First Day of School
“Count backwards from 100,” said Ms. Obermeyer to her new client, a surly 16-year-old girl named Anna Ivlis. The Exploration Guild and the Parapsychology Institute had retained the noted child psychologist, Dr. Melinda Obermeyer, to treat the youngest survivor of the tragic Ivlis expedition. Obermeyer occasionally took private clients as a clinician, but these days she was primarily a professor at the San Juan Island campus of the Academy of Parapsychology. She had earned the right to be called “doctor,” “professor,” or “leading authority” many times over, but she didn’t like to stand on ceremony. She preferred the simple diminutive, “Mindy.”
Mindy, Anna, and a third person formed a triangle as they sat around a small circular table in the corner of Obermeyer’s office. Anna fidgeted in her chair like a nervous cat while the third person⎯a handsome young man only three or four years older than her, with swarthy features, jet-black hair, and eyes as dark as midnight⎯sat as quietly as the Great Sphinx of Giza. A thin, gold necklace chain, which belonged to Anna, was wrapped tightly around his right fist.
Mindy pulled a digital pad from her pocket and tapped it once, which caused the office lights to dim and the window panes to darken until the room became a cavern veiled in shadows. A small candle centered on the table and cradled in a glass hurricane, painted jack-o’-lantern colored-shadow puppets on the walls.
Mindy laid the digital pad on the table and then took the young man’s left hand in her right, and Anna’s right hand in her left. “You can start anytime,” Mindy prompted again. “Backwards from 100.”
Anna rolled her eyes at Obermeyer’s command and didn’t much care if the child psychologist noticed her disrespect. Nor was she concerned if the young man disapproved of her behavior. Anna knew the fellow; she had just recently met him at student orientation. He was an upper level student himself⎯one of her dorm proctors, in fact⎯named Juan Carlos Daimler. But he wasn’t a therapist and so Anna wasn’t sure why he was present.
Anna had been seen by several therapists since her father had miraculously managed to single-handedly get the doomed Ivlis expedition back to Earth. The therapists all said Anna must be suffering from survivor’s guilt, a form of post traumatic stress disorder, and that she should grieve, or at least cry. But she felt none of the things the therapists said she should. Anna just wanted to be left alone so she could go back to her dormitory room, lock the door, and brood. But for now she was stuck in this office with Obermeyer and could see only one way out of her predicament:
“One hundred,” Anna began reciting slowly, “…99…98…97….”
Anna got into trouble on her very first day of school at the Academy. She didn’t mean to cause a stir. She would have been happy to never come out of her dormitory room except to attend classes (where she would not speak), and eat meals in the cafeteria (where she would eat alone). But First Year students, such as Anna, were required to attend the evening Convocation ceremony in the main lecture hall of the Upper Campus.
Anna didn’t mean to get into trouble. Nor did she mean to buckle under the weight of the nameless guilt that tormented her day and night. Or for that guilt to make it sound like a good idea when Roxie Montero said, “Let’s break into the infirmary and steal you some drugs.” Nor did she mean to get caught red-handed by a beer-bellied security guard with a dust mop mustache and a gift for mind-reading, who subsequently deposited Anna and Roxie in Ms. Obermeyer’s office to await punishment.
Anna didn’t want to get into trouble. She just wanted to…remember.
“Eighty-five…84…83…82…,” Anna droned. Mindy held Anna’s gaze in a steady stare, but Juan Carlos’ eyes were closed as if he had dozed off.
Earlier in the afternoon on the first day of school, the dorm proctors deposited their allotment of new students into the granite-paved quadrangle in front of the main lecture hall. The students had already attended two pre-semester introductory parties but now it was time for them to socialize on their own. The proctors told the students to mingle, introduce themselves, and make new friends.
The proctors said they had to meet amongst themselves for a while, but would be back in an hour to lead each of their groups into the lecture hall for Convocation. Then the student advisors retired to the mezzanine above the lobby of the lecture hall where they could watch the entire plaza through the lobby’s three-story tall glass walls. The proctors pretended to meet, but in reality they were observing the students to learn which ones were leaders, followers, or, like Anna, lone wolves.
The most eager young students turned to each other at once and began to rattle off their common or sometimes exotic names; to compare their home lands or Worlds and how far they had traveled to get to this campus of the fabled Academy; to rhapsodize about what they would do after they graduated; and finally, inevitably, to ooh and ahh about each other’s particular psychic Talent. In short order almost everyone joined in, but Anna would have none of it.
Anna’s classmates were too loud, too rowdy, and too chaotic for her tastes. She was a Spacer, born and bred, for whom discipline, order, and attention to detail were life-and-death orthodoxy. And for whom cubic light-years of solitude was a meditation, not a burden. And yet, Anna’s too loud, too rowdy, and too chaotic classmates seemed to have something she did not. Something she could neither explain, nor ignore.
The press of students, who oddly seemed more numerous than a moment before, began to crowd in on Anna until she felt smothered. To add to her discomfort, one of her headaches, which were becoming more frequent lately, started to throb between her temples.
Anna was as eager to mix with her fellow students as oil is eager to socialize with water. She pulled back from the milling crowd and stood alone like a bright droplet of sanity while the rest of the class formed a greasy pool of vapid small talk. It was only because of Anna’s eccentric vantage point that she noticed another girl on the other side of the crowd who was also keeping her distance from the horde. The girl exuded self-confidence and quiet disdain for everyone around her.
The girl’s style of dress was reminiscent of actors that Anna had seen in retro cinemas about rebels and iconoclasts who rode motorcycles and mumbled when they spoke. But in this case, the girl’s appearance was perfectly suited to her demeanor. The rebel girl’s hair was like a crown of rusty spikes. Her surplus military vest, jacket, tight pants, and boots were all jet-black. An animated mood tattoo around her neck scrolled like an advertising marquee through a series of angry graphics. But above all, the scowl on her face shouted defiance louder than words.
Anna had lived alone with her parents in deep space for years, and so it is not surprising that Anna thought the rebel girl was the most strange, subversive, and interesting person she had ever seen. But why, Anna wondered, did she feel such an inexplicable attraction⎯or was it kinship?⎯with the stranger?
Like two ships passing in the night, the rebel girl ignored the crowd and the crowd apparently didn’t dare to notice her. Taking no heed of the rabble, the girl turned, ambled over to the low, broad parapet wall surrounding the quadrangle, and reclined against an upright section as casually as a lioness settling on a rock.
Anna edged around the milling crowd until she found herself standing a few meters from the rebel, and pretended to scrutinize the view while she sneaked sidelong glances at the strange girl. “What’s she looking at that’s so interesting?” Anna thought to herself.
A nearly invisible windshield field, acting as an inconspicuous safety fence, shimmered another meter beyond the parapet wall. Anna peered over the edge of the wall and saw the Pacific Ocean surging 110 meters below. Uniform rows of whitecaps marched across the surface of the steel gray water like ranks of sailors on parade. An incredibly crisp ocean breeze nipped at her face, crashing surf drummed in her ears like dull thunder, and tangy salt air teased her tongue.
The Academy had campuses throughout the Worlds, including this one on San Juan Island, in the Northwest region of the North American realm, of Earth. The Lower Campus held stationary facilities like athletic playing fields, a power plant, and an airport for shuttles. The Upper Campus was like an ocean liner that floated in the sky: Classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories, plazas, faculty offices, and first-year student dormitories were built on the gigantic, flying saucer-shaped lower fuselage of a Universe City-class starship that had once transported colonists to alien worlds. Upper level students resided in personal yachts, which hovered around the fuselage like a flotilla of Chinese junks huddling around an ocean liner. Over the course of a year, the Upper Campus would sail around the world and visit many of the great cities, museums, landmarks, and peoples of Earth.
Anna propped her arms on the parapet wall, leaned over, and enjoyed the perfect symmetry of the campus’ circular silhouette as it overlaid the northern coast of the island like the shadow of a rain cloud.
“If you’re going to jump,” said the strange girl, “do it somewhere else. I don’t want to have to move to make way for the emergency responders.”
Anna was surprised that the girl had spoken to her. Anna thought she was acting casual and not drawing attention to herself, but there must have been something about her manner or expression that made even the strange girl wonder about Anna’s state of mind. Now that the girl had noticed her, Anna was unsure how to answer. She was certain that if her reply was too commonplace or fake or matter of fact, the strange girl would dismiss Anna as being as boring as everyone else around them, and that was something Anna suddenly dreaded.
“Well, I really want to get away from here,” Anna said conspiratorially, “but committing suicide is a lousy plan.” Anna cautiously glanced to her left and then her right to check that no one was spying on them, and then said, “On the other hand, if we create a diversion, we could steal a shuttle and fly away before anyone gets wise. What do you say?”
The strange girl cocked her head and stared back at someone who might be an even stranger girl. After a pause that felt like an eternity to Anna, the rebel girl rocked back and roared with laughter. The strange girl wiped tears from the corner of her eyes and said, “My name’s Roxie. Roxie Montero. What’s yours?”
Anna felt tension in her shoulders, which she hadn’t even realized was there, melt away. “My name’s Anna Ivlis. I don’t have an interesting nickname; is ‘Roxie’ short for ‘Roxanne’?”
“’Roxie’ is short for ‘Roxie’. Anyone who calls me ‘Roxanne’ isn’t worth talking to. So, after we steal this shuttle,” Roxie said, continuing the joke, “do you think you can actually fly it?”
Now it was Anna’s turn to play along. She gestured with a flourish toward herself and said, “Don’t let these groundling clothes fool you, they’re my Aunt Marie’s idea. I’m a Spacer, born and bred. I could steal any piece of junk down on the Lower Campus and fly circles around our pursuers.” Anna smiled covertly. “After we make our escape, we can streak over to SeaTac spaceport, stowaway aboard an outbound freighter to Luna and start our life of crime, adventure, and intrigue. Sound good, Roxie Montero?”
Roxie said, “You’re crazy, Anna Ivlis.” And then they laughed as if they had been friends for a lifetime.
Anna and Roxie talked and talked, but they didn’t shake hands or hug the way that females who become new best friends often do. Anna had already learned that the proper etiquette for Working Class Telepaths was for them not to touch one another unless invited. Psychics touching bare flesh to flesh often trigger wild, uncontrolled visions and phenomena. Touching simply was not done.
White clouds scudded across the blue sky until they reached the edge of the heavens and were stained crimson and gold by the sinking sun. Waves crashed one thousand times against sea mounts towering offshore. The carillon in the tower adjacent to the lecture hall rang out the half hour.
“What made you talk to me?” Anna said. “You didn’t talk to anyone else.”
“You were weird, which was interesting,” Roxie said. “You had a funny look on your face, like you were worried. And even though you were too far away for me to hear everything, you looked hurt anytime someone said something about their past. Why is that?”
Anna knew the answer, but she sat on the parapet wall, avoided looking at Roxie, and procrastinated until the silence between them became more painful than speaking. “Because I envy them,” Anna said. “I hate them, actually⎯I hate them all. They just take for granted what they have. They stand there prattling about the family they remember, and the homes they remember, and the life they remember, while I can’t…I can’t…remember anything.”
“Really?” Roxie said skeptically. “Why not? You go without oxygen in your spacesuit for too long or something?”
“I wish it was that simple,” Anna said as she halfheartedly threw up her hands. Then she captured Roxie in her gaze and chided, “⎯and they’re called ‘excursion suits’ or ‘mission suits’. Calling them ‘spacesuits’ is inaccurate and so old-fashioned—I don’t remember the past,” she continued, “because the therapists stole my memories.”
Roxie didn’t ask the obvious question. She just let Anna tell her story at her own pace.
Anna became distant and subdued, but after a while she shook herself and spoke again. “I can remember up to about one and a half, maybe two years ago, when my family and I were exploring a gas giant’s habitable moon. We nicknamed the moon ‘Savannah’ because it was as hot as the tropics due to tidal forces from the gas giant, and it was covered with grassland like the African veldt.
“I remember us being both happy and sad about the end of our expedition. Happy because soon we would return to Earth, and sad because shortly after our return I would have to leave home to attend this school. My parapsychology tests showed that I have a profound Talent as a medium and that I needed to go to the Academy to learn how to control my abilities. The experts say the headaches and hallucinations that I’ve started having are signs of my emerging Talent.”
Anna paused, looking into the distance for something Roxie couldn’t see. “Maybe it was for the best that I was leaving. Mama and I had started fighting…a lot. We never fought like that before. She said it was because I was still growing up but thought I was already a grown woman. I don’t know, I’m not sure. I just remember that we fought.”
Anna didn’t mind telling Roxie her secrets, and Roxie didn’t interrupt her. After all, you can tell a friend anything.
“I can remember us being together,” Anna said, “but then…then…I don’t remember anything until we got back to Earth.” Anna looked Roxie in the eye. “You didn’t flinch when I said my name was Anna Ivlis, but you must have heard about ‘The Tragic Ivlis Expedition’,” she said, overemphasizing each word for mockery’s sake. “It was in all the news feeds⎯everyone seems to have heard about it. People look at me with such pity when they think I don’t see them. I hate them too,” Anna said hotly.
“I’m told that the Exploration Guild rendezvoused with our starship near Earth and rescued us. But I don’t remember much before the Guild’s emergency medical technicians scooped me out of my hibernation sarcophagus like grave robbers stealing a corpse.
“I do remember, while the emergency technicians tended to me, seeing my father huddled on the deck next to my mother’s sarcophagus. He was gaunt, dirty, and muttering endlessly. His eyes were wild and red-rimmed as if he hadn’t slept for the nine months of the return trip instead of hibernating most of the time.
“I remember the technicians standing around my mother’s sarcophagus but not doing anything, not getting her out the way they had gotten me. I remember screaming at them to help her, and for Papa to do something, and something else as they carried me away, but I don’t remember what. Later on, in the hospital ship, they told me Mama was dead.
“After that, I only remember things in bits and pieces. I remember my father not being around and my Aunt Marie saying he was being treated at Johns Hopkins. I remember the child psychologists trying to treat me, but telling my aunt that treatment wasn’t working because I was psychic. I remember them saying that my only hope was memory mitigation therapy. And so that’s what they did.
“They erased my memory, to take away the trauma and pain, they said. But to do that they had to take away more⎯every unbearable moment, every precious moment⎯both good and bad. Most people’s memory of their past is continuous, but mine has huge chunks of hours, days, and months missing. It’s as if my memory was a chessboard and all the black squares are the memories that they stole from me.
“The therapists say the losses are for my own good. My trauma is gone because my memories are gone, and because my trauma is gone, the therapists could begin to heal me. And they were right in a way, they did erase what must be horrible events from my mind. But do you know what they couldn’t do?”
Roxie silently shook her head, No.
“Even though they could erase what happened, they couldn’t erase the guilt that I still feel about what happened. I hurt Roxie, I hurt every day, and I…don’t…know…why.
“That’s why I hate all those other people. I hate everyone who has that smug, satisfied look of self-awareness, of wholeness, on their face. I hate everyone who can remember what the last days and months with their family were like because⎯I can’t.”
Anna took a deep breath. She realized she was ranting and took a moment to calm down. When her breathing returned to normal she said, “I wish I was like you, Roxie. You act like you don’t care about the past or the future⎯you just live in the moment. I wish I could be like that, but I can’t. I want to remember what happened to my mother and me, no matter how painful it is. I want to remember.”
Roxie looked at Anna for a second, then switched her scowl from one side of her face to the other and said, “Why don’t you take your memories back? Why don’t you remember what they made you forget?”
Anna looked at Roxie as if she was insane. Anna said, “Didn’t you hear what I said? The memories are gone.”
Roxie struck an indignant pose and replied, “I heard you say your parapsychological tests indicate that you’re a medium, which means that you have a Talent for retrocognition.” Roxie waved her hands imploringly. “Do you have anything from the time you were on Savannah? A keepsake or tool? Something that you carried all the time?”
Wordlessly, Anna reached into the neck of her tunic and pulled out a gold chain necklace. “Mama gave me this as a birthday present when I was twelve years old. I cherish it. I keep it with me always.”
“Perfect,” Roxie said, peering at, but not touching the piece of jewelry. “Gold is a good storage medium for memories; unlike its opposites, silver or iron. If you were wearing this during the times you can’t remember, and you’re a medium, then all you have to do is touch that necklace and use your Talent to see everything in the past that happened near the necklace.”
Anna’s expression telegraphed her skepticism. “You mean envision everything ⎯don’t look at me that way. I get it. The jargon psychics use is ‘see’⎯see everything the therapists made me forget. I could see the past, like the way that I did when I was a little girl. But Roxie, you don’t understand, it doesn’t work that way. I can’t just see the past any time I want. No one can.”
Roxie seemed to know so much about the paranormal, Anna thought, so why didn’t she know that? For that matter, what was her Talent? She never did say.
Roxie roared with laughter. “Of course you can see the past when you want, you weird girl. You’re at the Academy. Sure, they teach you ordinary subjects like math and science, and the history and ethics of being a paranormal, but the most important thing they teach you is how to use ‘espergenic’ drugs, like psilene. Contra-psilene turns off your Talent, while pro-psilene turns it on and amplifies it. That’s what you need, girlfriend.
“Look at your medi-pak,” Roxie said, pointing to the wristband on Anna’s left forearm. During First Year student orientation, the undergraduates were fitted with a lightweight, consumer-grade medi-pak that they were told to always wear. Anna had scoffed when she saw her medi-pak because it was so much less than the professional-grade models worn by space folk. She was used to a medi-pak loaded with diagnostic sensors, analytical engines, and a pharmacy of concentrated drugs, that in conjunction with the nanobots swimming through her bloodstream like tiny submersibles, could cure a thousand-and-one ills. She thought the medi-paks the school handed out were a joke.
“These medi-paks are loaded with diluted pro-psilene to bring out your Talent,” Roxie said, “and concentrated contra-psilene to keep you from accidentally hurting yourself or innocent bystanders. But by the time you graduate, you’ll be using the good stuff, concentrated pro-psilene, that they keep locked up.”
Anna quickly evaluated Roxie’s proposal just as her parents had taught her since childhood. Was this really a way to recover the memories that she coveted? Could she remember what happened to her mother? And if she did, would she regret it?
“But if the drug is secured,” objected Anna, “how am I supposed to get it?”
Roxie swaggered with that special sort of confidence that you only have when you know a secret and other people don’t. “My Talent is that I’m an oracle, which is a combination of precognition, clairvoyance, and preternatural insight, that enables me to know about things or people simply by being near them.
“The Academy keeps its pro-psilene locked in a vault in the school infirmary, but I’m an oracle who can see how to break in. The problem is I have to be careful about what I touch, or else I’ll be overwhelmed with knowledge. The answer to the problem is, if you and I work together I don’t have to touch anything. I can tell you what to do.
“Look, you joked that you wanted to steal a shuttle and run away from here to find adventure. This is your chance to have a real adventure. This is a chance to learn about your past.”
Anna hesitated, even though she could almost taste the thrill of doing something so bold and adventurous.
“Think about it this way,” Roxie said, pressing her case. “I intend to get hold of a stash of psilene one way or another, either here or somewhere else, with or without you. I’ve taken psilene before and it enables a psychic to see the world⎯to truly see it⎯like a blind person suddenly regaining their sight. The feeling is profound, like falling in love or finding religion. Ever since I took the college tour of this campus last fall, I’ve been scheming how to break into the Infirmary. But I understand if you’re too scared to take the risk.”
Anna rankled at Roxie’s jibe. Anna had faced more danger in her young life than doing a mere heist. And if Roxie was trying to manipulate Anna into helping, the rebel girl needn’t have tried so hard. The prospect of discovering exactly what had happened to her mother, and what was Anna’s part in it, was more than enough incentive.
Anna tried to weigh all the facts in her evaluation and make a rational decision, but the only thing inside her mind was a howling whirlwind of emotion. To get what she wanted, Anna needed to commit a crime. She was torn between honesty toward an institution she had just begun to know, and a chance to put an end to her feelings of bottomless, inexplicable guilt and loss. In the end, her decision was inevitable.
“Let’s go,” Anna said, “let’s go now.”
“Wahoo!” whooped Roxie just as the carillon bell rang a quarter to the hour.