‘Stones Data’ (Book Excerpt) by Jacob Whaler

Jacob Whaler

Jacob Whaler is the author of Stones Series. In his professional life, he has used words to build meaning into arcane corporate documents that control the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars around the globe. He has lived in New York City, Tokyo and Los Angeles before settling down in a more obscure (but beautiful!) part of the globe. Read his interview here. Below you can read an excerpt from his novel, Stones Data. Courtesy: Jacob Whaler.

 

 

 

 

Staring out the window of the tram at the ski slopes below, Matt’s fingertips play out words on a thin cylinder made of metal and glass and molded to the precise curl of his closed palm. Spiral lines of blue light run down its side.

Hey Jess. I’m up at the Skull. Snow’s almost gone. Just about to take my last run of the season. I’m going to end it with a bang. Fast and smooth. How was your bike race this morning? Hope your asthma didn’t kick in.

Before sending off the message, Jessica’s face floats through Matt’s mind. Long hair. Massive brown eyes. A smirk on those virgin lips that she’s never allowed him to kiss. Saving them for the right time, she always says.

More like torture, Matt thinks.

When he taps the end of the jax, the words turn into a ripple of energy shooting through the Mesh, the network uniting all devices and data on the planet. Seconds later, the jax trembles in his fingers. Jessica has read the message.

A grin plays across his face.

The tram glides to its perch high above Skull Pass. His thigh muscles tighten and relax in rhythmic motion as he lets his eyelids drop down and mentally rehearses the final run. One of his hands runs along the scarred top of a ski as his fingers read the subtle dips and gouges that tell tales of battles won and lost on the slopes. Scratches on the tops don’t matter. Only the bases matter, and his ski bases are flawless.

The jax gently buzzes in his hand. He looks down and opens his palm. A blue screen of holo letters opens in the air above his fingers.

Listen carefully. I’m only going to say this once. No injuries on your last run. That’s an order. Remember the concert tonight. I need to see you in one piece. By the way, I won the race. No asthma this time.

Matt imagines the slender fingers that tapped out the message. Her words are firm, but that’s just Jessica. Never one to beat around the bush. Knows what she wants. She must have talked to his dad. They both worry too much about him on his treks to the mountains. At some point, he just has to ignore their worrying and live his life. Jessica is more understanding than his dad, but even she had insisted he skip the last day of the season.

Not a chance.

He hopes he never has to choose between skiing and her. He’d go with her because she’s the only girl he ever met that reminds him of his mother.

But it would be close.

The inside of the tram is quiet except for the muffled sound of nano-boots and the rustle of jackets. Most of the other skiers bob their heads up and down, listening to internal music spreading from blue dots in their ears, waiting for the door to open. Matt closes his eyes, pulls his skis close to his face and inhales the sweet aroma of speed wax.

The tram coasts to a stop.

A few seconds later, the doors part like the end of a long elevator ride. Matt’s eyes float open to a cool breeze blowing across his face. He and the others flow out through the landing dock to the launch area at the summit of Skull Pass.

The jagged ridges of the Mosquito Range hold up the sky in every direction. With skis balanced on one shoulder, he walks past a group of Chinese tourists in windbreakers and short pants huddled together in front of an ancient wooden sign. As long as anyone can remember, it’s been there, a landmark from the pre-Mesh days. Most of the white paint has flaked off the letters, and the wood is cracked, but that doesn’t matter. The words were burned into his memory long ago and play effortlessly in his head like an old song.

Three generations ago, annual snowfall in the American West fell drastically from the cumulative effects of global warming. The Mosquito Range Mountains are a great aberration. Hiding in a pocket where moisture-laden air from the Pacific meets cold Arctic air flowing down from the north, winter snows come early and still lay deep on these Colorado slopes well into summer.

He raises his jax and takes a quick panoramic video from the summit, ending with a half smirk as he brings his hand up to his face.

Jessica will be so jealous when she sees this.

He remembers his dad’s incessant warnings to never send unencrypted video through the Mesh.

To hell with that.

He jaxes the video to Jess anyway.

When he finds an open spot, Matt presses the magnetic release on his skis and pulls them apart. His eyes sweep past the maximum speed setting. As he promised his dad earlier in the morning, it’s set to 62. He looks at the wide bowl opening up below him and the turquoise sky above, and then smiles to himself as he punches it up to 87. Opening his hands, the skis fall forward onto the snow with a loud slap, drawing stares from skiers on both sides.

When he steps onto the boards, his eyes automatically drop down.

An electric tingle shoots up from his soles into his legs and through his spine. The nano-boots stiffen and hug his feet. They fit like perfection. Hard where they need to be hard, soft where they need to be soft. Bindings rise out of the flat surface of each ski and clamp onto the toes and heels of his boots with a soul-satisfying click.

He digs his poles in, lets his head fall back. His eyes drift to the sky. An Indian war whoop slips from his lips.

Someone grumbles behind him.

Matt turns and stares at a pec-enhanced man wearing a Manchester United jersey. He’s got hairy arms and a girlfriend.

And he’s staring back.

“Pathetic,” Matt says loud enough for everyone to hear. It’s not worth a fight, so he lets out another war whoop and pushes off.

Despite its name, Powder Puff Basin is like an enormous cereal bowl a mile across with towering basalt cliffs forming the rim. Matt likes to climb them from late summer into the fall until the heavy snows come again. Below the rim, its slopes plunge down through a boulder field to the chair lift at the bottom.

Winter or summer, this is where he comes to escape from the suffocating world of his dad.

He tucks into a racing stance and blasts down a cat track into the Basin and around the lower edge of the rim to the opposite side, floating a hundred meters below the cliffs.

On the way, he passes a spot marked with flags, a rope and a big red sign.

It always brings a certain memory to mind.

Six years before, he was a wild sixteen-year-old who ignored the sign and crossed under the rope into a dive down the back of Skull Pass. It’s no surprise an avalanche swallowed him up. By the time ski patrol pulled him out, he had no pulse and a core temperature of less than forty degrees. Thanks to luck and the mammalian diving reflex, they revived him. The doctor said there was no permanent brain damage.

His dad always said he wasn’t so sure.

A rooster tail of loose snow shoots up and out from the back of his skis. Boulders the size of cars lay strewn above and below, islands of rock floating in a sea of white.

When he reaches the opposite side of the bowl, Matt lifts his head and contemplates the beauty of the mountains. He tries to take it all in, but discovers that it’s beyond understanding and can’t be captured in a still shot or video or even memory. The best he can do is open himself to it and let the moment flow through him.

The thin air lifts his dark hair in streams and stings the skin of his cheekbones and ears. He smiles until his lips are numb and his teeth ache from the cold.

Looking down to the left, the slope drops sharply away. He sucks in a lungful of oxygen and holds it, like a diver about to break the water’s surface.

In one fluid motion, he leans forward, tucks into his thighs and launches himself off the lip of the traverse. Ten meters down slope, his skis bite into the white velvet.

A wave of warmth passes through him, and he no longer feels connected to the earth as he carves great arcs high above the valley floor.

Near the bottom, his line is pulled to the only exposed boulder in his field of vision, a dark object protruding shin-high above the snow. Like a giant slalom course, he rides the edges of his skis on a trajectory that will take him around it. He shoots by the rock and tucks into a hard left to loop below it. Then he discovers that it extends further down slope than he thought, like the dorsal fin of a great salamander lurking just beneath the snow.

Too late to change course.

Ripped out of his trance, Matt shifts his weight to bank away from a brutal collision with the boulder. But the laws of physics are in control now, and his upper body refuses to give up its momentum. The sides of his skis make first contact with the broken surface of the rock. The impact triggers an algorithm that instantly hardens them and releases the bindings from their grip on his boots. There is the sickening thud and clatter of silicon-steel alloy bouncing off rock.

His body moves through the air and instinctively goes into a tuck. The ever-present scowl on his dad’s face flashes across the back of his eyelids. A jolt of pain stabs his shoulder as he is thrown over the top of the boulder and dumped face first in the snow on the other side. He comes out of the tuck and goes limp. Rolling onto his back, he slides headfirst on a diagonal line down the slope.

Twenty meters later, his body glides to a stop. He lays still on the snow, afraid to move and discover the extent of his injuries.

An eagle circles overhead, staring down at the black fetal shape on the snow.

Matt sits up and glares at the boulder. Fury builds within him for its attempt at spoiling his perfect day. As the anger subsides, he takes inventory of the damage, both to him and, more urgently, his equipment. There is a tear on the left shoulder of his jacket, a sprained thumb, shattered goggles. The carbon fiber pants are pristine, not a scratch. The taste of salt spreads through his mouth, and a warm rivulet snakes down his forehead and soaks into an eyebrow. Crimson dots appear in the snow.

Upon seeing the blood, his first reaction is to grab his jax for a quick video to Jessica. After a moment’s thought, he decides against it. She might get worried and forward it to his dad. He’ll immediately notice the missing helmet he set out for Matt that very morning.

It still lay on the seat of the truck down in the parking lot.

Matt squints up slope and spies his skis lying in disarray ten feet on the other side of the boulder. He climbs slowly back up, collects his poles on the way and crosses over the top of the boulder. A maze of cracks and fissures break up its dark surface.

When he gets to the other side and drops down onto the snow, rock fragments are strewn around his fallen skis. He fears the worse. Young bodies heal quickly, but good skis are expensive to replace.

He bends down and tenderly lifts each of the boards in turn like the delicate instruments of joy they are, and flexes them between his hands. Incredibly, they are unscathed other than a long dark line running the full length on the top of one ski and a series of gouges on the underside of the other. His fingers find a small metal stud on the tail of the damaged ski and press it, activating the microcaps that will fill in the gouges over the next twenty-four hours.

Scratches on top don’t matter. Let them run wild. Only scratches on the bottom matter.

He rams the tails of both skis into the snow so they are sticking straight up and sits down to rest.

There, between his feet, a strange object catches his eye.

A rock.

He picks it up and studies its shape. With a rough surface like the basalt rock around it, it is larger on one end and curved to a dull point on the other, reminding him of a fossilized T-Rex claw he played with as a child.

There’s something else it reminds him of, six years before, but he quickly discards that thought as ridiculous.

Gripping the rock in the palm of his right hand, there’s an immediate sensation of rightness, as if it were made to be there.

He isn’t sure how long he gazes at it. At some point, his eyes drift shut. Then he remembers.

Jess will kill me if I’m late.

He checks the time on his jax and only has two minutes to catch the last chair up. With effort, he lets the rock slip from his hand into a coat pocket and stands up.

He can’t wait to show it to her.

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