Kaidan Alenko tested the ball once in his hand, then hurled it at the sidewalk with all the force a healthy nine-year-old could muster. The red, blue, and yellow striped rubber gleamed as it arced through the afternoon sunshine. When he sensed it had reached its maximum height, in that instant before it started to fall, he reached out with his mind and gave it a boost. The little rubber ball soared.
"Whoa!" Todd leaned back, hands tucked in his jacket pocket, admiring. "Where'd you get it?"
"I traded Alex the racecar data drive I got for a perfect score on the math test," Kaidan said smugly. It really was a good ball, even without his help.
They were walking home from school, through the broad streets of the quiet Vancouver suburb where a number of Alliance families made their home. The neighborhood was typical, cozy, boxy houses with big bay windows overlooking mature trees turned red and yellow for the season. It was outside both the urban crunch of the city and the dirty utility of the base, and it had good schools and a reasonable cost of living, explaining the popularity.
The Alenko family had lived here for the past five years, once his father finally got a posting home after being stationed in Singapore and Mumbai. Kaidan had only vague memories of that time. For him, the world was this one winding street, down the road from Shady Brook Elementary, and two doors up from his cousins.
"Can I try it?" Todd asked eagerly.
Kaidan handed over the ball, and watched carefully. A half a thought and a little effort, and soon Todd's bounce was even higher than his own. His mother would kill him if she caught him doing this. The first time he moved something without using his hands, when he was five, she sat him down and very carefully explained that most people didn't have that ability, and it would frighten them to know he did. Kaidan didn't know how he did it, exactly- he just sort of felt the presence of the ball in his head, and pulled a bit of space just behind it, gave it a twist, and up it went.
But today, on as perfect a fall afternoon as ever there was, nobody would notice the brief flash of blue against the brilliant sky. He couldn't see how it could hurt anyone, never mind why it would be frightening, but mom went ballistic whenever she caught him doing anything where someone might see.
The two boys were so caught up playing with their new toy that they didn't notice all the cars on the Alenkos' drive until they nearly walked into one.
Kaidan and Todd stopped dead in their tracks. There were three sedans in all, black with tinted windows. Two had the prow and stars of the Alliance painted on the door. The boys exchanged uneasy glances and Kaidan felt his stomach drop. Navy brats knew there weren't many reasons for the Alliance to send someone to their homes in person.
Todd bit his lip. "Is your dad ok?"
"He programs computers." Kaidan was beyond confused. "Sometimes they send him up to the ships when they need repairs."
"They would have come and gotten you out of school," Todd said, more confident than before. "That's what they did when Cara's mom crashed her shuttle."
"Yeah." Kaidan looked over at him. "I think you should probably go home today, ok?"
Todd hiked his backpack up on his shoulders. "I'll just sit outside until my sister gets home. It's no big deal."
Kaidan swallowed once and headed into the house. "Mom?"
He dropped his bag by the staircase and rounded the corner to the living room. Six men were arrayed amid the furniture, most in Alliance uniforms, though two wore suits. His mother was perched on the arm of the sofa, her face drawn and pale. She jumped like a shot when she saw him.
"Kaidan." She rose immediately and pulled him into a tight hug, too tight, then smoothed his hair. "How was school?"
The feeling of wrongness in the pit of his stomach worsened. His mother's voice was all wrong, artificially light, like she was worried and trying not to show it. "Mom, is dad alright?"
"You're father's fine, son," said one of the non-military men. His tone was gentle, but there was something he didn't like about it, or any of this. Kaidan crowded against his mother shyly.
Nimura managed to get a hold of herself. "You must be starving. Let's go get your snack, ok, sweetheart?"
"Mrs. Alenko," another of the strangers began.
"I've already told you, we're not discussing a single damn thing before my husband gets home," she snapped. "I've called the base and he's on his way."
Kaidan stared. His mother never spoke like that, and she never swore.
Nimura Alenko took another shaky breath and drew herself up. "Now, I am going to go fix my son his after-school snack. Would you gentleman care for anything to drink?"
When they shook their heads, she took Kaidan by the shoulder and steered him into the kitchen, shutting the pocket door behind them to drown out the low conversation of their guests.
Kaidan trailed behind her as she went to the pantry. "Mom, what's going on?"
"Never you mind that." She gave him a small, quick smile, more just a stretch of her mouth. "Now, what do you want to eat? I think we have some rocky road ice cream in the freezer."
He blinked. The offer was unprecedented. "You mean… I don't have to eat carrot sticks?"
"Today you can have whatever you like." Again, the smile that wasn't a smile. "Special treat, for Halloween."
The prospect of an unexpected sweet was almost enough to make him forget how strange all this was. "Could I have some oreos?"
When she went to the pantry and didn't even bother to count out a requisite number of cookies, but simply set the package on the table beside him, he decided to press his luck. "And maybe a can of soda?"
The soda was produced just as quickly, and his mother sat across from him for several minutes, silently watching him eat. He didn't dare to say anything. Something was very, very wrong, and he was starting to feel like he didn't want to know what it was.
After awhile, she started suddenly. "Where's Todd?"
"I told him he should go home, because of all the cars." Kaidan peered at her worriedly. "Was that ok?"
"No, no, it's fine. I should call his mother and make sure she knows he's home by himself." But she didn't go over to the terminal, just sat at the table, her hands folded in front of her, staring at nothing.
They heard the front door open and his father's bellow. "What in the hell is going on here?"
Nimura covered Kaidan's hand briefly with her own. "I'll be right back, sweetie. Just eat your snack."
In the other room, the adults began to argue. He found he wasn't hungry anymore. Instead, he crept closer to the door, trying to listen in.
"-already explained, Lieutenant Alenko, it's not a hospital or an institution. It's a school for children with your son's remarkable abilities."
"That you can't even tell us where it is or what it teaches," Tom Alenko yelled. "How can you expect us to trust you on so little information? And how the hell does some seedy corporation get involved in all this?"
"It's very new," one of the others explained patiently. He sounded like the same man who first spoke to Kaidan. "It's only recently that we've confirmed the connection between element zero exposure from the accidents in Singapore and the refinery explosion a few years later, and biotics. We're still in the process of developing an appropriate curriculum, but you can rest assured that it will be competitive with any in Alliance space."
The other man spoke again, gruffly. "That's why we brought in Conatix- the military is hardly expert on educating children, let alone children as… special as these."
"Biotics?" Nimura's voice quavered. "You mean, like that stuff those aliens do, on the vids? The blue ones?"
"Yes, ma'am." The one Kaidan dubbed suit-man cleared his throat. "The asari explained to us that in other species, pre-birth exposure can lead to the development of these powers. Evidently it's the same with humans."
The first speaker spoke up again, much less patient, and much less kind. "I know this must be difficult, but I can't understate the importance of children like your son. We may be at war with some of these species one day. With their ability to manipulate mass effect fields like this, our soldiers are at a significant disadvantage. We have to understand the potential and limits of biotic abilities and we need that information as soon as we can have it."
"My son is NOT a science experiment." His mother was as angry as Kaidan ever heard her. It was a cold and dignified rage that scared him more than if she'd simply screamed and cried.
His father tried to talk her down. "Mura-"
"No, Tom, I will not be quiet. How can you even consider letting them take him away to be poked and prodded and God knows what else? This is our family we're talking about!"
"Mura," his father said, quietly. "Just stop and think for a moment. I don't like the way this is being handled any better than you, but it might be for the best. We don't know anything more about what Kaidan can do than them, not really. What if it's dangerous?"
Nimura's tone was solid ice. "Kaidan would never hurt anyone. Never."
I wouldn't, Kaidan thought, fervently agreeing, but kept silent, waiting.
"I'm not talking about other people. Do you remember when he fell off the roof of the boathouse at the barbecue last summer? He was dizzy for hours afterwards."
"I told you then, you must not have seen it right. He must have hit his head."
"I did see it right," Tom replied, his words measured. "There was this blue glow all around him. He practically floated to the ground. He couldn't even tell me what happened. It worried me, Mura, and no mistake. What if he can't control it, and one day he oversteps himself and… overheats his brain, or something? Do you know how to teach him?"
Kaidan bit his lip. Could that really happen? He didn't think so. His head only felt funny that one time…
"They just admitted they have no idea either." Nimura was contemptuous.
"But they have scientists, experts, resources. People who have a better idea where to start than us."
Mean-voice coughed discreetly. "Kaidan won't come to any harm. Right now, he's one of the most valuable children in the Systems Alliance. Even if you don't trust our motivations, you can trust our investment in this project." A pause. "And not to be crass, but frankly, you don't have a choice. This is coming down from Parliament. All children showing biotic potential must be identified so they can be studied, and taught to use their abilities so that they pose no harm to anybody."
Behind the door, Kaidan suddenly froze, his blood turning to ice and his mind went blank for a moment.
"Identified?" Nimura's words dripped with sarcasm. "Is that what you call legal abductions these days?"
He sighed. "Ma'am-"
Tom cut across whatever he intended to say. "Admiral, allow me to be perfectly clear. I don't care what rank you carry or where your orders come from. You are not taking our son from our home against our will."
Kaidan started to breathe again.
"There's no need for this to be confrontational," suit-man interjected smoothly into the brewing fight. "You've heard the advantages. Can you honestly tell me it would be a disservice to your son to send him to our program? Conatix has decades of experience in dealing with individuals who have unique medical problems, including children. We've helped thousands, and we've invested heavily in our educational division specifically for this project. He'll be in good hands."
There was a long silence. Kaidan's heart thudded in his ears. He glanced at the back door and for a wild moment considered running, but where could he go that the Alliance couldn't find him? He was just a kid. He didn't even have any money.
The pocket door slid open. Kaidan jumped, spun around.
His stone-faced father walked into the kitchen. His mother was close behind, plucking weakly at his shirtsleeve. "Tom. Tom, wait. You can't do this- Tom, listen to me!"
"Mura, stop it. Just stop." He didn't even yell. He just sounded tired, like he hadn't slept in years tired.
His mother's mouth thinned as she hugged herself. Bitterly, she said, "This is your fault. You're the one who insisted we had to tell the Alliance in the first place, back when this all started. If we just kept quiet-"
"-things would be no different." His father sighed, and turned to his son. "Kaidan-"
The words tumbled out of his mouth. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry! Please don't make me go with them. I'll never do it again, I promise, I mean it this time, not even by accident! I'll do all my homework and I won't complain about cleaning my room or anything like that-"
"Kaidan, you haven't done anything wrong. You're not being punished." His father knelt and took him by the shoulders. "I guess you overheard all of that, huh?"
He could only nod. Tom brushed his hair off his forehead and let out a long sigh. "I know this is all really scary, but there's no reason to be afraid. These men are from the Alliance, like the people I work with. You've been to work with me, remember? There was nothing scary on the base."
"I don't want to be a science experiment!"
That earned his mother a glare from his father. She let out a choked sob. Tom turned back to his son. "It won't be like that. Your mother was only worried, that's all. It's a school, like your school, but full of other kids like you, who can do stuff with their minds. You've always wanted to meet one of the others, right?"
Kaidan tried another tactic. "But it's Halloween tomorrow. Todd and Alex and I were going together, their costumes won't work without mine. And there's going to be a special day at school with cupcakes and a vid."
His father's expression didn't change. He grew more desperate. "And I have a soccer game this weekend, you always tell me it's important not to miss the games because the whole team is counting on me." He swallowed. "Maybe they could come back another time?" Like never.
"I'm sorry, son. It has to today. I'll make sure your friends know it wasn't your fault." His father was gentle, but left no room for arguments. "We have to go pack your things now. Come on."
Numbly, Kaidan let his father lead him to his bedroom, where he watched him fill the small duffle bag he used for sleepovers with a change of clothing and one set of pjs, the book he was reading and his action figures. When he began to point to various other items, Kaidan could only shake his head yes or no.
His mother came back holding a picture frame and a data drive. Systematically, she began uploading the family albums to the frame's memory.
"So he won't get homesick," she said, to no one in particular. That got put in the bag as well, face down. His father zipped it shut.
"Dad, please don't make me do this," Kaidan pleaded.
"I'm sorry." His dad wrapped him in a tight hug. "It's going to be ok, I promise. It'll be like… like summer camp, that's all. Fewer tents. I love you."
"I don't want to go." To his great embarrassment, he was starting to cry now. He couldn't help it.
"I know." Tom rubbed his son's back and took a breath to steady his own voice. "But sometimes we have to be brave and do things we don't want to do. Do you think you can do that for me?"
After a few moments, Kaidan managed to swallow his tears and nodded, and his father released him. His mother took his hand and they headed outside to the driveway. He watched his dad put the duffle bag in one of the cars and speak with the man in the suit, too quietly to hear, while his mom hugged him so tightly he could barely breath.
The admiral cleared his throat again. "It's time. We have a tight schedule if we're going to catch the last shuttle."
His mom kissed his forehead, crying openly now. "I love you. I love you so much, sweetheart."
His dad put his hand on his shoulder and gently pulled him away. "I love you too, mom."
"I'll see you soon," she promised. It was the first time he ever heard her lie.
Tom put him in the car and sat by the door a moment.
"It's going to be ok," he repeated. "I guarantee it."
"I believe you," Kaidan said, trying to be brave, like he said he would.
His dad ruffled his hair, kissed his cheek, and stepped away. Someone shut the door and got into the driver's seat. A moment later the car started.
The two men sitting up front struck up a low conversation about nothing in particular. In the back seat, Kaidan struggled against the urge to sob. These were soldiers, like his dad. They'd think he was a baby if he cried.
He reached his hand into his jacket pocket and found the ball. His fingers curled around it, so tightly his knuckles hurt. The car pulled out of the drive and headed down the road with twin contrails of golden leaves spiraling behind it.
Kaidan watched out the window, watched his parents hugging each other and waving, until he couldn't see them anymore.
He wouldn't see it again for another nine years. The rubber ball was soon slick in his hand.