The room was quiet. This wasn't a celebration. This wasn't an elimination. Connor had to intentionally keep his breathing calm- this was it.
He had been expecting something akin to a high school graduation ceremony- professors from the academy lined up, ready to shake hands with the students who would be selected for the Spec Ops company; instead, the students who had applied were all sitting in a room with nine tables, instructed to sit two to a table facing the front of the room. They were being called according to the test numbers they had taken, not their actual names- this was all Alliance protocol, not Jon Grissom Academy ceremony.
"Candidate Alpha-six-one-nine," declared the Alliance officer at the front of the sparsely decorated room. They had all been told that if their number was called, they were to simply stand up and head to one of the rooms down the hall. The officers hadn't said whether their name being called meant they had passed, and everyone had noticed.
Connor held his breath; of the eighteen students who had taken the tests, six people had been called, including A619, or Sera, as she was better known. And none of them had anything in common- some had been standouts in the test, others seemed to have barely scraped by.
"Candidate Lambda-five-two-seven." Rory, as he was better known as, stood up with a tense look on his face. All eyes were on him as he left. Connor tried to listen for cheering or anything else that might give something away, but the only sounds that met his ears were the hollow echoes of Rory's steps as he headed toward the other room.
"Candidate Theta-eight-four-eight." Two minutes passed as the officer waited for the student to leave.
"Candidate Nu-seven-two-one." Two more minutes.
"Candidate Lambda-five-nine-four." Another two minutes, another candidate walking silently out the door.
"Candidate Gamma-two-one-eight." Suddenly, the Alliance officer looked up from the paper that had held his rapt attention for the last twenty minutes. Twenty minutes to call eleven names. Twenty minutes of slow, intentional breathing, and Connor still didn't feel any less anxious. As the last student called exited the room, those left behind looked at each other. They were a mixed bunch. Troy, who had always been gifted, sat next to Kimberly, who hadn't done well in the early parts of the test. Connor's tablemate had been called, so Connor was the only one in the room left at a table by himself. Besides himself, Troy, and Kimberly, there was Mathis, Alexi, Nathan, and Kaipo. Connor tried to figure out if they were in the pass or fail group. He had overheard Mathis in the locker room punching his locker and saying how horribly he had done. Nathan, on the other hand, had always professed how wonderfully he had done; of course, he acted like his shit didn't stink like everyone else's anyways. Kaipo, the tall, Hawaiian boy from Earth, had refused to talk about the tests. There was simply no pattern, no way to work it out.
The Alliance officer scanned the room, making brief eye contact with each candidate. His icy blue gaze unsettled Connor. Everyone jumped as the door opened once more, letting Kaidan, the officer Connor had met now two days ago, into the room. The tall, olive-skinned man stepped up beside the other officer.
"Candidates, you have been tested and tried. You have been found lacking skill," Kaidan paused, and the room suddenly became heavy. They had failed. "But not lacking heart," Kaidan resumed, "As a lieutenant onboard the Alliance's Normandy, I was under a man who showed me that heart can turn a single soldier into an army." Connor suddenly recognized Kaidan, and wanted to kick himself- this was Kaidan Alenko, one of the soldiers who had worked with John Shepard to quell the Geth. "Unfortunately, even armies fall, and Commander Shepard, perhaps the greatest soldier I have ever known, is now dead, as you all know. However, his service in the Alliance as a biotic Special Forces agent, and his service to the galaxy as a Spectre, was what opened the door not only to this Academy, but also to The Special Operations team that I now have the pleasure of welcoming you to," Kaidan paused and scanned the room. Shoulders that had been slumped in defeat now perked up, Connor's included. The boy couldn't help but beam. They were the ones. This was it. He was Alliance.
That being said," Kaidan continued, "the days ahead of you will only get harder. The Alliance is primarily a military operation, and though you're used to having a schedule, you will, in the next six months, be pushed beyond your limits. You will burn out biotic amps, face live combat training, and leave behind the comforts you have now. I am giving each of you, right now, the chance to back out honorably. This selection alone is a worthy achievement," Kaidan paused, and a pregnant silence fell over the room. Connor was simply staring at Kaidan, and barely noticed when Kimberly and Nathan both stood up. Connor couldn't quite believe it. They had made it, and yet they were giving up the opportunity. He couldn't help but remember hearing Kimberly cry late one night- her parents had been taken by the Collectors in one of the first attacks. Wouldn't she want to get even? Wouldn't she want to protect others?
"Alright, if you're sure, I'll ask you to leave the room. If ever you two reconsider, the Alliance needs you. For now, please, exit the room and the officer in the hall will escort you," Kaidan said, his tone professional and yet still compassionate. Nate and Kim both exited, not making eye contact with anyone.
"Well, five of you left," Kaidan observed out loud after the door had shut behind Kim and Nathan. "You are now Alliance personnel. I am Staff Commander Alenko, of the First Special Operations Biotic Company, and I am your commanding officer. I expect you to refer to me now as 'Commander,' and you've got twenty-four hours to get used to it. During those few hours, I also expect you to pack up, and pack light-you're not going to be on Jon Grissom anymore.
We're heading to Arcturus Station-the Alliance's HQ, as you should know, and you will be in isolated training for six months- that means no parents, no contact with the outside world. Don't bother bringing your clothes- we've made arrangements with the Academy, and if you'll look to the back of the room," Kaidan paused as five lockers in the back of the room opened, revealing rucksacks with Alliance insignia embroidered on them to the curious students, "you'll see your new wardrobes. Each of you have been given one set of armor- don't try to keep it nice, it's there to save your life, not your ego. You'll also find a breather helmet, this will save your life as well, but only if you wear it. Men, you've been given two sets of BDUs, one for under your armor and one standard. Women, you've been given one set of under-armor BDUs and two of standard. You'll find you've all been given dress blues, as well. I expect you to be in them at dinner tonight. For now, you are excused."
The students looked at each other. Soldiers, Connor reminded himself in his head. We're soldiers. They stood up together and walked out of the room. The hall was empty as the door shut behind them. Connor looked at the others-they all stood silent, waiting for something. Then, Alexi squealed and jumped onto Kaipo, hugging him. The tension dissolved, and the realization struck.
"We're Alliance!" Kaipo shouted, excitement and tension evident in his voice.
"We're Alliance!" Alexi shouted back, jumping from Kaipo to Troy, then to Mathis, and finally to Connor. The men all high-fived each other, after which Kaipo and Mathis slung their arms around each other's shoulders, the two being inseparable since they had arrived at the Academy. Connor laughed, his body shaking with anticipation, and followed the others down the hall, all of them slowed by the immense weight of their new, armor-laden, BDU-filled rucksacks. As the others headed out to meet families and friends who had arrived for the last goodbyes before their six-month isolation, Connor silently turned down a different hall towards his room. He had no one to celebrate with- instead, he went to his room and started packing. He packed drawers into storage crates, emptied his closet, and made his bed. His room had been Spartan to begin with, but now it looked even more generic. His rucksack sat pristinely on the floor, tempting him to look at the armor he'd been issued.
Ceramic plating met Connor's touch first, followed by small nodes meant to channel the barriers that Alliance biotics were trained to keep up at all times. Connor couldn't wait for that training. He heaved the armor out of the sack, its weight not proportional to its mass by conventional standards, but hefty nonetheless- one had to love modern plastics and ceramics.
Connor set the armor out neatly on his bed, then took out the under-armor BDUs he'd also acquired. As he slipped out of his clothes, Connor's attention stayed on the armor- white on black, a stark contrast. A small symbol was on the chestpiece, a circle with six arrows wrapping into it, one he had learned set him apart as an Adept- a biotic specializing in crowd-control. He suspected Troy's would have the symbol of what the Alliance called a Vanguard. He didn't know about the others. He was stepping into his unders when the door opened- he had forgotten to lock it, but most people knocked anyways. Kaidan stared, an eyebrow cocked at Connor's state of undress.
"Soldier," Kaidan said.
"Uh, sir," Connor replied his face hot with embarrassment.
"I'm not, 'uh, sir,' anymore, kid."
"Better. But I'm Commander to you now," Kaidan said, stepping into the room.
"Sorry, Commander, sir," Connor corrected, pulling his new unders up his legs. Kaidan sat on the bed, next to the neatly-aligned armor, and chuckled a little.
"So, you've been classified as an Adept- no small feat. I guess you impressed a few people with those singularities, Graves," Kaidan said. Either Kaidan had Asperger's or he liked making Connor feel uncomfortable- this was not the first time Kaidan had caught him with his pants down.
"That was an accident," Connor explained, "I almost passed out afterwards. Plus, I haven't been able to make more than one since the accident- I know Hendel saw- he's acted different around me since," Connor paused, "Commander."
Kaidan grinned. "Why aren't you out there celebrating with the others?"
"Uh, permission to speak freely, sir?" Connor asked.
"I want to be a soldier, sir. I'm trying not to delude myself with how great the next few months will be. I've heard it's hell. I'm doing this for my parents, not so I can get better training. I mean, why celebrate when I'm not actually any different yet?"
"Son, you just beat out twelve of some of the Alliance's most talented biotics, and you don't think you're different? You sound a lot like Shepard."
Connor didn't know how to take that.
"Come on, you'll need some help with the armor- it's a two person job until a few months in," Kaidan said, getting up from the bed and helping Connor pull the rest of the tight, full-body unders on. Connor blushed at the thought of the decorated, legendary war hero, Kaidan Alenko, who had served side-by-side with John Shepard, helping him into his armor.
"Okay, the first thing," Kaidan explained, picking up the chestpiece, "you're not trained to utilize your barriers yet, so this is going to weigh a t-"
"Sir," Connor interrupted.
"Hmm?" Kaidan replied.
"If you don't mind my asking, why are you doing this?"
"Doing what?" Kaidan asked, sincerity in his tone.
"I- you're treating me special."
Kaidan grabbed Connor's shoulders and turned him around abruptly. "Honestly, kid, I think you've got what it takes. I know you don't have family, and frankly, you psych profile isn't the most stable. I see you're dedicated, but I want you to know, this won't bring your parents back. It won't undo anything that's already happened- anything that's been done to you."
"I know," Connor whispered.
"So tell me, why are you doing this?" Kaidan asked.
"Sir, if I can prevent that from happening to anyone else, even just a single person, it's worth it. It's worth the months of training, it's worth what happened to me, if it doesn't happen again."
"It will happen again," Kaidan challenged.
"I know that, but what if I can stop just one person from having to go through it?"
"Now, you're talking like a soldier."
"Thank you, s-"
"Kaidan. You've only got a few more hours to use my name, kid- you might as well take advantage of it. Now, before I help you put this on," Kaidan said, indicating the chestpiece of Connor's armor, "I want you to tell me what gave you that scar."