms everywhere you look. Rocky pinnacles and tall towers, contrasting with crags and plateaus’ plain surfaces, all exquisitely sculpted by time.
“You sound like you have no friends besides me,” I say.
“I do have more friends beside you,” he answers with a grin. “But not all of them like to do what I do,” he says.
I am still contemplating my surroundings. At the horizon, mountains stand tall as peaks with interceding canyons. In some places, they rise alone, and in others, they produced vast and spectacular facades with their feet covered with pine trees touching the emerald crystalline waters of an alpine lake nestled deep in the mountains.
“Really? And what exactly is that? Walking?” I ask, making fun of him.
“No. They are okay with walking,” Mark smiles.
Mark is what you would call a geek or a nerd if you come from the 21st-century. Not much of a sports guy. Just like me, Mark is fascinated by all things ancient. He is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to 21st-century trivia. We used to collect artifacts and to spend hours exploring all kinds of topics about the old world.
“So, what then?” I ask.
“It is an ancient sport. The most thrilling of all sports,” Mark remarks, sounding excited. “Nothing for the faint-hearted, as people used to say,” He adds. “But don’t worry. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” he assures me trying to put me at ease. There is something else in his voice now. I can’t quite tell what it is.
The most thrilling of all sports? Which sport could it be? This place is quite popular among outdoor sportspeople of all kinds: Mountain bikers, mountaineers, skiers in winter, you name it. But, Mark doing a ‘thrilling’ sport? I mean, besides hiking, as far as I know, he doesn’t leave his lab much. “Okay. What sport is it, then,” I ask, now curious.
“Come with me,” Mark says, moving towards the edge of the cliff. “Look down there,” he directs.
The peak is called the Castelletto Della Busazza. This is the place where we are now—one of the highest peaks in the Dolomites region. For me, this is my first time visiting this place. But, the Dolomites seem to have become Mark’s favorite place in the world. And something appears to be unique about this spot. “Wow! That is really high,” I state the obvious, looking down from a 3.000-meter peak.
“Have you ever heard of BASE jumping?” Mark asks.
“BASE Jumping?” I exclaim, looking at him in disbelief. “No, no, no. What? Is that your sport?” I asked incredulously.
In case you don’t know, BASE jumping was a recreational sport, practiced by some adventurers in the old world. “BASE” is an acronym that stands for four categories of fixed objects from which one can jump: building, antenna, span, and earth. At least, this is the definition I read in ancient books. In this ‘sport’, people simply jumped from a fixed object such as a cliff, and after an optional freefall delay, they deployed a parachute to slow down their descent and land. This is the first time I hear him talking about BASE jumping.
“I have personally designed these parachutes with artificial intelligence,” Mark continues, turning around and getting his camping backpack. He opens it and takes out a small black bag. He pushes a button, and the thing lights up. “It calculates everything on my way down; altitude, wind, obstacles, everything. All I have to do is jump and enjoy,” he explains enthusiastically. “At the exact right time, the intelligent parachute opens and guides me to a safe landing. It will be the most exciting thing you have ever done in your life so far. Wanna try?”
“No! What? No! Isn’t this against the law or something?” I ask, in shock. I have heard rumors about some youngsters doing risky things for the excitement and the adrenaline rush, but I had no idea that Mark would do something like this.
“Actually, no. We would not be breaking any law. I triple checked. On the other hand, your family is probably not going to like it very much. Especially your grandfather being a prince and all. But don’t worry. I don’t have to mention it if you don’t want to. Only if they ask, of course,” he says and smiles.
“Huh,” I gasp.
“Besides, you are eighteen, right?” Mark asks.
“No. I am nineteen now,” I correct him proudly. Mark is a few years older than me, and he has been experiencing the freedom of adulthood for a while longer than me now. We were best friends growing up, but after Mark turned eighteen, I wasn’t always involved in his life.
“So, you are an adult, huh?” he says, rumpling and tousling my hair like he usually does.
I push his hand away, in reply with a grin.
“So? What do you think?
My mom would kill me if I did anything like this. I have simulation programs and distance exploring gear, which allows me to explore any place in the world using an artificial extension of myself, from the safety of my home. Yet, my mom is already concerned that I spend too much time on it. I can only imagine what she would say about this.
The exploration at a distance is super fun, exciting, and you can get a serious adrenaline kick out of it too. But everything you feel using your artificial extension is just a simulation of what the real thing would feel like. For example, I could have sent my “Sim” here to the Dolomites and experience this amazing view, the wind’s touch on my skin, and even the cliff’s vertigo looking down. But nothing compares to being here in person.
“Come on, John! It’s going to be fun,” Mark says.
“No way!” I reply. “If one thing goes wrong, there is no way we can survive this.”
“I am telling you, man! Artificial Intelligence parachutes! I have done it hundreds of times already with the guys from North. It’s one hundred percent safe. I guarantee. I would never put someone else’s life in danger. Especially not yours. You are my friend.”
Guys from North, again? Once Mark turned eighteen, I heard he was hanging out with these young ones from the northern district. I have never met them. They are from a generation before me. They were quite popular among the young ones butdidn’t score too high with the mature ones. I know my parents would never allow me to go out with them. And I thought Mark was done with them too. Apparently not.
“Look!” Mark says. “I brought this one, especially for you. It is my best one. As safe as it can get.”
“I don’t know,” I say.
Mark is a real tech genius, and if he says the parachute is safe, you can bet your life on it. Well. Actually. You should never bet. It’s not something we do in the New Earth. And it’s not like tech never fails either. So…
“You don’t have to do anything,” Mark continues. “The parachute does everything for you. You just have to jump. Jumping from here is beginner’s stuff. But I promise you. After you try this, you will be longing for higher places to jump in no time. Like a big boy,” he smirks.
“I don’t know,” I keep repeating myself. I heard stories about how, in the old world, technology broke all the time. It’s not like that at all in the New Earth. But, still. Jumping from a 3.000-meter cliff? That is just insane!
“I really don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Come on, John! I thought you were different from the others.”
“Different? Different how?” I ask puzzled. I have no idea what Mark means with that. Did he invite other people here, and they refused to jump? Was he insinuating that I was a coward or something? This is not like Mark. He changed.
“Never mind,” he says. “Look. Let us do like this. I will jump, and you just watch from here, okay? I will prove to you that it is all fine and safe. Once I land, you can choose. You can jump too, or you can wait for me here. I will come back for you, and I’ll take you home—no big deal. No pressure. It’s up to you, okay?”
That was stupid. No way I was going to jump, man. No way!
“What is the big deal, grandpa? Honestly, I don’t see what the problem is,” I say.
So yeah, I did jump, and now I am in big trouble.
“Okay,” grandpa replies. “Have you thought about the consequences?” he asks calmly. Way calmer than my parents when they asked me the same question. Ah, just so you know, Marcel Williams is my grandfather. You probably know him?
“We were just having fun. What is the problem with that?” I ask.
“I understand you want to have fun, my son,” grandpa says. “But, BASE jumping? Seriously?” he asks, still skeptical.
But, yeah. BASE jumping indeed. It was the most exciting thing I have ever done so far. Hands down. It was beautiful, primal, unforgettable, and yet still terrifying. We jumped a couple of times again that day. Mark had to ask me to stop. But I guess I proved him wrong, with whatever he meant about me being like the others. And to be honest, it also felt good to ‘beat‘ him on his own ‘game‘, for once.
“What made you believe jumping from a cliff would be okay?” grandpa asks.
Well, if you are taking the necessary safety precautions, what is the problem, right? Although, just between you and me, completely trusting in an artificial intelligence machine like that felt a little bit dumb. But hey! It worked, right? I do not verbalize those thoughts.
“We were not breaking any law, grandpa. Mark is practicing this ‘sport‘ for a while now. And nobody has ever gotten hurt.”
“So, more people are doing this with you two?”
Oops. I think I said too much. After my debut in the Dolomites, Mark took me to jump together with his friends from the Northern District. I didn’t tell my parents because I didn’t want them to worry. For the last few months that I live on my own I haven’t been reporting to my parents everything I do now. I do tell them when I go on a trip to jump though.
“Yeah. The first time in the Dolomites, it was just Mark and me. But for a while now, we are jumping with the guys from the North,” I answer. Grandpa looks surprised. I guess he didn’t know about that. Maybe I shouldn’t tell him that Mark got into jumping thanks to his friends from the North.
“Ah. But I thought your parents said…”
“They are not that bad, you know?”
They are really not. They work hard on their assignments. Some work on the agricultural system, others work on the food and clothing distribution. But in their free time, they just like to play as hard as they work. I don’t always agree with their way of enjoying life, but Mark loves them, and it is nice to be one of the ‘boys‘.
“Hmm,” grandpa just nods. “Your friend, Mark, he convinced you to jump, correct?” he asks.
Yes. Mark had to sell it. Even though he is my best friend in the whole world and I would do almost anything for him, following him on this one was hard. “Yes. So?”
“You didn’t want to jump, did you?”
Well, at first? Not at all. 3.000-meter cliff? Are you kidding me? But Mark believed I could do it. I hated the idea of disappointing him. “Yeah, but I was being a coward,” I reply. “I was afraid. Until I did jump, and I saw that Mark was right. There was no reason to worry.”
“I see,” grandpa said in a compassionate tone. “Before you jumped, you were not completely sure, but yet you jumped. Why? What made you jump?”
“Mark went first a couple of times, and he made it back safely every time, so I concluded that I would be okay too.”
And, you know. It felt good to have the respect of the boys and all. Mark was quite impressed. They even call us now for quite exclusive gatherings. We are kind of making a name for ourselves. ‘John and Mark, the dynamic duo’. No. Wait. What about this one? ‘John and Mark, the brave geniuses‘. Nah. That doesn’t sound good either.
“I understand,” he says. “And now? What is the plan? Keep going back to the Dolomites to keep jumping?”
“The Dolomites is for beginners. We are looking for other places to jump now.”
My first jump in the Dolomites was six months ago. We went back three or four times after that. Meanwhile, we have been jumping from everywhere—Greece, Venezuela, Norway, everywhere I am surprised that it took so long for my parents to tell grandpa on me about this. To be fair, they honestly tried to make me stop jumping from day one. They have to resort to the big ‘guns‘ now. Not fair. They know how grandpa always gets to me. Not this time, though.
“Places like?” grandpa asks.
“Well,” I say. “There is this Meru Peak in the Himalayan Mountains. It is a drop of over 21,000 feet from peak to bottom. The guys are also considering jumping over this volcano. They want to try this Wingsuit Flight thing. But grandpa, before you worry too much, let me tell you. The volcano is not active,” I think.
“Hmm,” grandpa only nods. “My son. Please, sit here with me for a moment. Let me tell you a story.”
Oh, no. Another story from the old world. He knows I love those.
“They opened the mortuary cabinet drawer. I glimpsed at the body inside, and I immediately broke down. That was he—my best friend.
The next day I went back to the same bar where we drank together for the last time. I kept coming back there every single night after that. At first, I thought I was trying to drink the pain away, but eventually, I realized that I was secretly hoping that the booze could do to me what it had done to my friend. But it didn’t. It failed me. There was only more pain.
One day I bumped into an old friend. We talked over coffee, and he invited me to a party at his place. Meeting new people seemed to be a good idea. At the party, everyone was nice and friendly. In time they became my friends too.
One night we went out for drinks together, and I was back to that infamous old bar once again. That place always made me think of Levi. I was having a good time when a wave of sadness suddenly hit me as it had never hit me before. My old friend noticed that something was wrong. He listened attentively. It felt good to let it all out. He said he also felt sad sometimes. He told his story. He then said that when he felt sad, something helped, and he wanted to share it with me. Maybe it would help me, too, he said. After that day, it didn’t take long until I became a drug addict. From there, things start to spiral down, and soon enough, I hit rock bottom, broken, paralyzed, hopeless.
Until Uncle Jacob came to help me. He helped me to know Jehovah. And Jehovah gave me a family and true friends that helped me get back up. They supported me through my darkest days and helped me find real joy and happiness.
My point is this, son. Our friends can be genuinely interested in us, and they might honestly want only the best for us. But even if all of them have good intentions and good motives, not all of them have what we really need. They all will try to share what they have or what they believe is good for us—always exerting some measure of influence on how we think and on what we do. It’s up to us to choose how we want to be influenced. We want to choose the kind of friends that will help us get where we want to be.
Today, you might think it’s not a big deal to trust your life into the hands of a machine for the purpose of having fun. You might think you are not risking your life, but you do not show the proper respect for it either. Today it’s jumping off a cliff. What is it going to be tomorrow? What can that kind of thinking and attitude lead to? Have you ever stopped to think about how Jehovah fell about all this? Isn’t he also your friend?”
I know grandpa is right. But, it is tough to say ‘no’ to my friends. I am a people pleaser, I guess. Well, we all are, in a way, right? But we still have to make wise decisions. Mark is indeed pushing the limits too far. He can control howlate the parachutes can deploy, giving him more freefall time, and every time he makes it a few seconds later. Also, he is always looking for new places to jump, and the more intense – meaning more dangerous, the better. And, you know. I want to be part of the boys, I want them to like me, and it’s nice to be the ‘cool‘ one like Mark is, but, this volcano thing. Seriously? This is not going to end well, man. And what about how Jehovah might have been feeling about this? I was so concerned about not disappointing Mark and to be accepted by his friends. I did not even think about how I was disappointing my friend Jehovah and letting my parents and grandpa down.
“Okay, grandpa,” I say. “I see what you are saying. It’s just.” I hesitate for a moment before I continue. “I love spending time with the congregation. Taking part in the construction projects with you at Lazarus is always very fun. But, you know,” I paused again, and my eyes find the floor. “Some times, I just want to feel the excitement and the thrill of being alive. That’s all. I guess jumping gave me some of that feeling.”
“I understand that. I have also been your age once. A couple of hundred years ago, but I still remember,” grandpa says, empathetically like he always does. He holds my shoulders and makes me look back at him. “Tell you what,” he continues. “Do you want to experience some real fun and excitement? I will call Uncle Levi, and we will spend a few days with him. He has some friends I want you to meet.”
That is why I love my grandfather so much. He just gets me. But Uncle Levi is aged in years. What does he know about fun and excitement?
Oh, yeah! That is what I am talking about!
“Okay, boys! Let’s do this!” Uncle Levi exclaims. “Let us take this beauty for a dive,” he yells from the bridge, pushing buttons on the screen and typing commands on his control panel. “Marcel! Checklist!”
“Okay,” grandpa says. “Rig for dive,” he yells back, strapped into his chair, and checking the 3D gauges of all instruments on his dashboard.
“Dive, dive, dive,” Brother Jacque Cousteau replies, also checking graphics on his screen and pushing buttons. Lights are on. The walls and roof of the vessel are transparent. I can see the inhabitants of this underwater world we are about to explore approaching as they are here to welcome us.
“Pressure in the boat, green board,” Brother Jonah yells in reply. Yes. Jonah. The one swallowed by the big fish. Remember him? He is also doing his thing on his own dashboard while waving to a blue whale passing by right on top of us.
“Six fi-yiv feet,” brother Jacque confirms, with a big grin in his face, appearing as if he is the only one that actually understands what all those marine terms being shouted mean. He gives the signal, and it seems that we are all set and ready to start our journey.
“Request speed,” Brother Jules Verne cries.We can hear the roar of the engines warming up, and brother Jules appears to be ready to ‘punch’ it. I look outside, and I see schools of fish cruising right around us, followed by playful dolphins and other marine animals I have never seen before.
“Take her down,” Uncle Levi gives the command, and we start to get velocity moving downwards.
“Oh, man! Oh, man! This is really happening. Twenty thousand leagues under the sea, for real. I have never been this excited before,” I say.
“Neither have I,” Mark says, a little bit apprehensively. He then makes a conscious effort to relax and says, sounding sincerely appreciative: “Thank you for including me, John.”
“Don’t thank me. It was grandpa’s idea,” I reply.
Mark nods pleased.
“Are you guys ready?” Uncle Levi asks.
“Yes!” Mark and I answer in unison.
“You want excitement?” Uncle Levi asks rhetorically. “I will give you excitement,” he says. “To the bottom of the Earth, here we go!”