A Transient Visitors Very Tiny Tale by David O’Boyle
A right down Cathedral Parkway. A left up Adam Clayton Powell Junior Boulevard. Five flights of stairs later, in the hallway facing grandma’s West 147th Street flat, Jessup’s life had come full circle.
Harlem is where his world started. Harlem is where he’d see it end.
At least for reasonable people like Jessup, these were not fatalistic thoughts synonymous with apocalypse. Instead they were references to what loomed aboard the Sacagawea, a starship nearing the known end of the universe. Due to virtual-real-reality (VRR), a modern technology that enabled viewers on Earth to view the experience through the eyes of Sacagawea’s 13 crewmembers, the would would bear intimate witness to the ultimate unexplained mystery. And it would occur in a matter of minutes.
Jessup opened Apartment 5C. From the corner of the foyer welcome mat, he shot his keys at the plastic bowl on the kitchen counter.
“Almost not there,” grandma said when she observed a miss. Jessup grinned at the clever comment. “Almost not there” not only described what his grandmother saw, it was also the slogan of the Sacagewea, and, as time passed, a modern way to initiate conversation. The phrase originated during launch day. It was the last thing the television broadcaster said before transferring viewers over to their first VRR feeds. Tonight, though, it had bigger implications. For after 17 years of space exploration, earth’s heroes were finally reaching their destination.
In that time span, all the astronauts aboard Sacagawea became worldwide cultural phenomena. Everyone knew everything about them, in part because the crewmembers were bigger than the Beatles, but also because VRR was more than just another updated version of the newest technology.
It was revolutionary.
Why? Because VRR connected people to the astronauts through a type of one-way telekinesis, whereby the viewer could feel what the astronaut-host was doing, what they were thinking, dreaming, yearning and urging to do.
For the first few years the intimacy between astronauts and their viewers was akin to what viewers share with their favorite reality tv stars. You checked in on ship drama like it was any other tabloid. You mentioned it in small talk along with sports, politics, and music. The difference was that people tend to gravitate towards one or a few of those topics. They rarely know all of them well. With the astronauts, the opposite was true. If you weren’t in the know about ship life you might as well have been further in space than the Sacagawea herself.
Closer to the end of the trip, these intimacies increased, got heavier. By now, people knew the astronauts, especially ‘their astronauts’. Absent unplugging for work and basic bodily functions, it’s all the world did- hook up to VRR and stay hooked.
“Who you picking tonight? Jessup asked grandma. He needed to enter her answer on the screen before he fixed her into the VRR machine.
“Imani,” grandma said. Before she spoke, Jessup had half the name input into the screen. For big events like this you went with ‘your astronaut.’ For grandma that was Imani. For Jessup that was Vick.
Jessup dimmed the lights and strapped into his own VRR station. “Here’s to seeing grandpa,” he said, respecting their decade-long ritual to honor the man whose seat he inherited. Grandma’s dream of the ‘almost not there’ was heaven. And her heaven was with grandpa on the other side.
Those were the last words spoken before Jessup entered familiar territory behind Vick’s eyes. ‘Their’ eyes showed the hull of a starship, inside which twelve other astronauts stood in front of an exit hatch.
One spoke. All the world listened:
“Ladies and gentlemen. After heartfelt consideration, we won’t be showing you what we are about to see.”
Sacagawea’s doors flew open. Everyone’s VRR went black.