Beyond the barricade, there is an HR office you'd like to see. Street medics find their audience, automatic drawing stirs old memories, and a cat's fate is unknown. You were a teacher once. An elevator shaft appears.
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Welcome to Planet Radiant. Type “s” to soldier on.
You remember fragments of a lost year. You remember sun-bright lights filling the sky day and night. You remember crowds of people with dark glasses and pinhole viewers trying to make sense of it all. You remember when, weeks later, the sky went dark. Theories abounded. The lights were satellites. They were surveillance cameras. They were signs from God. The lights were weapons, spacecraft, alien technology. They were nothing more than a mass delusion.
Without a definitive answer, conspiracies took hold and discord spread. It’s hard to stay calm when no one knows the stakes.
You remember how quickly the world changed amidst the bickering, how fast the occupation took hold. In a few short weeks, cities fell, governments collapsed, and there was so much blood.
Like right now.
You are in an anteroom next to a broken vending machine. Moments ago, you smashed the glass face with a moon rock and filled your bag with snacks. The gash in your right hand went unnoticed. You ate half a bag of chips before the bleeding got too heavy to ignore. Now you staunch the wound with wad after wad of paper towels.
Behind you to the southwest is the museum cafe. Ahead to the east is a row of classrooms.
You drag yourself across the carpet, toward the classrooms and into the hallway. Lying on your back, you hold your injured hand to your chest.
The wound doesn’t hurt, but the sight of blood makes you nauseous. You close your eyes and remember more: despair, hunger, and gunfire. You remember ducking behind a barricade of abandoned cars, waiting for the volleys to stop. Leaning against the hood of a 2003 Toyota Camry, you thumbed the cracked screen of your cell phone, texted Janelle, and prayed the message would go through.
Scavenging a bust, it read. Be home late.
You feel better once the bleeding stops.
You stand up and examine your surroundings. There was fighting here. You see scuffs and dents along the walls, a brownish smear of dried blood arcing toward the floor.
But the classrooms look untouched, the glass doors and windows intact, the furniture unmolested.
You step inside the middle classroom, and it feels instantly familiar. You recognize the pop art posters, the table filled with clay sculptures drying for the kiln. The kids were so proud of their work. They couldn’t wait to take their pieces home.
This is your classroom.
Or it was, every Saturday morning from 10 to 11:30 with a mostly consistent group of white six-year-old white kids. You didn’t have a studio art degree or teaching experience, but you scraped together a decent enough portfolio to score a volunteer position.
After a few weeks, you realized you were better at talking about art than teaching it. But your students fed off your enthusiasm. You turned on the projector and showed them drawings by Inez Nathaniel-Walker and Sister Gertrude Morgan. You talked about how most Black artists don’t get the credit they deserve.
It was unclear if the message sunk in. But at least your students were inspired to create. You handed out piles of construction paper, old newspapers, flyers and office memos. It was another lesson: use what you have.
Everyone took the construction paper.
Back in the present, you survey the room. To the south are two low tables surrounded by child-size chairs. The teacher’s desk is to the north.
You sit at the children’s table, take a piece of white printer paper from a loose stack, some crayons from a basket, and start to draw. Your hand moves automatically. Without thinking, you sketch something that looks like a makeshift courtroom, with three figures seated behind a folding table. Before them is you, the cartoon version you’ve drawn dozens of times for your webcomic. Only here, you’re handcuffed, your long hair tied back in a bun, black clothes tattered.
Next to you is a person with a medium build, a uniform, and short red hair.
Nikki. Your counsel.
You spend some time choosing different color crayons to flesh out your sketch. When you’re satisfied with the amount of detail, you take a black marker and write the word FORGIVENESS in all caps at the bottom of the page.
You don’t know what this means. You can’t recall your arrest or supposed crime. All you remember is this tableau.
You put the drawing in your bag, stand up, and leave the room.
You walk north to the end of the hallway. Directly in front of you is a stairwell entranceway blocked by a barricade of office furniture. There’s a tangle of rolling chairs and broken computer desks, filing cabinets, a photocopier, and several empty bookshelves.
To the west is an elevator with its door pried open. The metal shaft is pitch black above and below. But you can see the cables are taught and intact. The car must be stuck on another level.
A sign on the wall reads Human Resources, with an arrow pointing up.
You wonder if you can find your personnel file.
You take a few steps back and ready yourself for a running jump for the elevator cables. But your self-preservation instinct kicks in at the last second.
You stand up from your crouch. The only way up is through the barricade.
You walk to the stairwell and start wrenching out rolling chairs from the pile of office furniture. A few come out easy, but most need some sturdy tugs. Soon the hallway is littered with them. One falls down the elevator shaft, and you stop to listen to it crash below.
Before long, you clear a path wide enough to crawl through.
You slink through the web of furniture and climb the stairs. On your way up, you remember more about your trial. Nikki pleaded your case to the faceless tribunal. You weren’t a soldier, Nikki said. You weren’t a terrorist or would-be suicide bomber. You kept the wounded from dying, the dying from feeling more pain. You were a woman of compassion. Your only crime was being on the wrong side.
And from a pragmatic standpoint, Nikki continued, killing every last dissident wouldn’t end the war. Power needs a velvet glove. Mercy can turn the tide.
Now you’re at the top of the stairs. To the west is an open door to Human Resources. A hallway extends north. On the floor, leaning against the wall, is a framed poster for an exhibition titled Auto-mata: Individual Aesthetics and Mass Production. Below the text is a grainy, blown-up photo of a 1980s car show. A spokesmodel flanks a Pontiac Firebird on a circular platform. In the distance are the newest Chevrolets, artfully parked on the convention center floor.
The HR office is in shambles. All around you are smashed computers and torched filing cabinets. Ash covers the scorched carpet. The personnel files are no more. Names erased, identifying information destroyed.
But it was a wasted effort, since all information lives on the internet. That’s how they found you.
Guerilla warfare broke out in the streets, and you kept posting your stupid webcomics. You changed names, withheld details, kept it personal. But still. You wrote about children learning to fire guns and make molotov cocktails. You wrote about your first aid training, about the harrowing things you saw as a street medic. Keeping to a schedule for this one project helped retain a sense of normalcy.
You posted your comics every week without Janelle’s usual edits. She had fled to safety outside the city. It was best you didn’t know more.
Your comic about euthanizing a wounded civilian went viral. At the world’s end, sharing your most desperate moment, you finally found your audience.
You were arrested the next day. They kept you in a dark room for weeks. You spent your time nursing your bruises before Nikki found you and offered help. You didn’t care they were a traitor. You just wanted to see the sun again.
You take out your drawing of the trial. The thick layers of crayon shine in the wall’s ambient light. You remember the bailiff removing your handcuffs after the verdict came. You stretched your arms and breathed a sigh of relief. But Nikki looked so defeated.
“Didn’t we win?” you asked them.“That’s what forgiveness means, right?”
They replied: “It means you won’t die. But it doesn’t mean you’re free.”
Two guards came and put you in an ankle monitor. Nikki walked you outside. The sky was overcast, but the light still stung your eyes.
“Go home, Sasha,” Nikki said. “They’ll call you when it’s time.”
Walking back to your house through the quiet city, you wondered if your cat was still alive.
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. Our website is planetradiant.love. That’s Planet Radiant dot L-O-V-E. You can learn more about all of our other projects at sashav.love.
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That’s all for now. Be good.