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
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
done a thorough sweep, Colonel,” the major said. “This
was a small settlement by the looks of it, only fifteen or so
all accounted for?”
believe so. It doesn’t look like there is any way out except
for the south entrance.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
intend to hurt him. On the contrary. I intend to give him a chance at
a decent life.”
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
the boy, now wrapped in a dark brown blanket, up the stairs to his
apartment. His communicator beeped. “Yes?”
where are you?” It was the tenth time his wife had called since
he’d told her of the child.
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
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.
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.
Momma. Where’s Momma?” the boy asked.
your mother,” Partano said to the boy while pointing to his
wife. The boy was quiet for a moment, scrunching his face up at
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.
thing. He’s so scared,” Kassandra said, shaking her head.
Partano put his arm around her.
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.”
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.
go to him? Kassandra asked.
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.
the dining room table and got down on all fours. She lifted the
tablecloth to peek inside. The child’s voice was timid, yet
here, Momma’s here baby.”
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.
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?”
won’t come out from under the table.”
needs more time to get used to us.”
been three days.” Kassandra sounded tired.
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?”
would they be?”
them. And maybe hang a blanket over them. Make it as dark as possible
inside the house.”
sure this is going to work?”
“No, but it
disconnected the call he sent for Major Mendetta.
bring me that box of useless trinkets we put in storage room A?”
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.
come out yet,” she whispered.
quiet whimpers from under the table. I have something that might
help.” He pulled the shiny, light brown ball from his pocket.
“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.
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
really think giving him a toy from his old home is a good idea?”
something familiar, and it should help build trust. See?”
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
shoulders relaxed, but her forehead was still lined with worry.
her knee. “I decided on a name.”
Alessandro Benedetto Dunaro.”
gleamed. “After your grandfather. That’s perfect.”
loud cascade of chimes reached their ears, and little Alessandro
giggled with delight.
tension around Kassandra’s eyes dissipated. She reached for
Partano’s hand. “We’re going to be all right,
He smiled. “Yes,
we’re going to be all right.”
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
care for a drink, young master Dunaro?” the waiter asked,
holding a silver tray laden with slender glasses of sparkling cider.
you,” Alessandro said.
Colonel?” the waiter asked the tall, severe man in military
dress who had just come over from across the room to stand beside
you, don’t mind if I do,” the man replied, taking a
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.”
a tense smile back. As if I needed to be reminded, he
believe we’ve met. I’m Colonel Gregorio Mendetta. Your
father speaks often of you. We expect great things.”
Alessandro found it hard to believe his father had said anything nice
You know, I suspect the instructors at summer training are fighting
it out, trying to get you to be in their class.”
they do that?”
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.
forgive me, Colonel, Alessandro’s presence is required on the
balcony,” Victor said.
course,” Mendetta nodded politely and raised his glass.
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
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.”
“Yeah, I don’t understand how anyone can stomach the
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.
no one out here,” Alessandro said.
was requesting my presence?”
of course.” Victor grinned. “You looked like you were in
need of rescuing.” He leaned back against the handrail.
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.
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.”
mean the party, though I hate it too. I meant summer training.”
around and lowered his voice. “Did you talk to your father?”
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.”
just need to give it a chance? It might not be so bad.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
you’re all right with that?”
“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.”
trying to cheer me up. It isn’t working.”
worth a try.” Victor fiddled with his collar. “I hope
Penelope gets here soon.”
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.”
cease to amaze me. I can’t hear anything.”
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.
General,” Victor said, giving a mock salute.
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
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
you?” Penelope asked.
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.
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.”
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.
Alessandro with his elbow, cuing him to return his attention to the
conversation he was officially engaged in.
would like to learn more about biology, isn’t that right?”
Victor said. Mendetta and the other man looked at Alessandro
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.
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.”
with his hand to where Victor and Alessandro stood. The crowd clapped
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.
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.
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.
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
his quotes,” she said, smiling.
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
two get another chance to break away, meet me on the balcony?”
Penelope whispered to them.
It was almost an
hour later when Victor and Alessandro finally got out to the balcony.
you so long?” Penelope asked.
room full of vultures,” Victor answered.
glad my mother isn’t planning any such celebration for my entry
into the music academy.”
know how lucky you are,” Alessandro said, rubbing his temples.
His head was pounding.
out something very interesting today,” Penelope said, with a
familiar tone she reserved for “big secrets.”
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.
hear about Colonel Mendetta’s wife?”
about her?” he asked, though he couldn’t care less.
returned from the mines with her husband, after a year-long
assignment. And they say she had a baby when she was there.”
wish someone had informed me earlier, I would have congratulated
them,” Victor said.
her eyes. “But what no one is saying is that it isn’t her
you mean?” Victor asked.
remember just over a year ago, at your parents’ anniversary
dinner?” she asked Victor.
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.”
maybe they were fixed,” Victor said somewhat dismissively.
you get it? The baby is adopted.”
be ridiculous. No one lucky enough to have a baby would give it up
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.
with Victor. That’s impossible. You must have heard wrong.”
what I heard,” Penelope said. “And guess what else –
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.
you ever wondered why only military families seem to have albino
children?” Penelope continued. “Didn’t it ever seem
strange to you?”
really thought about it, honestly,” Alessandro said.
have, and now with Mendetta’s wife, it raises even more
questions about our origins.”
suggesting that you and Alessandro are adopted?” Victor asked.
She sighed. “I
don’t know what I’m suggesting.”
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.
where would the babies come from?” Victor asked.
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.”
“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.”
seem convinced. “Maybe.”
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.
haven’t said much,” Kassandra said to her son.
I’m just a little preoccupied.”
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
how you feel, sweetheart.”
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.”
eyes widened. “Does he, does he know that I don’t want to
laughed good-naturedly. “I don’t think it would be
possible for such a thought to cross his mind.”
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.
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
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