By Imobong Emah
The kente-clad performers sang aloud, mixing lyrics of Akan traditional folk music with electronically-generated sounds coming from small speakers embedded in the pendants of their bulky faux gold chains. The group parted and a young man in the centre did several back flips on the spot in time with the beat and their clapping. Their procession moved forward after a few minutes, giving way for an all-female dancing group dressed as wives of the Asantehene.
“So you’re here.”
Aniekan turned at the familiar voice. The grinning face of his friend, Joshua, showed none of the discomfort evident on the sweaty faces of the other onlookers. Aniekan could only imagine how scorching the midday sun was. He had seen someone being resuscitated for heat stroke.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I took a break from studying.”
“Weird, me too.”
“You’re also writing exams?”
“Nah,” Joshua said, turning to look at the dancers gyrating a few feet away. “I’m over all that school madness. I have an interview with some firm in India. I’ve been brushing up on my answers all morning. Hey, check that out!”
The object of interest was a large fire-breathing robot masquerade, controlled by fittingly-dressed ‘native doctors’. Aniekan selected the camera icon, set his viewfinder for a good shot and clicked the button.
Sorry, this feature is only available on Premium.
He hissed at the words flashing across his field of vision. Joshua looked at him.
“Can’t take a bloody picture.”
Joshua chuckled. “You’ve still not upgraded?”
“You’re laughing, and you’ve been wearing the same clothes for almost a year.”
“Only jobless people bother with changing clothes. Besides, if I really wanted to, I know a guy who can crack the system and upload a shuffle wardrobe for free.”
“Careful. You know everything we say ends up on their servers.”
“You’re always so paranoid.”
There was a shrill beeping sound from Joshua.
“Alarm,” he said. “Time difference in India means I’ll be up around 2am for the interview. See you later?”
“Sure. Good luck, by the way.”
Joshua smiled and his face froze, then his entire body flickered and went off. Hovering in the space where his head had occupied was a round drone with a central camera which rose over the audience, evading obstacles as it flew into a large blue booth. The booth was marked with a globally-recognised symbol consisting of an eye where the iris and pupil were replaced with a small letter ‘a’. He heard a chuckle and looked down to see a small boy poking a finger through his chest, causing his image to waver.
“Stop doing that.”
The boy giggled mischievously and skipped away. Aniekan sighed and reached for the eye icon located at the top right corner of his visual feed which produced a drop-down menu. He’d wasted enough time here anyway.
The scene of the street-side festivities dimmed into dark blue and the words “Signing Out” slowly blinked. He felt for his nightstand and dropped his navigation console before reaching under his chin to unstrap the virtual reality headset. As if on cue, there was a bang on the door. He pushed a unlock button on the wall and his older brother, Emmanuel, barged in, his eyes sweeping the room in search of something.
“What?” Aniekan muttered with irritation.
“I’ve been knocking for almost five minutes. I need to borrow your VR, mine is having some sort of error.”
“Well done,” Aniekan said snidely. “You’ve finally spoiled it with those useless beta plug-ins.”
“And you were online when you have exams tomorrow,” Emmanuel retorted, grabbing the helmet-shaped device and ejecting his brother’s identity chip. “Where were you anyway?”
“Chale Wote Street Festival.”
“Lame. Premier League is on. And I need to log in before all the ports are used up.”
“I hope you guys lose.”
The door closed with a bang. Aniekan snickered as he moved to his study table and waved his hand over the PC sensor, turning on the holographic screen. He swept the reader windows of his books aside and selected the eye-shaped icon which opened a dark blue window with a title sequence.
Astral: Now, You’re There.
The words faded away.
Welcome Back, Aniekan.
He fingered through the tabs and checked his Uptime balance. He sighed. He barely had enough for any visits outside the sub-Saharan countries – that is, the few which had Astral hotspots. The service was still new to Nigeria, after all. He authenticated the transfer of extra credits from his bank account. A progress bar came up and he began to wonder how he’d become so invested in this virtual existence.
Astral had started in Japan as a therapeutic program to help the hikikomori, or shut-ins, but it had rapidly spiralled into some sort of travel/networking/laziness device, inadvertently causing what it had set out to cure. People around the world now used Astral for virtually everything – from tours in other countries, to attending events from the comfort of their bedrooms. He’d even read that new headsets which could transmit sensations like smell, taste and touch directly to the user’s brain were being developed to make things more immersive. He’d logged into their service barely a month ago, and though his social life – whatever was left of it – had suffered, at least he could say he’d seen the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the Coliseum in Rome, the Tomb of King Tut, and several live matches at Camp Nou.
The words “Upgrade to Premium” glowed white on the sidebar once the transfer was complete and he’d bought sufficient credits. His reached for it and stopped short. Social media apps were already eating up most of his time. If he did this, he knew it would be equivalent to signing off all contact with the outside world. He considered his pros and cons for a moment…
Thank you for choosing our Premium Service. Check out our new and improved features…
No point delaying the inevitable, he thought.
Besides, he really wanted to take pictures.