The physical component of this piece is a four-page broadside, full of articles, infographics, and photographs.
[Across the top of the broadside’s front page is the publication’s title: “The World Instigator.” It’s spelled out in a bold, blocky typeface.]
January 28, 2022. Special Report. $5.00.
Photograph. The International Civilian Space Depot floating silent in space. It’s quite beautiful, really. Depicted is the rounded cabinet that will soon open, from which Ebony Divine will make the historic plunge toward the iced-blue Earth, seen far below.
[The main article begins on the next page. It’s titled “Divine Dive: Artist in Space to Perform Death-Defying Return to Earth” By Darcie Gilley. There’s an info-box embedded in the main article. It’s titled “Get on Board,” and has a graphic of a speaker at the top. It reads: “Looking to have fun at home? Don’t miss the audio livestream of Ebony Divine’s epic dive from the International Civilian Space Depot. Our own Darcie Gilley catches up with Roman Powers and Ebony Divine before the death-defying feat.”]
Photograph. One can almost see the heavy noise like a rumble of thunder as the International Civilian Space Depot launch emanates clouds of smoke during a successful takeoff.
INTERNATIONAL CIVILIAN SPACE DEPOT—Earth, you are in for a treat.
Performance artist Ebony Divine will soon undertake an historic feat: a precision dive from the International Civilian Space Depot into the Greenwood Country Club pool in Santee Hills, Nevada. The feat is called #BacktoEarth.
The performance, which brings the latest in space-travel technology into intimate collaboration with the human body, is made possible by support from billionaire CEO Roman Powers and his cross-disciplinary, multinational Nostradamus Corporation.
No one has done anything like it before, and over a hundred thousand are expected to watch the event on livestreaming platforms across the world. Ebony Divine’s space suit, designed by the world-class teams at Nostradamus Corporation for what is expected to be an out-of-this-world performance, will enable the artist to return to Earth in a global artistic spectacle, without the protection of a space capsule.
This new space suit combines biometric sensing, navigational propulsion components, and the shielding and life-support systems required to withstand extreme heat. Temperatures will reach upward of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit during the reentry phase, when Ebony Divine will hurtle through the vacuum of space back into Earth’s atmosphere.
The performance is the culminating event of Ebony Divine’s multiweek artist residency aboard the International Civilian Space Depot.
“When I got accepted into the residency, I became the first person of color to join this space station,” Ebony Divine said in a recent interview from the Space Depot. “Representation matters to a lot of people. I’m also the only nonbinary person here. There’s been an extraordinary weight of expectations placed on me by various communities back home who need to see me succeed.”
Still, in the midst of civil unrest and a looming climate disaster, anyone who is given the opportunity to leave the planet might consider just staying in space.
“When I first heard about the residency, I laughed about it with my friends. I imagined you’d have to be some kind of disconnected Pollyanna—or a privileged asshole—to want to leave the Earth-planet at a time like this. It didn’t seem ethically or morally right to abandon the planet while it’s in such pain. But then I realized it’s not about leaving people behind on a planet we fucked up. As an artist-in-residence on the International Civilian Space Depot,” Ebony Divine explained, “I could use this position of privilege to make a bold statement to all people.”
This is the first such test of the space suit, which was developed in a public-private partnership that included the artist and the Nostradamus Corporation. In recent years, Powers has acquired a number of smaller firms that have made key developments in materials and data science. Their expertise runs the gamut from space travel and transportation to biodiversity, agriculture, and water access.
In keeping with Nostradamus Corporation’s emphasis on real-world applications, its teams will monitor and record Ebony Divine’s biological systems throughout the performance and will make use of this data in its research and development division.
“I’ve combined the resources from the various companies that Nostradamus Corporation has acquired in the past few years, and I’ve scooped up the best and brightest from the competition to make this happen,” Powers explained. “This is a first, and I know I can afford the best.”
With advancements in data collection and rapid prototyping, and a growing market for commercial space flight, there are multiple development opportunities Nostradamus can pursue with the information gleaned from #BacktoEarth.
“I know we’ll be sending more people out to space; we’ll be sending civilians out to space sooner than you think,” Powers said. “History will never forget that I made all this happen.”
For Powers, the suit is a vehicle for profit, but Ebony Divine’s life depends on it. For Ebony Divine, the public-private partnership is personal.
“I’ve tried on the suit to make sure the measurements are correct, but it hasn’t been possible to do any type of practice runs in it—just computer simulations. We’ve spent a lot of time testing the helmet to make sure I’ll be able to communicate during the dive. It’s been a bit unnerving. The suit has sensors that can monitor my heart rate, breathing, temperature, but the helmet—they can monitor my thoughts, all of them. They can detect my emotions, my fears. The corporation collects all this data, which I heard someone refer to as ‘a value-added resource.’
“I put myself out there in this very vulnerable position. I’m basically allowing them to license my body and mind, knowing they are profiting from my essence. They made me sign a contract releasing them from all liability in the event of my death. But they can’t own my spirit.
“I have been doing a lot of meditation here on the Space Depot, in preparation. Diving from space into a tiny pool in Nevada—” They paused. “Even with the confidence Roman has in the research and development made by Nostradamus, surviving this feat is possible only through the focus and stillness of mind achieved through meditation.
“I mean, all that time, nineteen-plus hours,” Ebony Divine reflected, “I will be alone with my thoughts, hoping but not knowing if I’ll actually splash down in the target. You’re going to need meditation to make that shit happen.”
Photograph. An explosion of fire and noise appears painful to watch as the International Civilian Space Depot launches into the air in enormous clouds of smoke, its lurid fire reflecting on the dark lake like moonlight. An enigmatic mélange of tranquility and risk. Just wait.
After launching from the Space Depot, Ebony Divine will endure a nineteen-hour dive, using the suit’s thrusters in a series of de-orbiting burns.
“I don’t imagine I will change the minds of people who are set on living in their own worlds. We are all moving on some trajectory. Most of us feel we have no control, that life on the Earth-planet seems to be heading toward a dangerous place. We feel that individual actions cannot correct the course.
“The suit has propulsion in it to set me on my trajectory from the Space Depot.
“One: this corporation is making the calculations; and two: the calculations are being made with such precision that I can land in this pool in a desert.
“The lack of a margin of error is key—’cause you can’t fuck up.
“It is worth doing, despite all the risk, because of the few people it will touch.
“I’m doing it for the people.
“There’s no room for error.”
[On the left, a tall, thin infographic titled “High Dive: A Timeline of Ebony Divine’s Uunprecedented Dive.” At the top of the sidebar is a crude graphic of the International Civilian Space Depot. At the bottom a half circle that represents Earth. Connecting them is one thin, squiggly line, punctuated by three dots tracking Ebony’s trip. The first reads “Hour 1: 1,000,000 feet above Earth.” Then “Hour 9: 500,000 feet above Earth.” The last, right before Earth, says, “Hour 16: 327,360 feet above Earth.” Earth itself is labeled “Hour 19: Splashdown.”]
[A shorter article to the right of the High Dive infographic is titled “Ready to Make a Splash.” The byline is by Martin Marx.]
Photograph. The Olympic-sized swimming pool of Greenwood Country Club in Santee Hills, Nevada, with its crystal-blue saltwater, awaits Ebony Divine’s fall from the sky. We anticipate the splash on impact and wonder whether the splash will represent birth, life, or death.
SANTEE HILLS, NV—What goes up must come down, and many tourists from around the world are hoping Ebony Divine makes a big splash next weekend. “My grandfather was a professional belly flopper back in the ’30s—high dives and shallow dives in a traveling circus. I don’t think he could’ve imagined anything like this,” said Banky Waterville, proprietor of Waterville Pools and Electronics. Waterville was contracted by Duncan Biltmore, owner and general manager of the Greenwood Country Club in Santee Hills, Nevada, to renovate the club pool in anticipation of Ebony Divine’s performance. The pool, built in 1932, was originally designed as part of a private indoor swimming house. “It provided a safe, family-friendly alternative to the municipal pools downtown that were open to all sorts.” Biltmore paused. “It was a privilege to be able to swim in our pool. We’ve always been proud to provide an exclusive haven for our guests.”
The pool house was torn down in 1965 because of structural damage that had occurred from seismic activity. Waterville resurfaced the Olympic-sized pool, complete with new blue and green tiles. It will be filled with saltwater twenty-four hours before Ebony Divine departs the International Civilian Space Depot. “I’m hoping they make it down safely,” Waterville said. “It’ll be great for business.” Waterville Pools and Electronics, which has been in Waterville’s family for three generations, has filed for bankruptcy twice in the past six years.
Access to the big splashdown will be restricted to employees of Nostradamus Corporation and invited members of the press. Watch the livestream, offering multiple camera angles, as Ebony Divine makes their descent back to Earth.
[Below is an even shorter article, titled “Look Up in the Sky! Who Cares?” by Cress Stone.]
This is no trick photography, folks. Santee Hills, NV, sprawls with views of the lush and luxuriant hills and mountains. It appears to be a small and close community.
SANTEE HILLS, NV—Not everyone is excited by the thought of tourists and media crews descending upon Santee Hills, Nevada. The town was founded by six families in 1921 and was incorporated in 1964. It remains a tight-knit community of self-sufficient families, as well as a vacation hideaway for prominent people seeking a break from the spotlight. “Frankly, I hope the whole thing is such a disaster that no one comes around here for a long time,” said a local resident, who asked to remain anonymous. Another resident, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, added, “It feels like we’re being invaded. All these people coming to town and leaving their trash and disrupting our way of life. No, thanks.” Resident Sierra Biltmore had a different perspective: “I know some of my neighbors tried to keep the splashdown from happening, but I’m excited. No matter what, people are going to be talking about this for years.”
[To the right of the article “Look Up in the Sky! Who Cares?” is another infographic side-bar, this one entitled “A $2,000,000 Space Suit: Ebony Divine’s space suit, designed by the world-class teams at Nostradamus Corp.” It depicts a form-fitting, fairly typical-looking space suit. Beside the suit are three statements: “Helmet can monitor user’s thoughts.” “Suit has sensors that can monitor heart rate, breathing, and temperature.” “Shielding systems can withstand extreme temperatures of 3,500+ degrees Fahrenheit.”]
[Boxes along the side report weather and tide forecasts for major cities around the world.]
[Below is an advertisement. It says, “Why not sponsor an artist… in Space?: Uplift Industries is now taking reservations for rides on its fleet of reusable launch vehicles for basic suborbital flights and premium orbital flights. The catch? Included in the price of your flight is a second ticket, which will be donated to an artist of your choice. In a partnership with Athena Luxury, owners of the first residential condominiums in space, Uplift Industries is racing to transport fifty-two artists to Athena’s space community. The artists will receive permanent accommodations there and guaranteed income, provided they remain healthy and able to entertain residents and space tourists. Send someone to space today!]
Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.
[Aside from the anechoic stream of two reporters (one female and one male), there persists the occasional interruptions of tiny, background voices belonging to, evidently, the communications teams (coms) located at both the International Civilian Space Depot and Ground Control, via fuzzy, low-volume devices or intercoms. The two reporters are practically puckish in tone, whereas coms never dithers or swithers off cue or key.]
[Male newscaster] For those of you just joining our livestream, we’d love to hear from you. You can put your questions in the chat, and be sure to tag us on social media using #BacktoEarth. [The distant sound of a low wind begins here in the background.]
[Female newscaster] We’re counting down to what will undoubtedly be known as the greatest event in our lifetime. Performance artist Ebody Divine will attempt what many believe is an impossible feat. They will begin a precision dive from the International Civilian Space Depot back to Earth, splashing down in an Olympic-sized pool at the Greenwood Country Club located in Santee Hills, Nevada. They will be wearing a special travel suit designed by CEO Roman Powers and his team at the Nostradamus Corporation.
[Male] On the right side of your screens, check out Ebony Divine. They have donned the suit, which you can see is connected to a set of umbilicals tethering them to the edge of the International Civilian Space Depot, and they are completing the final set of health checks that will stand by until we get the go—[Coms: “Background stabilization is complete”]—for the launch sequence to begin. [Coms: “Leave checks complete. Copy.”]
[Female] We may be interrupted occasionally by com-checks between Ground Control and the Space Depot. [A steady, gentle blowing sound.]
[Male] We are just about two minutes before Ebony Divine gets up, out, and away. This feat will showcase the latest marvel in technology from CEO Roman Powers. Powers has been responsible for countless advances in commercial space travel in the past decade and has established the first civilian residence in space.
[Female] The travel suit was made specially for Ebony Divine and is outfitted with a series of biometric sensors.
[Male] It demonstrates the latest in neurotechnology.
[Coms: “All checks complete. Standing by. Copy.”]
[Female] The travel suit’s proprietary neurotech sensors are integrated into a special fire-resistant fabric.
[Male] It’s snug and really accentuates all the curves of the body. I’d really like to see my wife in a suit like this.
[Female] [laughs] The outside of the travel suit is coated with a thin shell that allows it to withstand temperatures just over 3500 degrees. The cooling garment is designed to control Ebony Divine’s body temperature during each stage of their dive back to Earth. The form-fitted helmet is equipped with a unit that uses the jawbone and skull to send and receive messages to and from the com team on the ground [we hear incoherent coms]. Should Ebony Divine lose consciousness, we will still be able to translate their brain activity into sound and images as we monitor the wealth of data as they plunge back to our home planet.
[Male] All this data will give us a vivid sense of what Ebony Divine is experiencing throughout this historic moment. Again, none of this would be possible without the creative and financial support of Roman Powers and the crew, brought together by the Nostradamus Corporation. [Laugh] Well, besides from all that science talk, this is just fun! As you can see, there are over a hundred and sixty thousand viewers with us on this livestream.
[Female speaks] Not counting the six simulcasts being streamed on our partner channels! The text in the chat is just flying by. Don’t forget, you can be a part of this historic moment by using #BacktoEarth on all your [incoherent coms] favorite social media.
[Male] You can see ground control busy at work on your screen. The launch sequence is about a minute away. We’ll monitor coms until Ebony Divine is on a safe drift-free trajectory.
[Female] Although we anticipate two brief disruptions, we will be able to communicate with Ebony Divine as they begin their journey home.
[Coms: “Prepare for claw separation.”]
[Male] You know there have been no physical rehearsals for this trick. The preparation for this trick had been primarily through artists’ sketches and computer simulations.
[Female] I listened to the press conference last night, and Ebony Divine was quick to correct: it’s not a trick, it’s a feat.
[A bilabial clicking sound begins.]
[Male] Indeed, and surely the greatest feat we will have witnessed in quite some time. So far, everything has been moving smoothly each step of the way. On your screen, there’s a view of Ebony—[Coms: “Ready for departure.”] We just got the go! That will do it for us here on the ground. We’ll see you on the other side.
[Female] Godspeed, Ebony Divine. Godspeed.
[Transition into harrowing silence.]
[A heavy roiling hum of background noise begins and remains consistent, interrupted by a few bilabial clicks and then slow-building ambient music. It sounds ominous yet relaxing, music one might hear while getting a massage on another planet.]
[A moment later we hear the following text read by computerized voices interrupting each other:]
I am just watching to see this fail.
Whose idea was this?
Come back to where you belong.
We need more public private partnerships like this.
This is a suicide mission. I hope you die.
We will be praying for you.
This is like a sci-fi snuff film.
I’m so excited.
Cock, cock, cock, cock.
Oh god, these trolls are so annoying.
What are they wearing?
This is an expensive freak show. What about the people on Earth?
Roman Powers should be launched from space.
[A few quick, random keys from a synthesizer, as if a cat is running across the keys, followed by deep, anticipatory notes echoing out at slow, even intervals.]
[Unidentified Voice (UV)] A rat done bit my sister…
[UV] Black. [The word echoes, followed by a short silence.]
A short pause.
[Computerized voice] They are so ugly.
[Panic and yelling of distant voices. The voices are echoed and hollow, as if in a cave, so we can’t hear what they are saying, only their voices jumbled together. A new voice—could it be Ebony Divine’s thoughts?—reads the following names with an unsettling, clinical composure:]
Quanice Derrick Hayes, age seventeen.
Curtis Jamal Deal, age eighteen.
[UV, singing] Black.
Darius Smith, age fifteen.
Tamir E. Rice, age twelve.
Tafahree Maynard, age eighteen.
Kenney Watkins, age eighteen.
[Names and ages continue, building and layering over each other to the point of unintelligibility, with only snippets here and there coming through, so that the thickness feels impermeable, endless.]
[Unidentified yelling in the background.]
[The quilt of names begins again, quicker this time.]
[Coms] The orbit sequence start—
[UV, singing] Black.
[UV] A rat done bit my sister.
[UV in screeching tone] A rat bit my sister.
[Much of the sound falls away, and then a heavy, melodic beat replaces it.]
[A voice—Ebony Divine’s thoughts again?—sings] I am falling, I am falling, I am falling, I am falling, I am falling, I am falling, I am falling.
[Her voice falls away, along with the hum and music.]
[Coms] You are coming in choppy. Switch to channel 12.
[For a moment nothing but silence and a series of sudden high-pitched alarms, similar to a fire alarm but slower.]
[Female newscaster] Uh, we’ve lost communication, but that was anticipated and temporary.
[Male newscaster] We’ll pick up again just before splashdown. We’ve been with you on this livestream going on nineteen consecutive hours.
[Female] And as if the anticipation weren’t exciting enough, we have a very special announcement. Those of you who participated in our chat or posted to social media using #BacktoEarth during this livestream have been automatically entered into a surprise contest sponsored by the Nostradamus Corporation. No further action is needed.
[Male] Sorry, the contest is officially closed to new entries.
[Rhythmic, sexy drumbeat begins.]
[Male] Just after splashdown, Roman Powers will announce the names of a hundred and eight lucky winners who will receive a one-way ticket to the first residential high tower on the International Civilian Space Depot. If your name has been selected, you will have forty-eight hours to prepare for the adventure of a lifetime, an adventure that will benefit life on Earth. And if you’re feeling lucky, start packing, and saying goodbye to your loved ones. Stay tuned.
[Female] That’s right. Stay tuned. You must stay tuned.
[Drums continue. Light keys played. Very rhythmic and sexy and harrowing.]
[Fade into silence…]
Yvette Janine Jackson is a composer and sound installation artist focused on bringing attention to historical events and social issues through her radio operas.
Brandon Hobson earned a PhD from Oklahoma State University. He is the author of the novels The Removed (2021) and Where the Dead Sit Talking (2018), which was a finalist for the National Book Award; as well as other books. His fiction has won a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, NOON, and many other publications. He teaches creative writing at New Mexico State University and at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Hobson is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation Tribe of Oklahoma.