Chapter 4: Keepsakes
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You are sitting in a crowded transport helicopter, flipping through your junior year diary. On the cover are peeling stickers of Saturn, Jupiter, and glow-in-the-dark stars. Your tiny, boyish handwriting fills each page top to bottom, with arrows pointing to notes in the crowded margins. Your pen could never keep up with your thoughts. You needed space to amend and revise.
Outside, an old man weeps. He is on his hands and knees, sucking in big gulps of air. You shift in your seat for a better view. His keepsakes are scattered on the landing pad: three books, a framed photograph, and a mandolin case. You fixate on the mandolin, wondering what he’ll do when he eventually breaks a string, when there are no strings left.
Two soldiers lift the man to his feet, gather his belongings, and escort him to the transport. He steps inside and walks down the aisle, avoiding eye contact with the other passengers. Most are too caught up in their own grief to notice him.
He takes the last open seat, about thirty feet to your left on the opposite row, between a sleeping tween and a Carmelite nun. He stows his mandolin and books under the bench but keeps the picture in his lap.
You keep a list in your head of what people brought: photo albums, stuffed animals, and holy books. A child’s drawing, a dog’s cremains. What fascinates you isn’t what people treasure: it’s what they leave behind. To hold on to something so tightly, you need to let go of something else.
The soldiers run their final safety checks as the pilot starts the rotors. Wind rushes through the cabin. You adjust your hijab and bury your hands in your hoodie pockets. Someone slides the door shut, and everything goes dark.
Your phone is dead. Your only light is gone.
You are standing in a gallery on the third floor of an abandoned museum. The last thing you saw before your mind wandered was a home decor sign on the western wall that read, What happens in the man cave stays in the man cave. The lobby is twenty paces to the south. To the north, around the bend to the east, is an empty gallery once filled with Dungeons and Dragons ephemera.
You rummage through your tote bag for what you’ve collected. You have:
a roll of paper towels
a long-reach butane lighter
a scorched chair leg
4 one dollar bills
a girl’s First Communion portrait
and a wedge of broken glass
The butane lighter is largely useless in open spaces, and no combination of items would make another viable torch.
Maybe you can get to the first floor, find a window, and wait until morning.
You know your position well enough to make it to the stairs. Moving south, you shuffle across the thin, institutional carpet and stop when your foot touches marble. Then you amble northwest through the lobby, arms out like a 1930s movie monster, until you collide with the stairwell door.
You enter the stairwell and head down. The handrail is cold in your firm grip. Even without your sight, the descent is easy. You exit into what feels like an open, cavernous space. Every sound you make echoes through the room.
To the south is a faint glow.
You walk toward the light. It takes almost a full minute to arrive at the source.
In the center of a wide hallway is a stone dais. Mounted on top is a vintage 8mm projector. It’s not connected to any power source you can see, but the lamp is somehow on. Hot light refracts into a white square on the western wall. The spindles are empty, and there are no film reels nearby.
Next to the dais, on the floor, is an inlaid circle of glass, roughly the size of a manhole cover.
You step onto the glass, and it glows with soft, purple light. On the western wall, impossibly, you see moving images from the empty projector: the scratched, speckled flicker of blank film leader, followed by a countdown from ten. Then the movie begins.
You are in a dark basement packed with sweaty twentysomethings and piles of loose drum hardware. Above you, nailed to the ceiling joists, is a string of dying Christmas lights. You worry about screwing up in the dark. It’s hard enough to play standing up. You wear your bass low, almost past your waist, because no one makes instruments for fat people, let alone people with breasts. It’s murder on your wrists, but sometimes it feels good to lean down and kneel back to reach past the twelfth fret, just like Peter Hook or Simon Gallup. If all the post-punk bassists can do it, so can you.
The room is silent save for the hum from Dev’s guitar amp. He stands in front of the microphone, Telecaster at the ready. Cassie, sitting behind the drumset, sees you staring off into space and calls your name.
You snap to attention. She grins and launches into the beat. You close your eyes and sway your hips.
After the rebels retreated, after the final date was set, people gave up. They traded ambition for bucket lists, accomplishment for decadence. Which is, you know, fine, but also profoundly boring. Like, how many more stories about group sex and acid trips will you have to suffer through before the helicopters come and take you away?
This is where you come in.
You just wanted to be in a band again. College came, and you traded your bass for astronomy. You chose the worst major. It took so much effort just to be a mediocre student. You forgot the songs you wrote in high school. You forgot your girlfriend back home. And when society collapsed, you forgot why you cared about space to begin with.
Dev still scours Facebook Marketplace for guitar pedals. Cassie studies for the GREs. You practice music every day, scribbling lyrics and chord progressions in a sticker-covered notebook, just like you did in high school.
Departure comes in two months. You’re beholden to no one. So you’ll keep playing.
The song wraps up, and the kids in the crowd uncross their arms to clap. You sweat under your abaya. It feels so good to be aware of your body, of the bodies around you. It feels good to know there’s life yet to live. And maybe you tear up a little under those flashing Christmas lights. You only have three shows booked before the end. You only have so much time to make more memories.
As the applause dies down, the scene fades to black. The imaginary film runs out, leaving once more a square of light on the blank wall.
You are alone in a dark atrium, standing on a circle of glowing glass near a movie projector you don’t understand. To the south, you make out a latticed metal gate blocking the vestibule. There’s no getting out.
To the southwest is a guard desk.
You walk behind the guard desk and rummage through the drawers. You find a few pencils, a first aid kit, books of word search puzzles, and brochures for an exhibition titled “Tapered, Tailored, Stonewash, Dyed: Denim Culture in the Cold War.” On the counter is an office phone.
You take two pencils, a word search book, and the first aid kit. Then you walk back to the projector and sit under the light on the western wall. With nothing else to do, you open the word search book and start working on a puzzle. This one is animal-themed. You circle hippo, lion, zebra, tiger, bear. You pause for a moment before you find gazelle,on the diagonal. And just as you close the circle, the lights come on. Not track lights or fluorescent bulbs, but a gentle, purple radiance. It’s as if the walls themselves have a kind of bioluminescence. You wouldn’t call it bright, exactly, but it’s enough for you to find your way around safely.
While you think about what to do next, the guard desk phone rings. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times. Fi--
You answer the phone.
“Hello?” you say.
A voice on the other line responds:
“Sasha? Sasha, is that you?”
Thank you for listening to Planet Radiant. Words and music by me, Sasha V., logo by Jess Hamman. Beta tested by Jess Hamman and Christina Larocco.
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