Pale Ants

Book Excerpt:


Chapter One

The Mondron were strong, the Mondron were mighty. They rained fire down from the sky. With his help they fled down, down to the world beneath. But death would soon find them.” –The Lament of Pami Otel


Colonel Partano Dunaro followed Major Mendetta down the cramped underground passageway. Why anyone chose to live in such squalid caves was a mystery to him. But then again the people who lived down here weren’t exactly normal.

“We’ve done a thorough sweep, Colonel,” the major said. “This was a small settlement by the looks of it, only fifteen or so families.”

“Are they all accounted for?”

“We believe so. It doesn’t look like there is any way out except for the south entrance.”

Partano nodded, running his flashlight along the walls. “Good. But make sure the others don’t let their guards down. The inhabitants of these caves have a way of crawling through the tiniest of cracks.”

“Yes, sir.” They came to the end of the passageway, which opened up to a large cavern. “Through here.”

Partano felt a rush of exhilaration as he looked up at the ceiling and saw the glittering blue crystals that ran across its surface in intricate, glistening lines. There was more ore in this one cavern than in all three he had previously helped explore combined. He slapped Major Mendetta on the back. “Looks like you’re going to be able to take your fiancée on that splendid honeymoon to the Eastern Islands after all.” He laughed.

“Thank you, for remembering, sir.”

Partano ran his fingers over a thick vein of crystal in the wall. He felt a tingling at the touch, which reminded him it wasn’t a good idea to spend too much time in close proximity to the crystals. He was about to order Mendetta to follow him back out of the cavern when he heard the most miniscule of muffled sounds. He wasn’t sure what it had been, or where it had come from, but he instinctively drew his weapon. Mendetta followed suit. The sound came again, a murmuring that seemed to originate within the wall itself. About a yard to his left Partano saw a hole. It was two feet wide. He bent down to the side of the hole and listened. Mendetta crouched beside him. Silence. But then there was another indistinct murmur, this time followed by a hushed whisper: “Shhh, quiet.”

Partano thrust his gun into the hole, then ducked his head inside. The hole opened up to a small space barely large enough for one person to sit in. A young woman huddled in this space, her hand clamped over the mouth of a squirming boy. Partano grinned when he saw the child, who looked to be about three years of age. This day just couldn’t get any better. The woman did her best to shield the boy with her body and looked at Partano with fearful, pale blue eyes. It was unsettling, the way her white hair glowed in the dim light of the cave.

“Come out, slowly,” he said.

He recognized the wave of defiance and anger that washed over her eyes, temporarily obscuring the fear. She raised her left hand and pointed her index finger at him before making a stabbing motion in the air. When nothing happened she repeated the motion again, this time stabbing the air more violently. He watched her repeat the motion a few more times, fear creeping back into her eyes.

“Your tricks won’t work on us,” Partano said, thinking of the modulators the scientists had recently perfected. At this very moment the woman was being bombarded with invisible waves that neutralized her special abilities. The woman let her hand drop to her side. The child had stopped squirming and seemed to be in a sort of daze. “Now, are you going to come out or do I have to drag you?”

The woman didn’t answer. She just looked all around her like a caged animal. Partano sighed. He traced his free hand slowly, deliberately along the surface of his gun. “Have you ever seen one of these in action?” he asked. “Just one shot can burn through more than a foot of solid rock.” He paused, savoring the moment. “I would hate to have to use it.”

These last words snapped the woman back to attention. “Do whatever you want to me, but please, don’t hurt my child,” she begged.

“I don’t intend to hurt him. On the contrary. I intend to give him a chance at a decent life.”

The woman’s eyes widened as she understood his meaning. “Don’t take him away from me, please!”

He just motioned with his gun for her to hand over the boy. The woman hesitated, but under Partano’s unflinching gaze she eventually stretched the boy out to him. The boy hung bewildered and silent as his mother dangled him in the air, but as soon as Partano took a hold of him the child burst into tears. Then he started kicking.

Partano stood up with the wriggling boy, gripping him tightly with one arm and putting his gun away with the other. Mendetta looked up at him for direction, his own weapon still trained on the hole. Partano nodded and walked back towards the exit of the cavern. He heard two quick laser blasts behind him.

#

Partano carried the boy, now wrapped in a dark brown blanket, up the stairs to his apartment. His communicator beeped. “Yes?”

“Darling, where are you?” It was the tenth time his wife had called since he’d told her of the child.

“I’m coming up the stairs right now, Kassandra.” The communicator signal disconnected and their apartment door opened not a second later. He motioned for Kassandra to be quiet as she rushed towards him. She stopped about a foot away, having realized the child was asleep.

“Come inside,” she whispered.

She closed the door behind them and they stood for a moment in silence. Partano pulled the blanket down a few inches to reveal the sleeping face of the child. The boy stirred slightly as the light hit his eyelids.

“His skin, it’s so white,” Kassandra whispered in wonder. “And his hair, it’s so light.” She reached out to touch the boy’s forehead. The boy opened his pale blue eyes. He looked from Kassandra to Partano, reality dawning on him bit by bit as he woke up completely.

“I want Momma. Where’s Momma?” the boy asked.

“This is your mother,” Partano said to the boy while pointing to his wife. The boy was quiet for a moment, scrunching his face up at Kassandra.

“I want Momma!” the boy yelled. He squirmed and tried to bite Partano’s arm. Partano set him down on the ground. The child ran around the room, screaming “Momma!” over and over.

“Poor thing. He’s so scared,” Kassandra said, shaking her head. Partano put his arm around her.

“I know it’s rough, but there is no other way in the beginning,” he said gently. “Doctor Celio said he’ll adapt sooner than we think, if we are consistent.”

Finally the child, growing tired, crawled under the table in the adjoining dining room, hiding himself in the darkness behind the hanging tablecloth. His sobs reached the ears of Partano and Kassandra, who looked at each other uncertainly.

“Should we go to him? Kassandra asked.

“Why don’t you try?” Partano sank down onto the couch. “I’m exhausted.” He smiled as his wife leaned down and kissed him on the forehead. “Go on, go to our son,” he said.

She approached the dining room table and got down on all fours. She lifted the tablecloth to peek inside. The child’s voice was timid, yet hopeful. “Momma?”

“I’m here, Momma’s here baby.”

“You’re not Momma!” the child screamed. The glass in the antique grandfather clock in the corner shattered. Partano made a mental note to obtain a modulator for the house, or better yet to go on the boy’s person. Kassandra joined her husband on the couch as the boy wailed under the table.

#

“Colonel? There’s a call for you,” Major Mendetta said. “Channel seven, your wife.”

Partano looked up from the papers on his field desk. “Thank you, Major.” He waited for Mendetta to exit before taking the call. “Hello, darling, any change?”

“He still won’t come out from under the table.”

“He just needs more time to get used to us.”

“It’s been three days.” Kassandra sounded tired.

Partano sighed, rubbing his eyes. They always got sore from straining to see in the dark of the caves. Wait a minute. Why hadn’t he thought of the light before? “Kassandra, are the blinds drawn?”

“No, why would they be?”

“Close them. And maybe hang a blanket over them. Make it as dark as possible inside the house.”

“Are you sure this is going to work?”

“No, but it can’t hurt.”

After he disconnected the call he sent for Major Mendetta.

“Yes, sir?” Mendetta asked.

“Will you bring me that box of useless trinkets we put in storage room A?”

“Right away, sir.”

#

Partano opened the front door and was greeted with almost complete darkness, but he didn’t turn on the light. His wife walked into the room wielding a small flashlight.

“He hasn’t come out yet,” she whispered.

Partano heard quiet whimpers from under the table. I have something that might help.” He pulled the shiny, light brown ball from his pocket.

“What is it?”

“A toy. At least, I think it’s a toy.” He shook the ball back and forth and a soft cascade of chimes ensued, like a cross between a rain stick and a wind chime. The boy’s whimpering stopped for a second. “Here, give me the flashlight.”

His wife handed it to him and he approached the table. He lifted the tablecloth. The boy was backed up against the far wall, hugging his knees to his chest. Partano was careful not to point the flashlight directly at the boy’s face.

“Do you like this?” he asked, giving the ball another shake. The boy didn’t answer, but he was no longer crying. Partano shook the ball again and the boy stared at it intently. “I’ll tell you what,” Partano said. “I’m going to leave it right out here, and if you want it you can come and get it.” He placed the ball on the ground several feet away from the table and put the tablecloth back in place. He went to join his wife on the couch.

“Do you really think giving him a toy from his old home is a good idea?” she asked.

“Yes. It’s something familiar, and it should help build trust. See?”

The boy’s hand and forearm were sticking out from underneath the tablecloth. A second later his head poked out tentatively. The boy made a mad dash for the ball, grabbed it, and dove back under the table. The melodic chimes began immediately, and after a few minutes the boy was talking to the ball in that sweet way children do when they are playing by themselves.

Kassandra’s shoulders relaxed, but her forehead was still lined with worry.

Partano patted her knee. “I decided on a name.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. Alessandro Benedetto Dunaro.”

Her eyes gleamed. “After your grandfather. That’s perfect.”

A particularly loud cascade of chimes reached their ears, and little Alessandro giggled with delight.

The remaining tension around Kassandra’s eyes dissipated. She reached for Partano’s hand. “We’re going to be all right, aren’t we?”

He smiled. “Yes, we’re going to be all right.”


Chapter Two


The Mondron made their way across the land, slaughtering those who resisted, enslaving the rest. ‘I will sooner die than be captured,’ he said. ‘But I will not die alone.’ He crouched in wait behind the stone wall, as a Mondron approached.” –The Epic of Pami Otel


12 years later


“Would you care for a drink, young master Dunaro?” the waiter asked, holding a silver tray laden with slender glasses of sparkling cider.

“No, thank you,” Alessandro said.

“And you, Colonel?” the waiter asked the tall, severe man in military dress who had just come over from across the room to stand beside Alessandro.

“Why thank you, don’t mind if I do,” the man replied, taking a glass.

The waiter gave a clipped, precise nod of his head and moved on to the rest of the crowd. The man turned to Alessandro and winked. “You really ought to indulge yourself, you know. Come tomorrow you won’t have such pleasures at your fingertips.”

Alessandro gave a tense smile back. As if I needed to be reminded, he thought.

“I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Colonel Gregorio Mendetta. Your father speaks often of you. We expect great things.”

“Does he?” Alessandro found it hard to believe his father had said anything nice about him.

“Oh yes. You know, I suspect the instructors at summer training are fighting it out, trying to get you to be in their class.”

“Why would they do that?”

“So they can claim you. So they can have a stock in your greatness.”

This guy has had one too many ciders. Alessandro grimaced as the string quartet by the ballroom’s entrance launched into yet another saccharine-sweet waltz. Just then he felt a light touch on his shoulder. It was Victor.

“If you’ll forgive me, Colonel, Alessandro’s presence is required on the balcony,” Victor said.

“Of course,” Mendetta nodded politely and raised his glass.

“Shall we?”

Alessandro followed his best friend glumly. Who could it be now? Another colonel obsessed with his father’s greatness? Trying to gain his father’s favor by praising his son? He didn’t care to ask. I’m not a parrot who reports everything back to my father.

“Some party, huh?” Victor asked. “Did you see the caviar my father had brought here all the way from the Eastern Sea?”

“I saw it all right. I smelled it first though.”

Victor laughed. “Yeah, I don’t understand how anyone can stomach the stuff.”

They stepped out onto the balcony through the open sliding glass doors. The sun was just starting to set, tinting the sky above the mountains south of the city a light orange.

“There’s no one out here,” Alessandro said.

“Nope.”

“Then who was requesting my presence?”

“Why, me of course.” Victor grinned. “You looked like you were in need of rescuing.” He leaned back against the handrail.

“Thanks, I was.” Alessandro rested his elbows on the banister beside Victor and looked out over the city. The bright metal of the many tall buildings glistened harshly even in the dimming light of the sun. He pulled out his dark sunglasses and put them on. “I hate this,” he said.

“It’s not so bad,” Victor replied. “When someone comes up to you just ask them something, like what they do in their job, and they’ll just keep talking. People love to talk about themselves. All you have to do is nod and smile, and say ‘really?’ in all the right places.”

“I don’t mean the party, though I hate it too. I meant summer training.”

Victor looked around and lowered his voice. “Did you talk to your father?”

“I know what he’d say. All Dunaros since the Liberation have gone to summer training, and then on to the military academy. He’s not about to have his only son break the tradition.”

“Maybe you just need to give it a chance? It might not be so bad.”

“Since when have I ever been good at anything remotely useful in the military? I’m awful at sports, I can’t be out in the sun for more than a few hours without reapplying my sun cream, and even with my sunglasses on things are usually so bright I’m squinting all the time.”

“But you could do other things, like analysis, or interrogation. And with your super human hearing skills, you’d be a great spy.”

“I want to be a biologist.”

“You can be a biologist in the military.”

“I want to study life, Victor, not engineer bioweapons to end it.”

A playful smile emerged on Victor’s face. “That’s very noble. But, it’s what we do.”

“Sorry?”

“In the military. You can dress it up any way you want, we can come here and drink sparkling cider in our fancy suits, but in the end it’s all about killing. That’s our job.”

“And you’re all right with that?”

Victor shrugged. “I’m good at sports, and I hope we never have a war with anybody. It isn’t like there are any outside threats. And, in the meantime, the job is prestigious.”

“Stop trying to cheer me up. It isn’t working.”

“It was worth a try.” Victor fiddled with his collar. “I hope Penelope gets here soon.”

Alessandro sighed. “Me too.” He heard a set of footsteps separate from the other sounds inside the ballroom and approach the balcony doors. He recognized them. “My father is coming.”

“You never cease to amaze me. I can’t hear anything.”

“What are the guests of honor doing out here? Get back in there and mingle,” Partano Dunaro said, or rather, commanded. Everything he said he said as if he were giving orders to soldiers.

“Yes, General,” Victor said, giving a mock salute.

Partano didn’t acknowledge; he just turned stiffly and walked back into the party. Victor and Alessandro followed, Alessandro tucking his sunglasses back into his inside jacket pocket. To his relief, he saw that Penelope had arrived. She waved at them from across the room. Her shiny, pale white dress matched her white hair perfectly, and her ice blue eyes stood out even from there. He smiled to himself as he noticed one of the male waiters stop to stare at her. She never believed him when he told her that her beauty often stopped men in their tracks. She always frowned and told him that if anyone was staring, it was because she was a freak, not because she was beautiful.

Before he and Victor could make their way over to Penelope, they were intercepted by Colonel Mendetta, who had since been joined by another man in uniform. Seeing they were stuck, Penelope gave Alessandro the signal that she wanted to tell him something, a discrete pull on her right earlobe. He focused his hearing on her location, letting the sounds from other depths of the room fade into the background and become indistinct.

“How are you?” Penelope asked.

“Just splendid,” he whispered into his hand sarcastically, as Colonel Mendetta chuckled at something Victor had said. Alessandro marveled at how Victor always seemed so comfortable in every situation. He wished he were more like him.

“I’m sorry,” Penelope said. “I know how hard this is for you. It’s hard for me too. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you and Victor.”

“You can still see us on the weekends,” Alessandro tried to comfort her. But he knew the weekends were a big drop from the several hours per day the three of them usually spent together.

Victor nudged Alessandro with his elbow, cuing him to return his attention to the conversation he was officially engaged in.

“Alessandro would like to learn more about biology, isn’t that right?” Victor said. Mendetta and the other man looked at Alessandro expectantly.

“Yes.”

“I see,” Mendetta said, his tone seeming to imply that Alessandro’s desire was very interesting. Alessandro wasn’t sure why, but it made him uneasy. A few seconds later a hush fell over the crowd as Victor’s father, General Donovan Milan, stepped up to the raised speaking platform on the side of the ballroom. Alessandro’s father stepped up soon after and stood to Donovan’s right.

“I am pleased you could all be in attendance on this very important of evenings,” Donovan began. “We are here to celebrate an important stage in the lives of my son, Victor, and General Dunaro’s son, Alessandro – their entry into the summer training that precedes their first year at the military academy.”

Donovan gestured with his hand to where Victor and Alessandro stood. The crowd clapped politely.

“Now, I don’t know all of you as well as I would like, but even so, I am sure none of you appreciate long speeches. So, I will attempt not to bore you.” Donovan paused and the crowd chuckled.

Alessandro noticed his father didn’t even crack a smile. He tried to think of the last time he’d seen an expression on his father’s face besides that stern, impassive one that changed between disappointment, a slight hint of approval, and anger just by the degree of squinting of his eyes.

“I will instead just impart a few words of wisdom to our two guests of honor,” Donovan continued, “words that were spoken to me by my father on the eve of my own entry into summer training, a number of years ago that I think it would be best not to divulge.” There was another round of polite chuckles from the crowd. “These are the words of a great wise man, whose name is not important. ‘One who does not know himself nor the enemy will face grave danger in every battle. One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will emerge victorious in some battles, but not in others. One who knows himself and knows his enemy will never be in danger in any battle.’ That is what summer training is about. You will learn not only about your enemies, but also about yourselves. I wish you the best of luck in your development.”

“As do I,” Partano added. The audience clapped.

“That quote about ‘knowing one’s enemy’ doesn’t surprise me, coming from the head of military intelligence,” Alessandro whispered to Penelope, who had made her way over to them during the speech.

“Him and his quotes,” she said, smiling.

Donovan was always quoting great “wise men,” although Alessandro often got the impression he made up a fair share of the quotes himself. Donovan and Partano stepped down from the platform to mingle with the guests. People were lining up to congratulate Alessandro and Victor.

“When you two get another chance to break away, meet me on the balcony?” Penelope whispered to them.

“Will do,” Victor said.

It was almost an hour later when Victor and Alessandro finally got out to the balcony.

“What took you so long?” Penelope asked.

“Just a room full of vultures,” Victor answered.

“I’m glad my mother isn’t planning any such celebration for my entry into the music academy.”

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” Alessandro said, rubbing his temples. His head was pounding.

“I found out something very interesting today,” Penelope said, with a familiar tone she reserved for “big secrets.”

“Oh?” Alessandro asked, preparing himself for a piece of the gossip about the upper echelons of society that Penelope was prone to dishing out on occasion. He was not disappointed.

“Did you hear about Colonel Mendetta’s wife?”

“No, what about her?” he asked, though he couldn’t care less.

“She just returned from the mines with her husband, after a year-long assignment. And they say she had a baby when she was there.”

“Really? I wish someone had informed me earlier, I would have congratulated them,” Victor said.

Penelope rolled her eyes. “But what no one is saying is that it isn’t her baby.”

“What do you mean?” Victor asked.

“Do you remember just over a year ago, at your parents’ anniversary dinner?” she asked Victor.

“Yes.”

“The Mendettas were there, and I was bored. So I was eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. Well, I heard her whispering to one of her friends that she had just found out that she couldn’t have babies. Her female parts were broken.”

“Well then maybe they were fixed,” Victor said somewhat dismissively.

“No. Don’t you get it? The baby is adopted.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No one lucky enough to have a baby would give it up for adoption.”

Victor was right, Alessandro thought, considering that only one out of every three or four couples ever managed to have a child. No one knew why exactly, but the birthrate had been in steady decline since the Liberation.

“I agree with Victor. That’s impossible. You must have heard wrong.”

“I know what I heard,” Penelope said. “And guess what else – it’s albino.”

Here we go again, Alessandro thought. He and Victor exchanged a knowing look. Penelope was obsessed with finding out what she called the “real explanation” for why albinos existed. She didn’t believe they were simply the result of a latent trait that could be triggered by an excess of minerals in the womb. She always argued that the official explanation only accounted for their skin, hair, and eyes, but not for their hearing. The handful of other albinos Alessandro had met also possessed his and Penelope’s exceptional hearing, along with the ability to focus the sense on different locations, just as they could focus their vision on something close versus something far away. It was only fair, he thought, that nature would have given them something to compensate for the fact that their skin burnt within five minutes of unprotected sun exposure and their eyes were so sensitive to the sun that it caused physical pain within seconds and even a danger of blindness if they weren’t careful.

“Haven’t you ever wondered why only military families seem to have albino children?” Penelope continued. “Didn’t it ever seem strange to you?”

“I haven’t really thought about it, honestly,” Alessandro said.

“Well I have, and now with Mendetta’s wife, it raises even more questions about our origins.”

“Are you suggesting that you and Alessandro are adopted?” Victor asked.

She sighed. “I don’t know what I’m suggesting.”

“There’s no way I’m adopted,” Alessandro said. “Everyone says I look just like my parents, well, in bone structure at least.” Besides, they wouldn’t keep something like that from me.

“Plus, where would the babies come from?” Victor asked.

Penelope scrunched her brow. “You have a point. It’s just, only military officials seem to have albino children. I think there is some sort of cover-up going on.”

Victor laughed. “This time you’re really out on a limb, Penelope. If any albinos were adopted, I’m sure their parents would say so. There wouldn’t be any reason to hide it.”

She didn’t seem convinced. “Maybe.”

#

As Alessandro waited beside his mother for his father to bring the car around, he thought of the conversation with Penelope. He felt bad for her. It was hard for him to be albino as well, but it had always struck her harder. She felt ugly and she was angry. And she thought that finding out a reason for their condition would make her feel better. But Alessandro didn’t think it would change anything. He shook his head as he thought of the outlandish theories she had been coming up with recently. Only last week she had implied they might have Mondron blood in their veins, an idea which had caused both him and Victor to collapse in a fit of laughter. Now she thought they could have been adopted. That theory was the furthest out there yet.

“You haven’t said much,” Kassandra said to her son.

“Sorry, I’m just a little preoccupied.”

She smiled, reaching a hand out to push a strand of his hair back behind his ear. “You’re nervous. That’s normal.”

His mother had such an understanding look in her eyes that he thought he would venture a little of his true feelings. “I don’t know that summer training, or, the military academy is right for me,” he said.

“I know how you feel, sweetheart.”

“You do?”

She nodded. “I know you don’t really think that you want to be in the military, but you are giving it a try anyway, for your father. That makes me very proud of you.”

Alessandro’s eyes widened. “Does he, does he know that I don’t want to go?”

Kassandra laughed good-naturedly. “I don’t think it would be possible for such a thought to cross his mind.”

Of course not. Alessandro had heard his father say on many occasions that only worthless people wouldn’t want to be in the military. Obviously Partano thought his son was worth something, thus, his son must want to go into the military.

Alessandro noticed that his mother was looking at him strangely. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it – but she looked sad. Or was it pity? The car arrived with a soft swoosh and the side door lifted up and out.

“What are you waiting for?” Partano asked them.

#

Later that night Alessandro lay awake in his bed, thinking. Thinking and worrying. He felt nauseous and his left arm tingled every once in a while, as it often did when he was stressed about something. He imagined the sit-ups, the running of laps, the jumping jacks, the rope courses, and all of the other arduous physical tasks he knew to expect in the first days of summer training. He imagined having to perform them all outside, under the weight of the harsh, unforgiving sun. He imagined his sun cream not being strong enough, his skin burning into blisters, and the laughter of the other students at his weakness. He reached out to his bedside table and picked up the brown ball, which he had had for as long as he could remember. He moved it slowly back and forth in the air and listened to the soft musical sounds like rain that it produced. They calmed him, absorbed him, taking his mind away from his worries to a place without thoughts, a quiet place. He remained there the rest of the night.


*End of Pale Ants excerpt.* Buy Full Book Now