You think of something. Three memories converge. Confession is a game. A child doesn't believe in sin. An adult isn't too sure. There's space to be a complex disaster. Technology is complicated. A bucket list spills over into an ocean of desire. Poor shy Sasha.
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Welcome to Planet Radiant. Type “R” to remember.
You are lying on a paper-lined exam table. Fluorescent lights flicker above. The room has no windows or door, just three yellow walls and a long, white privacy curtain. Years ago, someone tried to liven up the space with a painting of sailboats docked in a sunny marina. But the vibrant hues have faded, and dust covers the wooden frame.
A technician in a white lab coat affixes a second electrode to your left temple. While he works, he talks at length about the planned data center, the early prototypes, the temporary server farm in the basement. But he’s vague about how all this tech syncs up with your consciousness. It’s complicated, he says, but I think you’ll be impressed by how many people we’ve mapped.
He watches your brainwaves on a computer screen. You rub the newly shorn side of your head, careful to avoid the bandaged incision behind your right ear. You haven’t had an undercut since seventh grade. It wasn’t your choice; the surgeons needed your head shaved for the implant. Before the procedure, a nurse came to you with clippers. Don’t make me look like a man, you told him. He winked and fashioned you into a punk girl from the ‘90s. For that, you were grateful.
The technician types on his keyboard. A chime sounds. You hear two mouse clicks.
We’re ready, he says. Now think of something.
You think of something. You think of a bitter winter morning in a dark church, one of twenty-eight first graders seated boy-girl-boy-girl in the hard pews. It’s the day of your first Reconciliation. When your turn comes, you enter the confessional but quickly leave without saying a word to Father Lenoir. You decide at that moment that you’re not capable of sin. Few children are. You’re not going to play this game anymore.
You walk down the center of the nave while the next student in line enters the confessional. A life-size crucifix hangs ten feet above the altar. A near-dead Jesus casts his eyes toward the floor, an expression of bewilderment and despair.
You slide back into your pew, get on your knees, and fold your hands in mock prayer. Lana Kozolowski kneels next to you. Her eyes are shut tight as she mouths her third Hail Mary. You admire the shape of her face, her smooth brow, the fullness around her eyes–things you admire in every girl you see. You feel yearning, persistent and unbearable. You feel envy.
A sin, you’ve been told.
Now, reflexively, you feel guilt.
The technician’s voice cuts through your memory.
Okay, this feels like a good place to jump.
He types in a command. You see a quick, blinding flash. When your vision returns, everything is different but kind of the same. You’re back in the church, a first grader sandwiched between other first graders. But this isn’t Sasha’s body. Blonde bangs brush against your eyelids. You hold your back straight as you kneel, elbows propped up on the pew in front of you. You finish your final Act of Contrition and sigh with relief, knowing God has erased your sins. Gone are your white lies and lies of omission, your delayed obedience when your parents told you to clean your room or turn off the TV. You’re pure once more.
When you open your eyes, you see Sasha in your periphery. You shift, and his gaze meet syours. He quickly turns away. It would be creepy if he didn’t look so sad. Poor shy Sasha, always stumbling over his words when Mrs. Montserrat calls on him in class. You want to ask how he’s feeling, see if he’s okay. But since you’re not allowed to talk in church, you bow your head and pray instead.
Dear Jesus, let Sasha be happy.
There’s that flash again. The technician pulls you out of Lana Kozolowski’s memory.
You doing okay? he asks, handing you a tissue. You didn’t realize you were crying
You feel drained and ill. They warned you this might happen. But you put on a brave face and say you’re okay.
Okay, the technician says. We’ll do one more.
He types the command, and the lab disappears.
You are standing in a cluttered bedroom, light from the not-yet-risen sun trickling through the bay windows. It’s easy to dress in the dark when you lay your clothes out the night before. A blouse, a skirt, flesh-tone tights. You appear in silhouette in the closet door mirrors. As the sun grows brighter, your features gradually appear. In the past few months, you’ve noticed faint crow’s feet and smile lines, bags under your eyes that linger through the day. Aging doesn’t bother you. It feels good settling into your late-twenties, letting go of the person you were, finding new ways forward. But change is always hard, and you’re still getting used to living alone.
You put on your makeup over the bathroom sink. Your alarm goes off again. You forgot to turn off the snooze.
Drew suggested he have an affair so there are grounds for annulment. That made you laugh. He said it so earnestly, as if it would be an act of self-sacrifice rather than wish fulfillment. But it’s okay, now that some time has passed. You know what he wants. His bucket list spills over into an ocean of desire. You’ve skimmed through his magazines, fast-forwarded through his vaguely labeled VHS tapes. It wasn’t the porn qua porn that got to you, exactly. It was the amount. The scope and variety. The way Drew sorted it into categories, stored it in locked filing cabinets in the basement. The sheer cost over the years. The furtive meticulousness of it all.
He could have just talked to you. You could have figured it out together.
Now he’s in a studio apartment across town, and you’re in the house with his abandoned collection. And in your loneliness, you find yourself dipping into his filing cabinets a little each day, combing the magazines for photos of two women touching, looking for videos with lesbian scenes. You tell yourself it’s just idle curiosity, but it feels more like longing.
After a quick cup of coffee and no breakfast, you drive to school, blasting the heat in your white Ford Taurus to stave off the January cold. You take attendance, usher your first-graders from the main building to the church, get them seated, and direct them one by one to Father Lenoir’s confessional. After every child is cleansed of sin, it’s your turn. You open the slatted wooden door, sit behind the wicker screen, and recite the lines you practiced with your students:
Bless me Father, for I have sinned.
But you have your doubts. It’s complicated when you’re an adult. Like, is desire a sin if you haven’t acted on it? If you plan on acting on it? Does porn count as infidelity? Does your nightly sapphic research make you impure?
You recognize yourself in this line of questioning. Not you, Mrs. Montserrat, twenty-seven years old in 1988, perched on a leatherette stool, wishing sin were as clear-cut as goodness–but you, Sasha, late-thirties, suffering through the catastrophic second decade of the 21st century, supine in a laboratory while other people’s memories pump into your brain. So much has changed in the interceding thirty years, since your own interrogation of original sin and Catholic morality. Progress and regression, collapse and occupation and a steep slide into fascism. But there’s still space, however small, to be the complex disaster you are, to live how you want, to plant at least one cautious foot outside the closet.
Mrs. Montserrat sighs and says, Actually, I don’t know if I did anything wrong.
Father Lenoir asks, Can you explain, my child?
The technician wakes you before the answer comes. Which is a relief. You’re exhausted, like you’ve gone two nights without sleep. Sweat beads on your forehead. A migraine forms behind your eyes.
That’s probably a good stopping point for today, he says, then removes the sensors from your temples.
You sit up, and the technician gives you permission to go. You take the elevator down to the first floor and step outside. The sun has begun its slow descent between the mostly abandoned skyscrapers. With Departure complete, the city is desolate. Only the settlers and a handful of Forgiven remain. Everyone else—everyone who once called this city home—is gone. Empty buildings stand ready to be filled with outsiders–outsiders who pay lip service to the importance of history, who will build monuments to the conquered, preserving their past while eradicating their future. And in these monuments will be you and others like you: storytellers, living archives, historical reenactors, each with access to the memories of thousands. Stewards of the past.
It’s almost time. You collapse in your empty apartment and wait to be summoned.
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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This is the penultimate episode of season one of Planet Radiant. Season 2, featuring a different world and new characters, is in the works. Hope to see you then.