It would be wrong to say Anna Ivlis, Juan Carlos Daimler, and Mindy Obermeyer believed they were actually participating in a séance—at least, in the conventional sense of the word. Even though they were gathered by candlelight around a circular table, holding hands, and chanting a mantra, they weren’t wild-eyed mystic zealots seeking to contact spirits of the dead. But if this wasn’t a séance—at least, in some sense of the word—then what was it?
In the mid-nineteenth century, after the blood and agony of the American Civil War when spiritualism masqueraded as salvation, photographers like William Mumler and William Hope claimed they could capture ghostly images of the spirits of the recently departed in the silver salts coating their glass photographic plates. The Williamses claimed to be spirit photographers.
A few decades later, in the late nineteenth century, photographers learned how to capture a series of still pictures on film, not just one on glass, and by that means create the illusion of a moving picture. Once moving pictures learned how to talk, they could emote and consequently tell a story. Although picture takers no longer claimed to be able to capture images of spirits, they did claim they were elevated from being mere photographers to being cinematographers. And since cinematographers disgorged a deluge of images at the rate of 24 frames per second, someone—a film editor—had to pick and choose just the right images to tell the story. Then that story could be projected on a reflective screen for an expectant audience.
In some ways, Juan Carlos Daimler was like a spirit photographer, except he captured images of the dead not on glass, but in his mind’s eye. And like a cinematographer, he captured so many images that Mindy Obermeyer had to read his mind, pick and choose and combine just the right ones to tell the story she hoped would help Anna Ivlis, and then project that story, write it, on the brain of each person gathered around the circular séance table in her office.
Suddenly, the members of the séance found themselves still in a circle holding hands, but standing on the surface of Savannah, a habitable moon of a gas giant planet that was bigger than Jupiter and as unimaginably far away from Earth as the notion of flickering shadows projected on a cinema screen. And yet, this place—this manufactured, trimmed, sanitized, safety-checked, and curated shared experience—seemed as real as reality itself.
Anna recoiled, looking this way and that, not believing her eyes. Mindy said, “Everyone is free to wander around wherever you like. It won’t affect the séance. Despite what you see and experience, we are all still in trance, holding hands around the table in my office.” Then she peeled Anna’s hand from hers, Juan Carlos followed suit, and Anna stumbled forward dumbfounded, into her past.
Anna could not get over her sense of wonder. She knew for a fact that it had been more than two years since she last set foot on the alien moon. But she felt as if she was actually standing on Savannah again, right there, right now. The warm, dry, wind blew across her face now, just as it did then. The knee-high stalks of amber vegetation rippled in the wind like dry grass on the African veldt, just as it did then. And the faded disk of the gas giant filled a quarter of the blue, daytime sky, just as it did then.
“Anna,” Mindy said, “does anything here look familiar?”
“Yes, and no,” Anna replied, unsure of herself. All the while she spoke, Anna stared distractedly at the low hillock rising behind Daimler and Obermeyer. “I remember our expedition coming to Savannah, and my parents saying it would be an extraordinary adventure, and it being so hot, and our doing research for months. Then it’s all a blur until later, when I vaguely remember my father putting me into hibernation. I don’t remember much more; just bits and pieces, flashes really.” Anna’s gaze twitched back and forth as she stared at the ground, frantically trying to remember more. “The next thing I recall, which had to be much later, was waking up in the infirmary of the Exploration Guild rescue ship that intercepted the Ferry as we returned home.” Anna’s eyes sank. “After that, my memory is better, but I don’t clearly recall anything that happened before.”
Lifting her eyes again and glancing around, Anna said, “I must have passed through this arroyo a million times. It’s one of the routes to and from our base camp.” Anna nodded toward the hill behind her companions. “That mound is the closest thing to high ground for hundreds of kilometers,” she said. Then she paused for a painfully long moment before finally, timidly, saying, “Our base camp should be on the other side.”
Juan Carlos expected Anna to be eager to see what was on the other side of the rise. This moment was, after all, why she had risked an adventure with Roxie Montero to find out, despite the possibility of expulsion. And yet, Anna’s fists clenched and she held back.
After a while, Dr. Obermeyer came to the young girl’s side, took her balled fist, gently unfurled it and held her hand in her own. “Anna, your parents are waiting,” Mindy said. “Shouldn’t we go and meet them?”
A look of growing fear began to widen Anna’s eyes, and she reflexively pulled back against Mindy’s hand. Dr. Obermeyer was alarmed by the spike in Anna’s pulse rate, which was being relayed from Anna’s medi-pak bracelet through Mindy’s digital pad into the psychiatrist’s mind. Dr. Obermeyer was sure that Anna’s extraordinarily resilient, determined, and Talented mind was beginning to remember something; something hazy and indistinct; something frightening. Something a host of clinicians had agreed should best be left forgotten.
Dr. Obermeyer knew Anna was as delicate as a china doll that had been shattered over two years ago, and now was being held together with only stop-gap memory mitigation therapy. No one would blame Mindy if she treated Anna conservatively and stopped the séance now. But the psychiatrist knew in her bones that stopping now would leave Anna as troubled and hopeless as ever, and most likely condemned to slow decompensation until she eventually became a permanent resident at a psychiatric institution for paranormals. Even Roxie Montero sensed that.
For all those reasons and more, Anna was fortunate that Dr. Obermeyer had been spending her time with Anna not actually trying to cure the girl—it was too soon for that—but in assessing whether in the two-plus years since the Ivlis expedition tragedy, Anna had grown resilient enough to learn the truth. Mindy had run out of time. She made a decision, and in keeping with her assessment, she gently guided Anna forward and the trio slowly climbed the hill.