The following is a free preview of my science fiction/fantasy adventure novel, The Reintegrators. Available now at Amazon.
In a stone-walled library stained orange by evening light, Melissa was standing at her work table, archiving scrolls, when Philolaus stomped in and interrupted her.
“Outrageous. Cowardly and unacceptable.”
She clucked her tongue. “What troubles you, Philo?”
“They won’t listen to me. The evening meal is always at sunset. It should not be delayed. I don’t like changes in the schedule.” He sidled up to her and pouted, his fists shaking by his waist.
Melissa faced the table to hide her smile. Philolaus was tall, the hair on his head thinning, but his manner and inability to grow a proper beard made him resemble an overgrown child.
“But why would they delay it?” she asked.
“That’s what I want to know. Apparently there’s some sort of rabble from the Citizen’s Assembly out front, making trouble.”
Her head snapped up. “The Assembly?”
“Indeed. Now I ask you, why should that affect when we sit down to eat?”
“Him,” she whispered. A sick feeling tugged at the back of her throat.
“Is Kylon with them?” she asked, her voice low.
“Who? You mean that big shot who has it in for the Master?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t get a good look at them, not that I expect they are much to look at.”
She picked up a rod and rolled a paper over it, pressing hard enough to hurt her fingers. “What did they say they wanted?”
“To see the Master. They’ll be disappointed, though; he’s in meditation, along with most of the Elekti. I expect our visitors will eventually get tired of waiting and go home.”
She walked to a freestanding shelf beside the table and placed the scroll onto one of the cross-stacked piles. The shelf was out of alignment with the stone wall, and she tried to press it back. “Didn’t you think to find out anything else?”
“Not really,” he said. “Politics bores me. Besides, the Assembly of Croton has always bent to the Master’s will before.”
Melissa pressed harder on the shelf. “This stupid thing, it won’t…argh!” She smacked it with her fist.
Philolaus approached and laid his hand on her shoulder. “There’s a secret.” He pushed on the back leg with his foot and the shelf slid into place. “What’s wrong, Mel? Are you that hungry?”
“No. I’m not hungry. It was him, Philo. Kylon. He was the one who forced me to take refuge here. He was the one who killed my family.”
She bit her lip as the words rolled off her tongue, trying stave off the memory. She didn’t want to think of it, didn’t want to remember her mother’s screams, piercing her like potsherds in her gut.
“Ah, I see.” Philolaus tugged at the scruff on his chin and gazed up at the window. “But your father was a citizen, was he not? Why not have Kylon tried by the Assembly?”
She frowned and walked back to the table. “Kylon is the strategos of a mercenary army. He may not have wielded the spear, but he wanted my father silenced. And now he may have followed me here to finish the job.”
“You assume too much, I think. And even if Kylon has come, you have nothing to worry about; the Master would never allow such a brute to harm one of his students.”
Melissa imagined the Master, hair white and back stooped, wearing his usual frayed robe, walking out to confront the armed men on horseback. He could very well end up the victor; the old man did not cut an imposing figure, but he could channel Apollo with the force of his glare.
“I worry about the Master sometimes,” she said. “The rumors.”
“There have been whispers among the Akousmatics. They say the old man’s mind is leaving him. That he will eventually go mad.”
Philolaus frowned. “Not a proper thing to say about the man who took you in, whose society feeds and clothes and educates you.”
“I know, I know. But if his wits do fail him, and he can no longer protect me…”
Philolaus held up his hand to quiet her. “They used to whisper about me, you know. In my youth, when the other boys practiced wrestling or made mock battle, I had eyes only for the stars. No tutor’s switch could stop my counting and charting. My mother took me to every priestess and physician in Magna Graecia, seeking a cure for my restless mind. But what no one thought to do was to treat me as an equal, until I came to this place. It was the Master who showed me that not all who think differently are mad.”
“This place…” She looked up at him, tears welling in her eyes. “I want to leave, Philo.”
“I need to get away from here.”
“But where would you go?”
“Anywhere. Across the sea.”
He chuckled. “A philosopher’s education is not much use to a pretty young girl in the wider world. If you set off alone, you would surely be made a slave and a prostitute before the moon turns.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Why? It’s true.”
“But you don’t say it!” She turned away and sniffed.
Philolaus stammered and rustled his robe. “I…I’m sorry, Mel. I always speak too much. I’ll try to do better. But please, don’t speak of leaving. Your family may be gone, but remember that I love you like I would a sister.”
She sniffed again. “I know.”
The bell clanged down the hall, calling them to dinner.
“Will you eat with me?” he asked.
“In a moment. I must finish my work.” She turned back to the table, forcing a half-smile. He nodded and headed off toward the courtyard.
She kept her eyes down as she prepared the last three scrolls. Precise, disciplined motions. Soft paper over hard dowel, pressing into her small palms. She stopped and looked at her hands. Fingers like reeds. And she was so short of stature, as well. Why had the gods made her so weak, and given her such a powerful enemy?
No, that wasn’t right. She wouldn’t malign the gods, or herself. She had to do something. But she couldn’t fight, and she couldn’t run. She was as stuck as a block in the stone wall.
A metallic clatter came from the direction of the courtyard. Someone had dropped a cooking bowl and was making a fuss about it, shouting and causing a commotion. She shook her head, put down her work, and headed out of the library to investigate.
The hall beyond had a low ceiling and small windows, and was cold and dim in the fading light. She had taken only a few steps into it when Philolaus appeared from around the corner. His eyes and mouth were wide, his face white. One hand reached toward her while the other held the front of his neck. When he pulled it away, a fountain of blood poured out of his throat, covering the floor in front of him. His other arm dropped to his side, and he fell forward, his face smashing into the stone.
Melissa tried to scream, but no sound came out. The room seemed to collapse around her. Blood rushing in her neck and temples, she bit down on her wrist and wailed through teeth and skin.
A pair of shadows splayed over the opposite end of the hall. Strange men, coming toward her. No time to think—she had to go. Somehow she tore her eyes from Philolaus’ body and ran back into the library.
“…saw one in here?” a voice from behind her said.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
She ducked under her work table, then scooted back underneath the shelf, against the wall. She held her breath. Four legs passed by, sword points swinging by their ankles.
“No other way out.”
“Guard the door. I’ll look.”
One of the men passed by again. She could hear the other searching, rustling through the stacks. He reached the end of the row and reversed direction back toward her. She withdrew further, making herself as small as possible. The searching sounds drew closer. Her heel brushed against a protrusion in the wall. A bad stone, set out of place? No, the Master wouldn’t have allowed it. She turned to see a wedge stuck between the floor and wall, acting as a lever.
There’s a secret.
She pressed on the lever with her foot and the wall section folded inward as if it were paper. A hidden passage. She crawled and slipped past the rotated block, then leaned her back against it. It closed with a thump, plunging the tunnel into darkness.
Melissa crept forward, feeling with her hands along the smooth sides of the passage. The men in the library must have heard; they would come for her soon. She reached the block at the end of the tunnel and found another lever at the bottom. This stone was heavier than the one in the library, but she shouldered it and jumped through the opening into the garden.
She landed with her bare feet on soft grass and leaned against the side of the building, panting, looking at the hill where the Akousmatics lived in their mudbrick cabins among the olive groves. Above it, the evening star glimmered alone in the orange-red sky.
Tears rolled down her cheeks, forming cold drips on her chin. This couldn’t be happening—she couldn’t be losing another family. She felt the same sick feeling, the one she had buried deep and prayed she would never experience again—the wrenching queasiness of her entire life being ripped apart in moments.
She was breathing hard and fast, making herself dizzy. But they were still coming for her. She would have to mourn later, after she had gone for help, after she had saved as many of the others as she could. She looked back at the lone star and wiped the tears from her face.
“Be good up there, Philo,” she said. Then she took off into a run.
The outer wall blocked her escape over the hill, so she made her away around the building, ducking behind pedestals and shrubs as she went. She reached the front corner and peeked out. A man stood with a pair of horses near the door, but the front courtyard was empty, save for the statue of Hermes Trismegistus holding his globe. She ran up behind it, checked back toward the door, then dashed off to the gate.
She stopped. The road stretched on ahead, winding down toward the city and the sparkling sea far below. But two rows of soldiers blocked the path, marching in step, wearing leather chest plates and bronze helmets. Instead of a weapon, each held a shimmering light in his hand.
She found her breath, then ran back behind the wall and knelt next to a pine. So they were going to burn them—the people, the scrolls, everything. What could she do? Her head pounded. In the dim light, the torches had left green trails in her vision. She rubbed her temples, and the trails wavered and parted, forming into strange images.
She startled and opened her eyes. What was happening to her? Why now? More visions came: people, places, things she wasn’t meant to see. Towers made of a strange, pale iron, so tall they touched the sky. A city of square buildings that stretched on forever. Great metal machines, moving under their own power and puffing black smoke. She had no control; the images came faster, increasing to a torrent, a white sheet of blurred information.
She blinked. Her sight began to clear, the fog rolling back toward the edges, revealing the garden in evening. But it was not her seeing it. She was a different person now, another mind in the same body.
She stood slowly, heedless of the soldiers marching nearby, and looked at the trees and the grass and the wall, examining them with fresh eyes. She reached down and touched her simple robe, ran her fingers over skin untouched by cosmetics or creams, and smelled the fresh scent of the natural air.
“Holy shit,” she said. “It worked. I made it.”
Please, Teddy thought. Not now. Anytime but now.
But no matter what he told himself, it was really happening. The signs were all there: the shaking hands, the sinking feeling in his stomach.
His first day of school, a few minutes into his first meeting with his new department head, and he was having a panic attack.
“So sorry about this. I know what it must look like, but I have everything organized the way I like it,” Dr. Barrow said, his long white beard shaking. He adjusted his spectacles with one hand while he shuffled through papers with the other.
“That’s OK,” Teddy squeaked. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
“Usually the student life office handles this sort of thing. My secretary must have—ah!” Barrow pulled an envelope from underneath a pile and dumped out a keycard and a note. He picked up the note and read it. “Ah-hah. Yes, I see. Everything is in order, then. We’ve found you a roommate, another second-year from the department. His name is…Charles Merriweather.”
“That’s—” The pressure expanded in Teddy’s chest like a balloon. He gasped and swallowed. “That’s great.”
“Indeed.” Barrow kept his eyes on the note. “You were very lucky to get a room, given that classes started two weeks ago. But, once the decision was made to admit you, that was our risk to take, wasn’t it? You are Albert Cartham’s son, after all.” He looked up and frowned. “Are you all right?”
Teddy blinked hard and unclenched his jaw. “I’m fine. What’d you say about my father?”
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t…” Barrow cleared his throat, replaced the note on the desk and picked up the keycard. He examined the room number written on its paper sleeve. “All I meant was that your father was very well-respected in this department. As you know, finding candidates who are capable of performing a reintegration is rather difficult. So when we heard that you were interested in taking a metanautics concentration, we didn’t want you to have to wait until next year to get started. That’s all.”
“Right. OK,” Teddy said, pretending to understand. Capable of reintegration? He was too light-headed to think straight. He needed to get outside. Now.
“Of course, we don’t expect too much of our new students at first. After all, no recruitment process is perfect.” Barrow leaned back in his chair, waving the keycard in a circle. “You’ll find we like to take our time at Oakmont, focusing mainly on theoretical coursework for lowerclassmen…”
Teddy wheezed. A heavy chain was tightening across his windpipe. If he could just get that card.
“…and encouraging self-development through the application of multidisciplinary studies. After all, there will be still be plenty of new worlds to explore when you move on to the college of your choice. In the meantime, you’ll find Oakmont has much to offer a bright young man such as yourself. Did you know that there’s a fully operational astronomical observatory on the southern end of campus? Not to mention the athletic facilities…”
Teddy’s eyes followed as Barrow waved the card left and right, up and down.
“…and the social clubs. Although we especially like to encourage socialization within our little group. Metanautics may have ancient roots, but that doesn’t mean we’re stodgy like that puffed-up classical literature department. Are you sure you’re all right? You look awfully pale. Maybe some tea would help.” Barrow opened a drawer with his free hand and pulled out an electric kettle.
“Actually, I think I should go,” Teddy rasped.
“It will only take a moment.” Barrow rolled over to a water cooler nestled behind a pile of books. He flicked at the keycard as he filled the kettle. “Oh, and this is important: no phones in class. I understand parents want students to carry them for safety, but during lecture, turn it off. One ring and you’ll be written up, no warnings.”
“I, uh…” Teddy coughed. “I don’t have a phone.”
“Oh,” Barrow said, swirling water in the pot. “Haven’t heard that in a while.”
“I really—I really have to go.”
“But you must have some questions for me.”
“No.” Teddy stood up. “No questions. Nope.”
“I see.” Barrow frowned. He rolled back to the desk and set down the kettle. “I suppose you must have learned quite a bit about us from your father.”
“Yes. A lot. Just please…”
Barrow nodded and waggled the card at him. “You’re in a hurry to get started, I understand. But I do think you should try this tea, it has a bit of coriander and—”
“Please!” Teddy leaned forward and snatched the keycard.
It took a moment for the surprise to register on Barrow’s face. He stared at his empty fingers while Teddy looked at the card in his own hand. What had he done?
Barrow took a large, indignant breath, then he sat forward in his chair, resting his elbows on the desk. “Very well. Good luck in your studies then, Mr. Cartham. Until next time, remember to stay out of trouble.”
Teddy nodded, then grabbed his duffel bag and sidled out the frosted glass door as quickly as possible.
A few hurried steps down the empty hallway brought him to the main entrance of the metanautics building. He stepped outside and took a moment to steady himself, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. It was a wet and cold September afternoon, but at least now he had fresh air. He hiked his bag onto his shoulder, sighed, and headed across the building’s courtyard, toward the large archway that led to the rest of the campus.
God, what a disaster. He replayed the scene again in his mind. The panic attack had been subtle at first, as they often were. But as always, the pressure had followed, bringing with it horrible fear that could leave him paralyzed for hours. If he hadn’t left when he did, things could have ended up a lot worse. He’d had no choice really; he’d tried to cover himself as best he could. But still, the look on Dr. Barrow’s face—ugh. Teddy shivered with embarrassment.
He grasped the collar of his jacket as he left the courtyard, steeling himself against the wind. He should have realized that the pressure would follow him here. After having spent an entire summer in the safety of his room, he had almost forgotten how it could appear suddenly when he visited new places. But when the opportunity to attend the ultra-exclusive Oakmont Academy came, it had been so unexpected, so improbable, that he had jumped on it without considering what the pressure would do in response.
He took another deep breath as he passed through the quadrangle, the same one his father had passed through every day on his way to work. Maybe he had been thinking of that on his way in; maybe that was what had set him off. After all, the last time he had seen his father was also when he had had his last major panic attack, wasn’t it? And it was that very same night that all of this had gotten started.
Teddy stood in the elevator at the Norwick Mental Health Facility, watching the floor indicator light change overhead. The elevator was slow, the light crawling forward, and each time it moved a loud bell sounded. Bong. Bong.
The attendant escorting him, a young black woman who wore her hair in a bun, cleared her throat before she spoke.
“You know, your father refuses to leave his room. And we have a strict policy: all meals are to be eaten in the cafeteria. I’m just telling you now, so you don’t ask about it later.”
Teddy looked at her sideways, but said nothing.
It wasn’t until they reached his father’s room that he understood what she had been talking about. His father, never an overweight man, had gotten thinner since the last time Teddy had seen him; his collared flannel shirt hid his arms and neck, but his cheeks were disturbingly concave. He sat at a small table which he had fashioned into a makeshift desk, his hollow eyes tracing the text in a thick, leather-bound volume on the history of mathematics.
“Albert? Your son is here to see you,” the attendant said.
His father gave no response. The attendant flashed Teddy a “you see what I mean” look, then turned and left. Teddy sighed, then walked into the small, white-walled room and sat on the corner of the single bed.
“Sorry I didn’t come to see you much this summer,” he said. “I wanted to, but I’ve been…busy.” He dropped his hands in his lap and rubbed his elbow.
His father grunted and gave a slight jerk of his head, but otherwise took no notice of him.
Teddy frowned. He had never considered himself and his father to be much alike, despite their similar builds and identical mops of reddish-brown hair. But in this new, emaciated state, his father looked more like an alien than a member of his immediate family.
“The doctor told me they took you off levodopa again. It sounded to me like they’re just giving up. That’s why I came back. I think you need to be around familiar people, to help your memory.”
Teddy leaned forward and waved to see if his father would look up. Nothing.
“So, read anything good lately?” A little joke; Teddy had seen his father reading this same book many times. Some of the passages were highlighted, and others had notes written in the margins. He tapped one of the ragged corners. “Looks like you could use something new. Maybe next time I come I could bring—”
His father shivered and grimaced.
“Dad? What’s wrong?”
“It’s him,” his father said, looking up.
His father placed the book on the table and rose, staring at the Venetian blinds across the room. “My son.”
“Dad?” Teddy jumped to his feet. “Dad—” His breath caught in his throat. “I’m here!”
His father looked toward him. He narrowed his eyes, then opened them in astonishment.
“It’s me, Dad! It’s Teddy!” Teddy smiled so wide it hurt his cheeks. He laughed and tears came to his eyes. “You see me, right?”
“What are you doing with those?” His father’s face twisted in anger.
“You’re lying. Come back here and explain yourself.” His father clenched his fists. “Stop!” He gritted his teeth and his body shook. It started with a slight tremor, then became more violent. Just as he looked as if he might explode, he exhaled, hunched his shoulders, and marched back to the desk. As Teddy watched open-mouthed, he slammed the book open and buried his nose in it again.
“Jesus,” Teddy whispered. His heart pounded. He dropped back onto the bed and watched his father read, listening to the old man’s ragged breathing. So it had been nothing. Not recognition, just a jumble of old memories animating his father’s body. He slapped his palms on the bed, then stood and flung the sheets against the wall with a growl, knocking over a lamp and sending pillows flying.
He paced back and forth across the room. So many years, and nothing ever changed. Maybe the doctors were right to give up. What did he think he was doing here? A two-hour bus ride from East Gate. Two transfers. For what? He stopped and leaned against the closet door. If he didn’t calm down, he was going to give himself a panic attack. It wasn’t worth it. Even before, back when he was sane, his father had barely spent time with him. The old man was always too wrapped up in his work to care. It was time for Teddy to finally move on.
So why couldn’t he?
Teddy took a deep breath and walked back to straighten up the bed. He replaced the knocked-over lamp and a deck of cards on the nightstand, then knelt down to tuck the sheets under the mattress. A cardboard box sat on the floor beneath the headboard.
“What’s this?” Teddy asked.
His father flipped a page.
Teddy picked up the box and sat on the bed to leaf through its contents: a listing of exam grades, some sheet music for a song he didn’t recognize, a receipt for an air-conditioning repair, and something hard on the bottom. He dug in deep and pulled out a star-shaped paperweight.
“Hey, what’s this doing in here?”
His father sniffed and scratched his neck. Teddy recognized the paperweight, or whatever it was, from a collection of similar objects his father used to keep on his desk. It was some sort of geometric trinket related to his work as a mathematician, a glass polyhedron with triangular wedge-shaped points projected from each face. It looked hand-made. Beautiful.
“Can I keep this?” He turned it slowly until the image of his father reflected in one of its facets. “Could be something to remember you by.”
For when I don’t come back.
His father mumbled something. Teddy slipped the object into his jacket pocket.
“What’d you say, Dad?”
“The harmonics don’t reflect properly here. We’ll do another survey.”
“Oh, right,” Teddy said, standing up. “Whatever.”
“We’ll go back again. Go back soon.”
“No, I’m going back home. You’re gonna stay here, OK?”
“I won’t let this project stall.” His father turned and stared. “We have to finish what we started.”
“Not this time,” Teddy said. “I’m not going through this again.”
His father grunted and looked down.
Teddy shook his head and turned to leave. “Bye, Dad. I’ll see you around.” He looked back once more. A white speck had formed in the corner of his father’s mouth. “What’s—”
His father grunted again and his eyes rolled up into his head. He twitched, then fell out of his chair.
“Hey!” Teddy backed into the hallway as his father convulsed on the floor. “Help! Someone! Help!”
The attendant ran in. Two nurses followed close behind, but Teddy was well out into the hall by then. He could see them working through the doorframe, his father’s limbs flailing. “Dad!” he screamed, but it came out a choked gurgle. He had to go back in—he couldn’t leave his father alone. He stepped forward, but the pressure came fast, crushing his lungs.
“Get him up on the bed!”
“No, leave him there.”
“Call Doctor Larsen!”
Teddy scrambled away. The pressure was a vice on his throat. He careened through the hallway, found a corner and pressed himself into it, clawing at his neck and hair, gasping for breath.
Patients walked by and stared, and he turned to the wall and buried his face in the sleeve of his jacket. Tears slid between the leather and his face. His body heaved with sobs. How could he have run away? Get up, get up and help him. The pressure thumped and thundered, pushing all the way up into his mouth and teeth.
The thought came clear through the panic attack, repeating over and over, fear mounting on fear.
He’s dying and I never got to say goodbye.
Teddy sat in the bus shelter outside the mental health facility, staring at the dirty sidewalk. Hours had passed. His father had been brought to the nearby ER and was in stable condition. Low blood sugar, they had said, and low potassium. Probably he would recover, although that only meant a return to his existence as a walking shadow.
Teddy had learned all of that secondhand, from the facility staff. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to go to the general hospital. The attack he had suffered in the hallway still lingered in his shaking hands and aching head. He closed his eyes, sighed and slumped forward. Every once in a while, a sob bounced his body upward, but otherwise he remained hunched with his head between his legs.
Time passed. He sat up and opened his eyes. Night had fallen over the abandoned factories and warehouses of downtown Norwick. Twenty more minutes went by, then forty. Where the hell was that bus? Teddy peered down the street. Shoes thrown over power lines, chain-link fences littered with plastic bags. Pigeons roosted next to a bench where a homeless man slept beside his shopping cart. If he missed his transfer, he’d have to walk halfway back to East Gate. He could ask to use the hospital’s phone to call his mother, but that would mean telling her where he had gone and explaining what had happened. The subject of his father always riled her up, which meant more nagging and more fights that could drag on for weeks. Teddy almost preferred to not make it home at all than to deal with that.
A low rumble sounded, and several blocks to his left a large automobile turned the corner: a black BMW sedan, with tinted windows polished to a high sheen. It cruised up the street, but just before it would have passed by, it swerved and pulled over in front of him.
The passenger-side window slid down. Teddy lowered his head to see inside. The driver was a handsome man in his early twenties, with straight, jet black hair hanging down over his sharp brown eyes, and a thin, angular nose beneath. The man was wearing a white button-down dress shirt, black slacks, and black leather driving gloves. Despite the late hour, his eyes were covered by a pair of black sunglasses.
“Waiting for the bus?” the man asked.
“Yeah,” Teddy replied.
“Do we know each other?”
“What?” Teddy squinted. “I don’t uhh…think so?”
“You don’t sound too sure, either.” The man said. “But you look a little familiar. Where you headed?”
“Where? East Gate.”
The man nodded and leaned back. “I’ll be on the interstate soon. One of the arteries of our nation. East Gate is only a few capillaries from there. Get in and I’ll give you a lift.”
“You want to take me home?”
“Unless you’d rather stay here?”
Teddy smirked and snickered. “Are you serious? I can’t just get in with you. Why would I do something like that?”
“Because,” the man said, “you’ve reached a breaking point. You’ve been waiting for a long time, hoping things will get better, but they’ve just gotten worse and worse. And now you don’t know what to do. You can’t continue on your current path anymore. You need to find a new way, a lateral motion. Even if it means taking a risk.”
Teddy stared. He wasn’t smirking anymore. “I…I don’t know.”
“No, you don’t. That’s why it’s a leap of faith. But really, what do you have to lose?”
Teddy looked up the street, then back inside the car. The seats were plush and covered with spotless tan leather.
“OK.” He opened the door and climbed in.
The man extended a glove-covered hand for him to shake. “And your name is?”
“Excellent. This is your lucky day, Teddy.” The man slid back into his seat, rolled up the passenger window and revved the engine. “My name is Ignatius. Ignatius Augustine.”
The story continues here…